The Comedy of Terrors is a very broad horror-comedy produced by Samuel Z Arkoff at AIP, and recycles some of the cast and elements from Tales of Terror (1962), on which Arkoff was Executive Producer. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur from a screenplay by Richard Matheson, and stars horror veterans Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff (originally hired to play Rathbone’s role, but severe arthritis limited his mobility) and Basil Rathbone. It also stars Rhubarb (also known as Orangey) the cat, who gets billed above Rathbone and “special guest star” Joe E Brown on the poster.
The film takes place in one of those all-purpose 19th century settings familiar from AIP’s Poe movies. Price plays an undertaker who resorts to murder to boost business, Lorre is his assistant, Rathbone their landlord, and Karloff plays Price’s ailing father-in-law, whom Price has been trying to poison. Price and Lorre try to murder their landlord, unaware that he suffers from narcolepsy; Joe E Brown, in his last film appearance, plays the cemetery keeper who witnesses one of Rathbone’s repeated returns from apparent death.
Everyone hams it up and, while it’s always a pleasure to watch these actors at work, the humour is somewhat laboured. But it’s an important movie from a feline point of view. Rhubarb plays Cleopatra, a marmalade cat whom we follow downstairs into the basement at the start of the film to get our first sight of Lorre, who is attempting to cobble together a coffin. The cat often acts as the audience’s eyes and ears; he is a classic CATAGONIST. He drinks from Karloff’s teacup, curls up on Karloff’s chest, and is shown responding to events – there’s a comic cut to his reaction as Lorre falls off a roof, he gives a visible “gulp” when he hears Price talking about poison, and covers his ears with his paws to block out the sound of Price’s wife singing.
The cat even provides the punchline to the film when he triggers an allergic reaction in the narcoleptic Rathbone. But Rhubarb’s finest moment comes during the final credits.
Each of the principal players gets a picture credit comprising a brief fragment of their performance framed by a funeral wreath, but when it comes to Rhubarb’s turn… in a moment strangely prescient of the climax of Ringu, he apparently breaks the Fourth Wall by stepping out of the wreath, and proceeds to stalk around the set while the technical credits continue to unspool over him.
Either Cleopatra is played throughout the film by the same cat, or the film-makers found some impressive doppelgingers (sic). Rhubarb aka Orangey is quite the star, gets his own entries on imdb.com and Wikipedia, and won two “Patsy” (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) awards, one of them for his performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.