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Film / The Comedy of Terrors

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The Comedy of Terrors is a 1963 American Horror Comedy film directed by Jacques Tourneur, starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone.

In the New England town of New Gilead in the late 19th century (1882 according to the blurb for the novelisation, but considering the novelisation changes the ending this is dubiously canon), unscrupulous drunkard Waldo Trumbull (Price) runs the funeral parlor that he acquired from his elderly former business partner Amos Hinchley (Karloff) after marrying Hinchley's daughter Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a would-be opera singer.

Trumbull blackmails inept fugitive criminal Felix Gillie (Lorre), who has a crush on Amaryllis, to assist him in keeping the business afloat by finding wealthy clients to murder. And when Trumbull's landlord John F. Black (Rathbone) threatens to evict him for nonpayment of rent, the undertaker hatches a scheme to bump him off as well.

Hilarious and unforeseen complications ensue.

"The Macabre Masterpiece of Tropes!":

  • The Alcoholic: Trumbull is an abusive drunkard that frequently winds up in a drunken stupor throughout the film.
    Trumbull: We escape the unendurable however we can.
  • All for Nothing: Mrs. Phipps runs out of town without paying Trumbull his fee, meaning that Trumbull killed Mr. Phipps for nothing.
  • Animal Reaction Shot: Cleopatra the cat gives plenty of these throughout the film.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Trumbull is an alcoholic Jerkass that frequently puts down his wife and her dreams of being an Opera Singer (though to be fair, she is terrible) and cares more about his booze and money than her while her father is too senile to do anything about it. Gillie has to listen to them bicker, but can't really do anything about it due to the metaphorical gun Trumbull has to his head.
  • Axe Before Entering: When Trumbull and Gille are running from an Ax-Crazy Black, they lock themselves in a room, only for Black to hack the door down.
  • Bad Boss: Trumbull had left his father-in-law's mortuary business in ruins and frequently abuses his wife and associate Felix.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Trumbull puts on an insincere and smarmy act of being sympathetic to characters like the widow Mrs Phipps, when he actually killed her husband. It's never remotely convincing to the viewer, though apparently it was convincing enough to Mr. Phipps that after an afternoon drinking together, he let Trumbull walk him home (though that might just be Alcohol-Induced Idiocy).
  • Bloodless Carnage: While most of the murders or attempted murders are done with methods where it makes sense for them to be bloodless, there is also no blood when Trumbull shoots Black. One could be forgiven for thinking the bullets missed, but he reacts as if shot, holding his hand over the "wound" and apparently in pain, so it seems to be this trope.
  • Brainless Beauty: Subverted with Mrs Phipps. She certainly acts that way, seemingly not understanding Trumbull whenever he uses long words, and appears to suspect nothing as he tries to scam her—but considering she then scams him by disappearing without paying, it seems likely to have been Obfuscating Stupidity.
  • Butt-Monkey: Nothing goes well for Felix Gillie until the ending when he finally runs away with Amaryllis.
  • The Cameo: American actor and comedian Joe E. Brown makes his last film appearance as the Groundskeeper at the cemetery.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Before he went senile, Amaryllis' father would spend his fortune collecting rare artifacts and curio's, ranging from statues to ornate weapons to suits of armor. These would all be used later in the climax as weapons.
  • Chekhov's Gag: A Running Gag in the film has Trumbull offering to give his dotering old father-in-law his "medicine", which is actually a bottle of poison. Amaryllis would stop him and her father - having gone senile - complains that she does not care about his health. After the climax of the film leaves Trumbull exhausted, Mr. Hinchley thinks he needs medicine and feeds Trumbull the rest of it.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Subverted. Trumbull seems to think he's this, along with generally seeing himself as far more of a classy gentleman than he actually is. He's got the pervert part down, but any chivalry comes across as a rather unconvincing veneer:
    • When he walks into Mrs Phipps' bedroom looking for her husband and sees her asleep, he grins and stares at her breasts, takes a step closer to get a better look, and then (presumably remembering that he's meant to be committing a murder, and that he'll get caught if she wakes while he's in the room) tips his hat to her as he quickly leaves; the polite gesture would look gentlemanly in other circumstances but doesn't really change the fact that he's watching a woman sleep.
