Thursday, August 16, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *comedy*

In a commentary by Roger Corman on MGM’s DVD release of these two AIP films, Corman notes that he worried about the films in the “Poe cycle” beginning to seem overly similar. This change in focus eventuated in these two films, in which the subject matter of Poe is played for humor.  (To be sure, Matheson notes in a commentary that Poe himself took a humorous slant in many of his macabre stories.)

The title of THE COMEDY OF TERRORS spoofs the name of a Shakespeare play, but in the Fryean terminology I use here, it would be more properly termed an “irony” than a “comedy.”  In the world of the irony, the characters exist in a world where all striving is ultimately futile, a world dominated by entropy and death—which seems more than appropriate for a story about crooked undertakers.

COMEDY establishes its ironic credentials early on, depicting the familial strife in the funerary parlor run by Trumbull (Vincent Price).  Largely through his quarrels with his shrewish wife Amarillis, it’s revealed that Trumbull, a perpetual drunkard, only married her in order to gain control of the business from her doddering father (Boris Karloff).  Trumbull has proceeded to run the business into the ground and accrue enormous debt, so that his landlord, one Mr. Black (Basil Rathbone), threatens to kick Trumbull out.  Trumbull’s only ally, the inept coffin-maker Gillie (Peter Lorre), obeys the undertaker (while obsessively calling him “Tremble”) only because the undertaker threatens to expose Gillie’s past crimes to the police.

Trumbull has a unique way of drumming up business: when things get slow, he breaks into the homes of rich people and kills elderly victims, so that their relatives will have to pay for expensive funerals.  However, the first time this happens, the victim’s daughter skips town without paying Trumbull, giving Price one of his best moments, as he addresses the audience plaintively: “Is there no morality in this world?”

Desperate to prevent his dispossession, Trumbull decides to remove Black from this vale of tears.  He sends Gillie to break into Black’s house, where the reluctant stooge witnesses the landlord, a former stage-actor, performing scenes from Macbeth.  Black is so shocked by Gillie’s appearance that Black falls down from a heart attack, which seems to accomplish Trumbull’s purpose.  However, it turns out that Black suffers from catalepsy, and “comes back to life” while Trumbull and Gillie prepare him for internment.  The undertakers kill their corpse and inter them—but they don’t kill him quite dead enough.

At no time does Black come back from the dead due to any supernatural cause, so his catalepsy falls within the phenomenality of the uncanny, with particular attention to the trope of the “phantasmal figuration.”  I’ve often used this trope to categorize plotters to pretend to be ghosts, so it seems equally applicable to a person whose body-chemistry causes him to “fake” being dead. 

Even before the persistent corpse returns for the big climax, the fractured family dynamics are coming apart.  Once Trumbull has been paid for Black’s funeral, Amarillis attempts to make nice with him, only to be rejected by the dyspeptic undertaker.  She takes up with Gillie and intends to run away with him, but then Black breaks in, seeking vengeance.  In an amusing climax, Trumbull finally manages to kill Black (or so it seems at the time)—albeit only after Black has uttered several death-soliloquies—but he almost kills Gillie and Amarillis as well.  But even a witness threatening to call the police is not enough of an indignity to finish off Trumbull: he’s done in accidentally by Amarillis’ father.

To be sure, this “irony of terrors” has one thing in common with Shakespearan comedies, in that a romantic couple, that of Gillie and Amarillis, escapes the general carnage.  However, neither of them are overly sympathetic characters, not to mention being dominantly portrayed as idiots.

COMEDY is only fitfully entertaining, though, for the characters are largely flat stereotypes that serve Matheson’s scenario in mechanical fashion. THE RAVEN, however, plays a little more imaginatively with the *dramatis personae* established in the earlier “Cormanized Poe” pictures.

Given that the Poe “Raven” offered no narrative around which a scripter might assemble a picture, Matheson essentially built a new story out of elements from other Poe-pictures, particularly drawing on PIT AND THE PENDULUM and the “Morella” segment of TALES OF TERROR.

