"Every shroud has a silver lining" - AIP publicity slogan for COMEDY OF TERRORS
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, released here for the first time in its widescreen format on DVD, is truly a cause for celebration for several reasons. First, it is American-International's one and only horror comedy extravaganza whose cast reads like the "Who's Who of the Horror Films."
In TALES OF TERROR, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price were teamed up in a comic segment entitled "The Black Cat." The film also featured the talented Basil Rathbone, but the three did not appear together. The success of teaming Price and Lorre, especially with the critics, gave birth to THE RAVEN, which added Boris Karloff to the cast. THE RAVEN was such a runaway box-office hit, possessed of such comic undertones bordering on burlesque, that producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff decided to go all out with a total horror farce starring all of them in one picture.
THE COMEDY OF TERRORS was written by veteran Richard Matheson, who understood the personae of these actors and gave each of them an opportunity to shine. Ironically, he completed another horror comedy for all of them with the addition of Tallulah Bankhead, tentatively to be titled THE GRAVESIDE STORY, but the passings of Lorre and Rathbone ended that opportunity.
Though not a success at the time, a cult following has developed around THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. The late Joyce Jameson, who portrayed Price's opera-singing wife in the film, recalled, "He (Jacques Tourneur) was very fierce and very dogmatic about the way he wanted scenes played in comparison with Roger Corman, who let us do just about anything we wanted. I personally think the freedom Roger allowed us made it more successful and much more interesting. For example, during the drinking sequence in TALES OF TERROR or between some of the cute moments I had with Peter on that film, we established a camaraderie that carried over into THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. I took great pleasure in every scene I did with Peter, whether it was our dancing sequence or his listening to me doing bad opera. Had Roger directed COMEDY instead of Jacques you would not have felt the heavy hand of a European director so much. Roger would have given it a lighter and faster pace. I don't think Jacques Tourneur was a good director in spite of his reputation and Peter's illness brought heaviness to the production that was absent when we did TALES OF TERROR." Jameson's turn as Lorre's love interest is a gem of sheer comedic brilliance. It is very sad she is no longer with us to receive the recognition she so richly deserves.
Another surprise in the acting category is Boris Karloff's hilarious turn as the senile owner of the funeral parlor which Vincent Price has married into. Karloff had become so well-known as just playing Boris Karloff, that seeing him in makeup which aged him from 76 to 96 -- complete with impeccable comedic timing --nearly steals the film from his co-stars. Only Joyce Jameson matches him in every scene they share.
Peter Lorre's illness during filming made it difficult for him to give his usual 100%. Yet his scenes romancing the tone-deaf Ms. Jameson are vintage Lorre and delightful to watch. Basil Rathbone as the Shakespearean-spouting landlord is also a standout, but as Vincent Price recalled years later, "Basil was not a very happy man toward the end and was frustrated that Hollywood had forgotten him though he had been a huge star both on Broadway and in the films of the thirties and forties."
Director Jacques Tourneur, whose work for producer Val Lewton created such classics as CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and additionally his own masterpiece, NIGHT OF THE DEMON, made him an ideal choice to direct a horror spoof. Tourneur had made another film for AIP with entitled WAR GODS OF THE DEEP, though neither of his films for AIP would enhance his reputation as his earlier work had done.
Also be on the lookout for guest appearances by noted stripper Miss Beverly Hills (BRIDES OF BLOOD) as an eager widow with cleavage to match her name, and comedy legend Joe E. Brown as the crypt keeper with an ungodly yell, not to mention Rhubarb the Cat, whose musical taste does not necessarily coincide with his owner's. Special praise must be given to composer Les Baxter, whose broad burlesque and musical flourishes are equal to his exquisite work in Corman's Poe series. This score certainly attests to Baxter's musical versatility and ingenuity. As Vincent Price recalled, "Making THE COMEDY OF TERRORS was not work -- it was fun, great fun!" So let the fun be yours as well. Join Vincent, Peter, Joyce, Basil and Boris as they say: "Don't bury yourself in work, -- come see THE COMEDY OF TERRORS."
On the flip side of this DVD is the appropriately matched, THE RAVEN, directed by Roger Corman. "Milk . . . how vomitable!" quoth the raven in the unmistakable voice of Peter Lorre (at the thought of drinking something other than wine), making Roger Corman's fifth foray into Edgar Allan POE a charming, fairy tale-like comedy with enough magic for young and old alike.