    • He also asks "May I?" before grabbing the breasts of a carving of a woman. While this might be evidence that he has some standards (and he appears to see himself as a moral person...somehow), he also displays some sexist views and of course is a serial killer, so he can't truly be called chivalrous.
  • Comedic Sociopathy: Trumbull is introduced dumping a dead body (who he might well have killed) into the ground so he can reuse the coffin, and spends most of the rest of the film trying to murder various people for personal gain, and being a petty jerk on top of it all. The combination of his snark and his general lack of success in his evil schemes makes him funny, along with just how over the top terrible he is.
  • Covers Always Lie: Despite the poster's claims, no actual grave robbing takes place in the film, though Trumbull takes a silver pocket-watch from a dead man at the funeral before he's buried.
  • Cranky Landlord: John F Black is hounding Trumbull for the rent and threatens to evict him (along with his wife and his old, senile father-in-law) if he doesn't pay. He also draws a Sword Cane just to emphasise his point as he delivers these threats. He's not nearly as much of a jerk as Trumbull himself... but after the failed murder attempt, "cranky" is an understatement for how he reacts.
  • Cutting Corners: By dumping bodies into the ground so the same coffin can be reused for the next funeral! Trumbull has been doing this for 13 years. He also apparently hasn't embalmed anyone in six years, while presumably still charging for it as if he was.
  • Dashingly Dapper Derby: Mr Black is rich, unlike the other characters, and well-educated (quoting large amounts of Shakespeare from memory), as well as very pompously formal. He wears a bowler hat. (Yes, the top hats worn by Trumbull and Gillie are more formal, but they're part of their undertakers' outfits.)
  • Depending Upon the Undependable: Gillie's only apparent skill is picking locks, which he has presumably used in Trumbull's previous break-ins, but doesn't get to use in the film as in one case he's trying to pick an unlocked door, and in the other case there's a bolt on the inside. In every other way, he is incompetent and clumsy. Yet Trumbull keeps bringing him along on every break-in, and has him follow him inside instead of just opening the door for him—providing ample opportunities for Gillie to knock things over and otherwise cause problems. He also often asks Gillie to do physical work for him that Gillie clearly struggles with—Gillie is short and fat while Trumbull is much taller and would have a much easier time climbing that wall himself, for instance. But Trumbull is too lazy to do anything if he thinks he can make Gillie do it, even if he'd do a better job himself.
  • Dismissive Kick: Trumbull kicks the coffin Gillie made, destroying it.
  • Disposing of a Body: To save on buying more coffins, Trumbull and Gillie would wait until the mourners have left and dump the body into the grave and recycle the coffin for the next funeral. Trumbull complains when Black's body is left in a crypt.
    "To think we only got thirteen years out of that casket!"
  • Dreadful Musician: Hinchley plays the fiddle horribly. Perhaps certain things run in the family.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Trumbull does this at any possible opportunity, both to Mrs Phipps (watching her for a moment when he walks into her bedroom briefly during the break-in, and also eyeing her up while he talks her into hiring him for the funeral), and at one point to his own wife ("Hope springs eternal in the human...yes..." while staring at her breasts) despite refusing to actually have sex with her.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Parodied with Trumbull, who seems to have some genuine standards (assuming that his asking "May I?" before grabbing a wooden carving's breasts is a sign he'd also ask before behaving similarly with a real woman), but mostly just has extreme Moral Myopia—killing a woman's husband so he can make money off the funeral and then declaring that there's "no morality left in this world" when she disappears without paying him, for instance. He also semi-regularly acts shocked and offended at random comments Gillie makes that are fairly mild in comparison to what Trumbull himself was saying moments before.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humour: Trumbull's drunken, rambling attempt at making up new verses to The Raven eventually turns into a dead baby joke that he finds hilarious. Gillie does not appear amused.
  • Evil Laugh: Trumbull has a particularly over the top one while trying to strangle Amaryllis.
  • Evil Is Petty: Trumbull certainly is, especially with his bullying of Gillie. At one point he tells Gillie to sit down, shoves him onto the floor, then laughs at him and mockingly asks if he's comfortable.
