MAY 27, 2011
Today would have been Vincent Price's 100th birthday, so rather than sit around bemoaning that he died before I ever got to go to conventions (did he ever actually appear at any?), I wanted to make sure my movie today was Price-ified. Luckily, Netflix came through with The Comedy Of Terrors, which as the title suggests is more of a comedy, but like The Addams Family, it's a very macabre comedy that horror fans would appreciate more than the usual comedy fan.
For starters, it actually delivers on my wish from the "Black Cat" segment of Tales Of Terror, in that it gives us an entire movie of Price and Peter Lorre playing off each other. These two have an amazing chemistry; I don't think I've ever seen someone manage to keep up with Price in a film (to be fair I've pretty much only watched his horror movies), and thus their running gags (Lorre's pronunciation of Price's character's name) and Mutt and Jeff routines are pure joy. Add in a wonderfully silly Boris Karloff and an insane turn by Basil Rathbone, and you have a treasure trove of some of our most sinister classic horror actors having a delightful time being silly for our enjoyment.
And it works! I often don't find older comedies particularly funny, but I was chuckling throughout. True, most of that was just due to the surprise of seeing Karloff deliver a rambling, drunken monologue, or hearing Price burp, but there are a ton of great little jabs and one-liners that kept me smiling. Price pretty much hates everyone else in the movie, but puts up with them for his own gain (it's like the relationship he had with his wife in House On Haunted Hill, but with everyone), and thus peppers every conversation with a mean-spirited response or unnecessary insult. When his wife talks about her father's habit of collecting strange objects, Price retorts: "He did more than collect curious objects, madam, he also fathered one!". He also chooses alcohol over her advances on occasion, and anything that keeps Price acting drunk is fine by me.
As for the horror stuff, it's still a bit silly. Basically, Price and Lorre run this struggling funeral parlor, and their cost-cutting ways (re-using the same coffin over and over) haven't been enough to pay the rent, so they decide to start helping business by killing wealthy folks. Of course, their plans always go awry, particularly in the case of Mr. Black (Rathbone) who amusingly won't die no matter what they do. But if you remove the jokes you still have Vincent Price and Peter Lorre creeping around big mansions and committing murder, so it's not really that far off from their usual sort of thing - they just go about it in a different way.
It's also a wonderful looking film, with frequent Val Lewton director Jacques Tourneur (Leopard Man, Cat People) making the most out of his studio sets; I was actually a bit surprised it was all shot in Hollywood. The scope image allows for the two main actors to share the screen as much as possible without cramping them, and it's quite colorful as well (it's not often I see Karloff in color). The FX are also pretty good for the time; there's a running gag about Price's wife (Joyce Jameson) having such a high-pitched singing voice that it can make flowers wilt, candles fly (?), and of course, glass break, so every time she sings we are treated to some "Invisible Man" style trick photography and/or stop motion animation. Tourneur also gets a good performance out of a cat, which I found particularly impressive today since I couldn't get mine to stop trying to claw his way through the floor near the door so he could get outside (the idiot! There's cement on the other side! He'll never do it!).
Literally the only person of note from the movie that is still alive is Richard Matheson, who wrote the script after penning a number of the Poe/Corman adaptations (including Tales Of Terror). Obviously the main stars would have passed from old age by now, but Jameson died young, as did co-star Alan DeWitt. Then there's this poor bastard, Douglas Williams, who appeared in movies going back to the 30s but was never credited until this one, and then died a few years later. Obviously, I've watched enough movies from the 30s and 40s in which everyone would have to be dead by now, but somehow it seems more of a bummer to think about when the movie is so fun. It's really going to be upsetting when I realize that everyone involved with a movie from my childhood has left us (assuming I don't die young myself). But I guess that's another reason to be happy and relieved about digital preservation and such; here's a 50 year old movie that looks beautiful, and forever will thanks to technology that wasn't even imagined at the time its participants were alive.
Anyway, happy birthday Mr. Price - you have delighted me time and again over the years, and I do not look forward to the day when I run out of your horror movies to watch.
What say you?