THE RAVEN is a classic of its kind for all the right reasons. First and foremost there's the inspired teaming of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, the screen's then-current titans of terror. Price and Lorre had appeared successfully a year earlier in Corman's TALES OF TERROR, while Price and Karloff hadn't worked together in a feature since Universal's TOWER OF LONDON in 1939, THE RAVEN would mark the first teaming of all three of these screen villains. Sensing a Laurel and Hardy-style camaraderie between Price and Lorre, writer Richard Matheson concocted a medieval horror satire complete with wizards, sorcery and gleeful black comedy.
All of Corman's talented production team are on hand here. Daniel Haller's massive sets for Karloff's castle are at last allowed the full scope of their majesty in this Panavision presentation and the widescreen format also allows one to appreciate the fine camerawork of Floyd Crosby. Composer Les Baxter, by now a veteran of the POE series, fashioned a score with just the right mix of burlesque and bravado to keep pace with the on-screen antics of the trio of seasoned bogeymen.
Corman counted this fusion of horror and comedy among his favorite efforts. "The comedy was a gradually developing thing. Vincent was able to bring a great civilized and genteel air of horror with just a touch of humor that we began to play on a little more in each picture. It started with TALES OF TERROR, and then from that we did THE RAVEN as a feature-length comedy."
Co-star Hazel Court remembers that 26-year-old Jack Nicholson was always working on a screenplay during shooting, honing his skills as a writer in case his acting career didn't work out. She also got such a case of giggles working with Price and Lorre that Corman ordered them all off the set until they could regain their composure. "Vincent was always putting vegetables like carrots or asparagus under his cloak because he knew it would make me laugh."
Corman also recalls shooting the rather intricate climax: "There were some interesting optical effects used for the shafts of light shooting from their (Price and Karloff's) fingertips. Vincent was put in a crane and we had him floating over the set when he was supposed to be levitating. We set off a small cannon beside Boris. The duel of the wizards was carefully sketched and planned in advance for a film that was shot in two weeks."
His appearance in THE RAVEN gave Karloff a multi-picture deal with American-International Pictures, as well as securing his place as a horror star to yet another generation of movie fans. He had made only eight films during the previous decade, the last being his turn in 1958's FRANKENSTEIN 1970. He also delighted in working with old colleagues Price and Lorre, but when Lorre kept adding lines and unrehearsed physical action, Karloff, who worked from the script, made Corman very aware that improvisation was not his cup of tea.''
Unique and completely endearing, THE RAVEN stands, to those who love it and to those who soon will, as the WIZARD OF OZ of horror satires. A venerable Hollywood axiom runs: "If you have fun making it, it's not a good picture." Let's be thankful that Vincent, Boris and Peter are here with us, in this magnificent widescreen edition, to put to rest another well-worn show business cliché.
MGM's smartly paired DVD set presents both films in their original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratios with anamorphic enhancement. COMEDY OF TERRORS looks stunning, with all its colors standing out remarkably and very sharp detail. THE RAVEN looks nice as well, but not nearly as good as COMEDY. Although the picture is crisp, colors are somewhat dull and fleshtones tend to be on the red side. The Dolby Digital mono soundtracks are adequate, but again COMEDY is superior, as THE RAVEN exhibits some surface noise in parts. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles are included on both features.
There are some wonderful extras on hand. THE RAVEN has two featurettes, one with screenwriter Richard Matheson ("Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Raven"), expressing how well he felt the legendary actors handled his material, and one with Roger Corman ("Cormans Comedy Of POE"), where he discusses the onscreen relationship between Lorre and Jack Nicholson, the climatic special effects, and other subjects. The entire program heard on a promotional recording for THE RAVEN (which was supplied by AIP fan Greg Krieger) is also included, while pictures of the record sleeve and other publicity material is shown on screen. The record features Karloff, voice artist par excellence Paul Frees, and yes, that is Frees doing a great Lorre impersonation! THE COMEDY OF TERRORS has Matheson again on "Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Comedy Of Terrors," where he reveals with a smile that his "associate producer" credit meant nothing really. He also talks more about creating characters for these larger-than-life actors, as well as his proposed follow-up which never came into fruition. Both features include their original theatrical trailers. (David Del Valle)
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