  • Fat and Skinny: Trumbull is 6ft4 and skinny, Gillie is nearly a foot shorter and fat. Trumbull is genuinely evil while Gillie is more sympathetic. Gillie is uneducated and generally incompetent, while Trumbull has all the ideas and at least thinks he's clever... he uses some long words and is more literate than Gillie, who thinks a quote from Macbeth is "a hymn or something", but he's not particularly competent a lot of the time and can be quite crude despite the veneer of more "sophisticated" language. And Trumbull constantly snarks at Gillie.
  • Glass-Shattering Sound: Amaryllis is capable of doing this with her singing.
  • Gold Digger: When Amaryllis accuses Trumbull of only marrying her for her father's business, he doesn't deny it.
  • Hats Off to the Dead: Gillie does this when he hears Black is dead, even though he was (reluctantly) helping Trumbull with his plan to break in and kill him, and caused his apparent death himself. Trumbull and Gillie also have their hats off at the funeral at the start, but Trumbull manages to subvert the usually respectful gesture by holding his hat in such a way as to be covertly Flipping the Bird.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Amaryllis has dreams of becoming an opera singer, but she has no real talent for it. While Trumbull is repulsed by it, Gillie is too smitten with her to notice.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Trumbull asks "is there no morality left in this world" after Mrs. Phipps skips town without paying him his fee. Mind you, Trumbull is the one who killed Mr. Phipps to get said fee in the first place.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Amaryllis is convinced that she would have been a successful opera singer had she not married Trumbull. Trumbull retorts that she has the voice of a "laryngitic crow."
  • Jerkass: Waldo Trumbull yells at and insults his wife, bullies his employee Gillie, and shoves a random man out of his way in the street in one early scene. And that's not even getting into all the murder...
  • Karmic Death: Trumbull dies by accidentally drinking the poison he intended to use on Hinchley.
  • Kick the Dog: Gillie expresses pride in a coffin he constructed and humors the idea that they might use it at some point. Trumbull calls it an abomination and destroys it right in-front of him.
    • Jerkass Has a Point: It wasn't a very good coffin if one light kick made it completely fly apart.
  • Large Ham: While Black is fairly restrained in public, he is found by Gillie to be reciting Macbeth in bed, even going so far as to get up and pretend to fight with a sword. After his Sanity Slippage, he continues to quote Shakespeare as he goes on his Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • Layman's Terms:
    Trumbull: I am afraid, madam, that he has made his final journey towards that stygian shore.
    Mrs. Phipps: What?
    Trumbull: He's dead. Allow me, Madam, in this moment of your most desolate bereavement to lift from your sorrow-laden shoulders the burdens and tasks of exequiem sepulcher.
    Mrs. Phipps: What?
    Trumbull: I'll bury him for you.
  • Lazy Bum: Trumbull would frequently have Gillie do all of the dirty work for him while he sits back and waits (usually in his bottle). This is illustrated when they try to break into Mr. Black's home to kill him, Trumbull verbally abusing Gillie for his lack of climbing skills despite almost being twice as tall as him. Trumbull could have easily scaled the wall himself, but couldn't be bothered.
  • Lean and Mean: Trumbull is 6ft4 and thin, especially noticeable in comparison to Gillie. He's also an unrepentant murderer and all around vicious, petty jerk. Although unlike many other Vincent Price characters, his body language often comes across as more ungainly than imposing, since he is ultimately a comedic villain.
  • Lovecraft Country: Downplayed. The film is about a murderous undertaker (and his less murderous sidekick) who commits his crimes in small-town New England, but it's a dark comedy rather than truly horror, and without supernatural elements.
  • Man Bites Man: Black bites Trumbull's hand. Trumbull is apparently shocked by this, even though Trumbull was the one trying to murder Black.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The explanation for Black's repeated apparent deaths as catalepsy holds up at first. But when he's capable of going on a murderous rampage after spending quite a bit longer in a coffin than the five hours at most that anyone could survive in real life, it gives some credence to Trumbull's belief that "he'll never die!". At the end of the film it's revealed that even being shot twice in the stomach is not enough to kill him.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Mrs. Phipps, played by Beverly Powers (credited as "Beverly Hills", the name used by the actress when she performed as a burlesque dancer/stripper), who played strippers, dancers, and generally fanservicey characters in various films of the same era. Trumbull is visibly Distracted by the Sexy in his scenes with her.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Trumbull's attitude to everything. Undertaker's business short on clients? Kill rich old men. His old father-in-law still owns half the business? Try to poison him. His wife threatens to tell the police about the other murders? Try to strangle her. He only succeeds in killing one person during the events of the film, but is stated to have killed several other "customers" in the past.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Peter Lorre uses his usual accent even though the surname "Gillie" does not immediately suggest an Eastern European immigrant. (Vincent Price, meanwhile, is bothering with the accent to some extent, with several lines sounding noticeably less sophisticated than his usual way of speaking as he portrays a small-town New Englander, such as asking Gillie if the "winders" are locked. It's not a drastic change from his usual accent overall but it is different.)
