This comedy-horror from American International Pictures reunites Vincent Price and Peter Lorre from the hilarious “Black Cat” segment in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (also released by AIP the year before) in a story which borrows heavily from the legend of Burke & Hare.
Price is Mr. Trumball, an unprincipled (and unlikeable) undertaker who forces his reluctant and mild-mannered assistant (Lorre) into helping him drum up business – by killing off the locals. When their landlord Mr. Black (Rathbone) threatens to evict them for falling behind on the rent, Trumball hits upon an ill advised plan to bump him off too; literally killing two birds with one stone. Karloff is Trumball’s senile father-in-law and founder of the business Trumball has run into the ground. No pun intended. Honest.
Screenwriter Richard Matheson – writer of the novels I am Legend & The Shrinking Man amongst countless others – knew who he was writing for and he gives Price gets a lot of delicious dialogue to wrap that unique voice around and Price and Lorre have an instant chemistry. You get the usual Price performance – camp overacting that adds to, rather than subtracts from the enjoyment of the film and his style lends itself well to slapstick comedy mixed with the macabre. Rathbone is excellent too as the surprisingly spry and wily Mr. Black.
The Comedy of Terrors didn’t do so well commercially and perhaps this is understandable; as fun as it is, it’s not out-and-out funny enough for comedy fans and not scary enough for horror fans. There are some good gags in the script but a lot of the humour comes from the delivery of Price and physical comedy from Rathbone’s unreasonably sprightly and robust character. How much you’ll enjoy The Comedy of Terrors depends on how appealing any of this has sounded, so far.
Matheson wrote the screenplay for a follow-up, Sweethearts & Horrors, which would have cast Price as a ventriloquist, Lorre as a magician, Rathbone as a musical comedy star and Karloff as a kids TV host but sadly this never saw the light of day.