THE RAVEN starts out in an undefined medieval era, focusing first on Doctor Craven (Vincent Price), who lives an ascetic existence in near-solitude in his secluded mansion, devoting himself to the practice of thaumaturgy.  His only family consists of his daughter Estelle, whose mother is long gone.  Craven never speaks of her, but only has eyes for the picture of his “lost Lenore,” who was “stepmother” to Estelle but who vanished from Craven’s mansion two years previous.  So obsessed with Lenore is Craven (much like Price’s character in the “Morella” tale) that he even asks a visiting raven whether or not he’ll ever again see Lenore—to which the bird replies, “How should I know?  Do I look like a fortune-teller?”

After the magician uses his magic to return the raven to a semblance of humanity, the bird is revealed to be another magician, Doctor Bedlo (Peter Lorre), who fell afoul (or a-fowl?) of yet another magician, Doctor Scarabeus (Boris Karloff).  Craven mentions that Scarabeus was once the rival of Craven’s father Roderick back when both men were members of a mystic organization, “the Brotherhood.”  With Roderick dead, his son has retreated from contact with the Brotherhood, allowing Scarabeus to take over.

Just from this bare description it’s plain that like the protagonist of PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Craven is “craven” regarding the overshadowing history of his father’s exploits.  Though he’s willing to help the bad-tempered Bedlo, who seems to have earned his transformation by quarreling with Scarabeus, Craven wants no trouble with his father’s old enemy—or so it seems.  When Bedlo has been only partially restored to humanity (he still has a wing for an arm, a la the “Swan Maiden” folktale), he insists that Craven should raid the local graveyard for one potion-ingredient, “the hair of a dead man.”  Craven is initially horrified at the suggestion of despoiling graves, yet in the next moment, he thinks it’s a good idea to despoil the crypt of his dead father Roderick and take the hair from that source.  This suggests that on some level Craven is aware of the dominating influence of his father’s legacy, and that he wants to throw off that influence.  The results of this bit of grave-robbery are ambiguous: in the comedic film’s one creepy scene, the corpse of Roderick comes to life when Craven clips its hair—but it does so only to tell his living son to “beware,” and then falls back dead.

Though Craven has no interest in helping Bedlo avenge his grievances, Bedlo piques Craven’s interest when he remarks that he’s seen Lenore—whom he recognizes from her portait in the mansion—in Scarebeus’s castle.  Craven disbelieves Bedlo, protesting that Lenore’s only reason for being absent is that she must be dead, but he decides to join Bedlo in questioning the older wizard.  Before they can leave, Craven, Bedlo and Estelle are attacked by one of Craven’s servants.  Craven’s magic subdues the man, who was obviously controlled by hostile magic.  Slightly later, the threesome are joined by Bedlo’s son Rexford (Jack Nicholson), looking to bring his foolish father back home.  Instead all four journey to the castle, though the trip is interrupted briefly when Rexford is also magically possessed, so that he almost overturns their carriage.

At the castle Scarabeus is the genial host, showing no knowledge of the spirit of Lenore.  But Bedlo has told the truth: the flesh-and-blood Lenore has been in the company of Scarabeus since leaving Craven.  Between them, wizard and unfaithful wife plan to imprison Craven and learn his mystical knowledge. To that end, they manage to gain Bedlo’s help, though Bedlo is somewhat less than pleased with his reward: that of getting turned into a raven again.  Bedlo turns against his former allies and gets Craven free.  The conflict climaxes in a magical duel between the two wizards, which Craven wins.  At last aware of Lenore’s duplicity, Craven escapes the castle and leaves Lenore with her lover as the castle comes crashing down in flames.  However, given the jubilant spirit of the comedy here, both villains survive with only each other to increase one another's misery.  With Estelle and Rexford set up to be “the romantic couple,” Craven returns to his mansion and gives the traitorous raven his punishment: to sit upon a “pallid bust of Pallas” and speak “nevermore.”

THE RAVEN is much more fun than COMEDY OF TERRORS, and gives each of the actors more individual moments (even having Rexford show the same paternal deference to Bedlo than Craven does to his late father).  The “daddy issues” don’t run as deep here as in the “straight” horrors, but it’s a testimony to Matheson that he managed to work them into a farcical tale with an admirable attention to detail. 



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