  • Once is Not Enough: Trumbull hits Gillie once on the head with a poker, and Gillie falls to the ground unconscious. Trumbull then mistakenly assumes he's killed him and doesn't bother to check or to finish him off.
  • Pet the Dog: Or rather the cat. The only character Trumbull isn't either an unrepentant sociopath to or insincerely schmoozing is the family tabby Cleopatra. He even brings her with them on their mission to kill Lord Black, stroking her like he was a Bond villain.
  • Pronouncing My Name for You: Gillie calling Trumbull "Tremble" is a Running Gag. Trumbull would correct him, and Gillie would respond that that's how he said it, "Tremble".
  • Pun-Based Title: The film derives its name from The Comedy of Errors.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: Having suffered from catalepsy his whole life, Trumbull and Gillie would frequently believe Lord Black to be dead, only for him to wake-up much later, usually telegraphed to the audience by his nose twitching.
  • Running Gag:
    • Whenever Trumbull says something especially cruel to her, Amaryllis would try to have her father defend her. Having gone senile, he thinks she is asking him to pass the sugar.
    • Gillie would call Trumbull "Trembull". Trumbull would correct him, only for Gillie to say "I said Trembull."
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Amos Hinchley
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: John F. Black is shown to talk like this in public.
    Black: As much as I regret to dun you, dear sir, it is unhappily incumbent upon me, as owner of these premises to regard your monetary dereliction as, shall we say, "inconvenient" to my purposes? So vastly inconvenient, one might add, that should the debt remain outstanding for as much as 24 hours more, I fear that legal machinery must perforce be set in motion... and Messers. Hinchley and Trumbull face the incommodious prospect of taking up residence in the street.
  • Sexless Marriage : Trumbull is repulsed by even the idea of having sex with Amaryllis. She seems to still have some feelings and some attraction towards him, and they do sleep in the same bed (when Trumbull's not passed out drunk on the sofa), but her one attempt to get him to have sex with her is completely rejected by Trumbull, who prefers to spend his time counting his money and says he won't have sex with her "as long as there's liquor in the house". He even wipes his hands after strangling her as if disgusted by having touched her.
  • Slimeball: Waldo Trumbull, a cruel and selfish man who plots to kill people for personal gain (to bring in customers to his undertaker's business). He thinks he's more clever than he is, and his attempts to be charming are rather insincere (though they still fool some characters). His educated and classy front is a thin veneer and he quickly reveals himself to be a crude and petty bully. He's also at least a bit of a pervert, though he appears to have some standards in this (if in nothing else).
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: Well, "smart" is relative. Trumbull certainly sees himself as intelligent, and is the one who makes the plans. He seems to be reasonably educated as he speaks more formally than Gillie, and he certainly knows more long words, along with the occasional Gratuitous French and Gratuitous Latin (the latter not being entirely accurate—see below), but he also has a distinct tendency to not think things through at all. He's definitely a jerk though, and coerces poor Gillie (who, while literate enough to write a letter, is clearly very uneducated as he thinks a quote from Macbeth is "a hymn or something") into committing crimes that Gillie wants nothing to do with.
  • Smug Snake: Trumbull clearly thinks he's the cleverest person to walk the earth, and is disdainful and condescending towards characters such as Amaryllis and Gillie. He underestimates Mrs Phipps, assuming he's the one scamming her, when she in fact ends up outwitting him. His attitude for most of the film is cocky, brash, and sarcastic, but he makes several mistakes and poorly-thought-through decisions and his plans have little success, until eventually he receives a Karmic Death.
