Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone - Titans one and all
The Comedy of Terrors Film Review
By rights The Comedy of Terrors should work...Starring four giants of the screen - Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone - the film was written by Richard “I Am Legend” Matheson and directed by Jacques “Night of the Demon” Tourneur, and although made on the cheap by American International Pictures (responsible for plenty of critical and commercial hits from the fifties through to the seventies) the production values were quite high and the whole thing is a riff on the Shakespearian titles ‘a comedy of …’ The intended audience were sure what they were going to get – a blend of comedy and horror – and in 1963, when it was released, it was moderately successful from the sheer force of will of the promoters and all those involved, including Rhubarb the cat!However, despite everything; casting, crew, award-winning talent and a script that was, on paper, both terrifying and comedic (that of an undertaker resorting to murder to bolster his, ahem, dying business) something was lost in translation. Most notably an imperfect blending of the two genres and a cast that were happy to ham it up rather than take the material seriously, although conversely that actually works in Price’s favour, while the rest of the film falters around him. Carry on Screaming, made just three years later, showed respect to its genres and although was played for laughs, was in fact a far more comedic and terrifying film than The Comedy of Terrors could ever hope to achieve.
Blu-ray Picture QualityThe disc presents a theatrically correct widescreen 2.35:1 1080p transfer using the AVC codec and is Region locked to B.
Compared to many of the recent Arrow releases I was a little disappointed by this one even if it has been “transferred from original film elements by MGM”. Detail on the whole is very good, the creases in the aging actors faces are well enough defined, the murk in the parlour is well realised and the cat’s fur is lush enough. Check out the rough surface of the re-usable coffin or the soil of the graveyard. The film was mostly studio shot, but the rare occasion of location shooting shows some lovely crisp landscape shots (try to ignore the matte painting lines…)
Colours are rich but not bold and the film shows a decent enough pallet; reds and greens are favoured when blue tends to be slightly weaker – this is an artistic choice not transfer related. Flesh tones are on the lighter side, excepting Lorre’s face which is always red – an artefact of his age, rather than anything else – again perfectly in keeping with the film. Karloff’s makeup is wonderfully grey putting you in mind of his Frankenstein monster skin. Joyce Jameson, as the only significant female presence, has the best looking skin tones!
Colours are rich but not bold and the film shows a decent enough pallet
Contrast and brightness contribute to the pictures issues; neither are set to give anything resembling true black, though the dark grey is very close. This does allow more shadow detail, check out the undertaker's clothing for example, but it does rob the picture of any significant punch or depth. The studio shooting, of course, doesn’t help in that the lighting rarely allows black and the day for night shooting is even worse but the pallor is sombre enough and contains probably the best depth.
Digitally there are no compression issues or any edge enhancement, there is no banding either. However the original print is awash with damage, from specks to reel change markers, all are perfectly preserved – you could argue this forms part of the charm, personally I think it rather spoils what good there is in the picture. The grain is fairly even throughout, it hasn’t been washed away at least, but there are the odd fluctuation on brightness as well. In all the picture is pretty average owing to the bad slightly outweighing the good.
Blu-ray Sound QualityOnly the one track to choose from: English uncompressed LPCM 2.0 mono. Don’t expect too much from this track, it’s simply not there – but what can be said is that it’s faithful to the original recording; there are no cracks or pops, there is minimal background hiss and there is quite a good sense of depth to the sound. OK, bass is pretty non-existent, but the midrange is strong enough to give a very passible natural sound to the proceedings. Dialogue is clear and precise and always audible. The score comes across with plenty of gusto, even at its most whimsical. Effects such as coffins breaking, horses galloping, wind and rain are well layered into the mix. Emanating from the two speakers helps to open up the sound, even if, by definition, it is very limited. Never too tinny, even when up at reference.
Blu-ray ExtrasAudio Commentary - With Vincent Price historian David Del Valle and director David Decoteau is worth a listen if you want to gain a clear insight into not just all things Price related and this production but pretty much filming in general, horror genre, horror history, actor biographies and more; plenty of anecdotal information coming thick and fast as well as plenty of name dropping.
Vincent Price: My Life and Crimes – Is an unseen alternate cut of the David del Valle/Price 1987 interview that has been around on DVD since 2002 titled The Sinister Image; it runs for about an hour and has Price talking about his life and career.
Whispering in Distant Chambers: The Nightfall of Jacques Tourneur – Is a specially-commissioned video essay by David Cairns, in which he charts the career of director Tourneur from his early films through to his breakthrough material and subsequent Hollywood output whereby his themes and style remain, even if they become watered down by the ‘machine’. Only twenty or so minutes long, but thoroughly entertaining.
Richard Matheson Storyteller – An archive featurette on the prolific writer who talks about the film, how it came about and its legacy.
Original Theatrical Trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper
Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
The Comedy of Terror Blu-ray VerdictAuteur Jacques Tourneur managed to turn his hand to many differing genres and he dealt with all with aplomb. At his best with independent productions it was here that he made his best features unencumbered by larger studio interference. This was to change as his fame and reputation grew and towards the twilight of his years found solace in directing episodes of TV series – all with his imitable style. His penultimate film was a horror comedy, The Comedy of Terrors, for American Independent Pictures, written by Richard Matheson and starring four giants of the screen: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone (all reunited after 1962’s successful Tales of Terror for Roger Corman).
With that pedigree, success should have been guaranteed and it was, upon its release, moderately successful; however it does struggle throughout by the melding of ‘terror’ and comedy not quite gelling as they should. Each and every actor hams it up to the full, this gives the film a very ‘silly’ feel and this along with the slapstick nature and eloquent though, at times, over the top dialogue means the film titters along without much conviction. So whilst the story of an undertaker murdering wealthy town people to keep his business afloat contains both the necessary horror and comedy the result is something more akin to the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ than any serious attempt at mixing genres. There are still flashes of brilliance from Tourneur throughout (watch the end credits!) and there is a suitable mood in places, but all too quickly it does become farcical – still, it did make me laugh out loud on occasion, so it isn’t all bad.
There are still flashes of brilliance from Tourneur throughout
The package from Arrow is pretty good, as they nearly always seem to be. The picture, though, this time around isn’t the best it could be, whilst detail and colour are good, brightness fluctuations and a myriad of print damage tends to spoil the view. Sound is very serviceable in its LPCM 2.0 mono mode and the plentiful extras which adorn the set go a long way to adding value.
You can buy The Comedy of Terrors on Blu-ray here
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