Vincent Price and Peter Lorre are a team: an undertaker and his assistant (Waldo and Felix) in this campy horror fest. We also get Basil Rathbone as landlord John F. Black, plus Boris Karloff as Amos Hinchley.
That’s enough horror moguls to fill the books and crannies of a hundred haunted houses. Waldo’s wife is Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson); Karloff is her father. Maybe he should’ve named her Venus Fly Trap. That’s a girl’s name, I think. At any rate, the always suave Lorre has a crush on Jameson’s character–an obtuse love triangle if there ever was one.
The plot’s energized by a cash flow situation in the family mortuary business. In short, they need bodies. Sort of like Ed Gein. People like this want corpses so much, they make them, in house, so to speak. Got the picture?
As in a comedy horror picture. Sounds ludicrous, but these two genres have something in common; they work at suspension of disbelief, and the unnatural or absurd. Price is uniquely capable of showing several odd traits simultaneously. Slimy, ludicrous; so, then, dangerous, ruthless, sadistic. Macabre, but entertaining.
Start with a pretty ghoulish graveyard scene: Price and Lorre look on at a burial ceremony, bemused. In silent-era comedy fashion, the guys quickly wheel into action: opening the coffin, dumping the body, and then taking the coffin. The music has that zippy, jumpy quality that suits this sort of action.
It’s good this has a Victorian setting–that always adds a layer of authenticity. Next up–an argument at Waldo’s home. He offers Amos poison as “medicine” Amayrillas calls Waldo a “tosspot,” and ten other names of household items. She focuses on their failing business: “you drove [father’s] undertaking business into the ground!” Maybe so, but Waldo comes back with “where else?”
Better yet, when she talks about her father’s interest in “curious objects” he says that her dad “fathered one.” When Felix throws together a wonky coffin, Waldo shuns it “no one would be caught dead” in it. Anyway, the respectable Mr. Black happens by, looking for the rent. Waldo has 24 hrs. hours to pay up–or it’s the street.
Felix tells Amayrillas he feels bad for her, and generally dotes on her. Anyway, Waldo has a cunning business plan, which he describes to Felix. Waldo has it over Felix, as the underling has a sketchy past. So, the ghoulish plan plays on. They plan to do-in Mr. Phipps (Buddy Mason), an elderly acquaintance of Waldo’s. Onto Phipps’s haunted house-style mansion.
Skulking around in the place gets a bit tedious. Anyway, Waldo eventually strangles the dude: quite a scary corpse. Waldo relaxes in victory in the back of the hearse. Returning home, a maid from a neighbor’s comes to fetch his services: her employer is dead. Good opportunity for Waldo. Again, the corpse is spooky enough.
At the funeral parlor, the widow is missing. Desperate to take advantage of the arrangements he has in progress, Waldo hies off to the Phipps’s mansion to get her; the place is deserted. She’s sold everything and split to Boston and beyond. So, she stiffed him (!) For his fee. “The world is full with knaves and felons!”
The next dinner conversation is awful batty. Amos is now upset that he doesn’t get his “medicine.” Not a good time to get a blistering eviction notice from Mr. Black. “We shall kill two birds with one… pillow” comments Waldo.
Back to Black’s mansion (isn’t this the Phipps place?). This scene really drags. Ironically, when someone actually does something in this movie, it’s a lot less notable than when the characters are bantering, or we just see some macabre/absurd juxtaposition. Black is reading Shakespeare in bed–pretty much acting out Macbeth.
This is good stuff: running a sword though a partition behind which Felix is hiding; he nearly getting skewered. As I just pointed out, these touches work great. Meanwhile, Waldo’s able to sneak up on Black from behind. Obligingly, Black simply falls down, dead. Or so it seems. His servant tells the attending physician that Black is subject to cataleptic fits, and might just appear to be dead.
Anyway, he’ll do for a corpse/client. The two birds (eviction and Black) are now taken care of. Down in Black’s basement, though, the ‘corpse’ comes to life (more great sight gags). Both Waldo and Felix are flummoxed: but, thinking fast, Waldo actually tries to convince him that he’s dead. Again, Black collapses. Again, apparently dead.
The “stubborn crackpot” refuses to stay dead. All of this stuff is just what we bargained for: we know the situation is bizarre, so we want to wait and see how it plays out. Like an on-going joke with numerous punchlines. For insurance, so to speak, Waldo chains the coffin shut. The payoff, literally, comes in the form of the funeral ceremony.