  • So Much for Stealth: Subverted. Gillie knocks a statue which causes a row of them to collapse as Disaster Dominoes with a very loud series of crashes, and it seems they're about to get caught...but no-one seems to notice. Mr Phipps sleeping through it could be justified by him being old and deaf. Mrs Phipps and the servants are harder to explain (Trumbull wonders if they're all deaf but they don't seem to be).
  • Sophisticated as Hell: As part of Trumbull's general Wicked Pretentious character. He can show off with long words when he wants to, as shown in the quote for Layman's Terms above, and often tries to speak fairly formally with lines like "Confound you too, sir! Will you kindly have the goodness to die?". But when angry or more-than-usually drunk he can be far more crude and aggressive, frequently yelling at people ("Are you gonna shut your mouth or not?!"), and comes the closest to strong language of anyone in the film (according to the script the line is "He bit me! The sonuva bit me!", but...) as well as getting one of the film's only two uses of "hell" in his final line ("Oh, to hell with it... if you can't lick 'em, join 'em.") and the only use of "damned" (not counting quotes from Macbeth). Of course this language would have been harsher in the 19th century when the film is set.
  • Trapped in Villainy: Gillie only goes along in Trumbull's schemes because he escaped from prison and Trumbull is blackmailing him into compliance. He would much rather conduct their mortuary business ethically and be with Amaryllis. It is subverted when he and Amaryllis run away together while Trumbull is accidentally poisoned.
  • Unintentionally Karmic: Hinchley is too senile and clueless to realise that Trumbull is a murderer, but ends up causing Trumbull's Karmic Death by giving him "medicine" that's actually the poison Trumbull was planning to use on him.
  • Villainous Widow's Peak: Trumbull is a murderous undertaker played by Vincent Price.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Trumbull's go-to method for gathering clients. He does it to Phipps, and later makes a metaphor with it in regards to his intentions of killing Black.
    Trumbull: To paraphrase the venerable adage, we shall kill two birds with one pillow.
  • Wicked Pretentious: Trumbull likes to show off with long words and to try and present himself as an educated and sophisticated man. While it's not quite Delusions of Eloquence as he doesn't get the English words he uses wrong, the classy act can drop very quickly if he's angry or more drunk than usual, revealing him to be a petty bully.
    • His uses of Gratuitous French such as "fait accompli, Monsieur Gillie" are not necessarily incorrect French, but a very pretentious and pointless way of using it. His Gratuitous Latin is rather less correct, as although exequiam does mean "funeral rite", "sepulchre" is an English word that in Latin would be "sepulchrum". If he's trying to say "the funeral rite for the tomb" it could be "exequiam sepulchro" but it's still a rather awkward and pretentious bit of phrasing.
    • The 19th century idea of being sophisticated also included high standards of politeness, which Trumbull only manages to do when he's trying to win someone over and it's clearly insincere; the rest of the time he yells "shut your mouth!" at his wife, shoves a man out of his way in the street, and is sometimes quite blatantly perverted. Even when he is being polite it's not in a truly sophisticated way—for instance, tipping your hat was actually seen as a gesture of respect that servants and working-class people would make to those socially above them. A gentleman, on the other hand, would lift his hat to a lady.
  • Wimp Fight: The fight between Gillie and Trumbull. They're two middle-aged men with no real combat experience (Trumbull has at least some knowledge of how to use a gun, but is out of bullets), one short and fat and the other a drunk stick insect. Gillie slaps Trumbull in the face with the flat of a (seemingly decorative and not very sharp) sword, doing no damage (Trumbull's "Ow! That hurt!" might be sarcastic, or he might really be that much of a wimp). Trumbull (who had attempted to also grab a sword, but found it was broken) then hits Gillie on the head with a poker, knocking him out...and assumes he's dead without bothering to check. Gillie is not, in fact, dead.
  • Would Harm a Senior: Trumbull's preferred targets are rich old men who can be passed off as having died in their sleep, though Black isn't as old as his other victims. Trumbull also makes repeated, though unsuccessful, attempts to kill his aged father-in-law.
  • Would Hit a Girl: When Amaryllis starts threatening to turn Trumbull in to the authorities, Trumbull tries to strangle her, and doesn't stop until he thinks he's killed her.


Video Example(s):


The Comedy of Terrors

Gillie only goes along in Trumbull's schemes because he escaped from prison and Trumbull is blackmailing him into compliance. He would much rather conduct their mortuary business ethically and be with Amaryllis.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (3 votes)

Example of:

Main / TrappedInVillainy

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