Amaryllas song, of how “he is not dead, but sleepeth” is doubly apt, and obviously intentionally ironic. We are tantalized that it’s an open-coffin deal, meaning what we think that could mean. Almost miraculously, nothing weird happens.
Since he’s merely put in a masoleum, though, there’s a side-issue. They can’t recycle the coffin, as it would be missed. Plus, we hear Black–the undead it seems–wondering where the heck he is.
Whatever. Back home, the gang is swimming in filthy lucre, song, and dance. Amayrillas is getting cozy with Felix. Later, she asks Waldo, who isn’t as attentive, “am I so repulsive?” He: “That’s the word, yes.” Oh boy, the watchman at the cemetery hears you-know-who sounding off from the crypt.
This too is doubly funny, as the poor dude assumes that Black’s a ghost (“they [ghosts] usually wait until later,” and Black reverts to reciting from Hamlet. When he does pop out of the coffin, the watchman feints. Black goes forth. Will he seek vengeance on Waldo? That’s the next implicit set-up.
Well, Black grabs a stout ax, and… it’s a dark and stormy night. Waldo, awakened by a door slapped around by the wind, is genuinely and justifiably spooked. And then we see muddy footsteps going up the stairs…here’s some actual suspense. Satisfied that all is well, Waldo goes back to sleep on the couch.
But Black bursts in on Amaryllis, brandishing the ax. She feints. Waldo and Felix investigate the commotion. Black, still quoting Hamlet pursues them relentlessly “he’ll never die” laments Waldo. The denouement arrives when Waldo shoots his Shakespearean antagonist. Of course, Black doesn’t just die, and has time to recite “[that life] is a tale told by an idiot…” Certainly in this case.
Now things get truly macabre, as Amayrillas, oddly defending Black, and Felix, who’s passed out, threatens to turn in her husband. He strangles her, musing “who’s next?” Felix is, as he’s reviving. The two of them have a stupid swordfight. Looks like Felix is killed.
All the timing is inopportune here. A guy arrives to say that Black has been seeing out and about. Well, there he is, along with Amaryllis, dead on the floor. He freaks out, yelling that he’s going to the cops. Thoroughly exhausted, Waldo collapses at the base of the stairs.
Another brilliant bit of bad timing: Amos comes downstairs, and, taking pity on Waldo, gives him some “medicine.” Then Amos quaffs the rest of the poison. When Waldo comes around momentarily, his eyes bulge out decisively as he sees the bottle; ironically, of course, it’s the same one he’s been goading Amos with all along.
A final nice touch. The cat crawls onto Black’s body. After some mimicy nose twitching from Black, we fade to a black screen; and Black’s voice once more wondering “What place is this?”
With the exemption of a few patches of plot quicksand, this is very well done, and highly entertaining. Many scenes, some of which tumble into each other–basically the entire last part of the movie involving Black’s death, and its aftermath, are outstanding, very amusing, and not without a true edge of horror.
It gets even better once Black invades Waldo’s house. All of the running jokes: the poison/’medicine’ thing, and, especially, Black’s narcolepsy (coupled with the Shakespearean stuff) amplify and complement the latter scenes.
Granted, that if the viewer doesn’t have much familiarity with both Shakespeare and Poe, Black’s character is not going to make any sense. Rathbone pretty much carrys the last half of the movie. That brings us to casting; all four leads, or five, counting Jameson, are very well-suited to their roles.
It is too much of a stretch to imagine that Felix could be a plausible rival to Waldo. In fact, I’d turn Karloff into Felix, and Lorre into the graveyard guy. We don’t need the father-in-law character anyway, and Joe E. Brown doesn’t do much with a fairly important supporting role.
As I think I’ve let on, the humor really weaves this together. Some critics object that it’s too broad, too campy; the first graveyard scene for example, is too silly. But the one-liners and rejoinders coming from Waldo are usually good, some great (and not just the ones here quoted). Waldo, as noted, the Shakespeare motif perfectly suits both Black’s character and his forlorn situation.
With a slightly tighter script, and maybe juggling a character or two, this would be about perfect. As it is Comedy Of Terrors is a must see for Vincent Price fans, and ’60s horror fans in general. 8/10.