Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) is, it's safe to say, an unorthodox practitioner of the undertaker's art. For example, he only has one coffin which he reuses, waiting for the mourners at the funerals to leave and then tipping out the body with the help of his assistant Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre) so that they can fill the plot with earth and scurry off with the empty casket. But Waldo is not a happy man, for his home life is something he must endure with his failed opera singer wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson) who berates him daily, and his deaf old coot of a father-in-law (Boris Karloff)...
Nope, nobody is happy in this supposed comedy, none of the characters at any rate, for although Gillie is in love with Amaryllis, there precious little other affection to be found here. This was another example of how assembling a dream cast of seasoned pros did not necessarily guarantee a fine entertainment, as with Richard Matheson's script backing them up that cast tended towards the hammy to keep the mood up. Of course, with this lot that was no bad thing, as watching legends like Price, Lorre and Karloff, joined by Basil Rathbone too, let their hair down and behave badly was undeniably amusing.
It's just that even for a black comedy this was a meanspirited and heavyhanded affair, relying strongly on the charms of the stars but failing to back them up with much in the way of witty lines, though the situations were solid enough. Looking for all the world like a spoof of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe cycle, even featuring a premature burial as one of its chief storylines, this did share some of the main players in his creative team, but was actually directed by Jacques Tourneur who had wound up at A.I.P. where he would essentially be ending his career. Tourneur had a history of excellent horrors, but his comedy skills were rather more questionable.
So the atmosphere was morbid and macabre, but that didn't translate into big laughs no matter how much Price rolled is eyes and smacked his lips at the intentionally overripe dialogue - he was really doing a lot of the comedic heavy lifting here. The main gimmick to the narrative was a good one: the undertakers, seeing how bad business is, turn to murder to improve their lot, breaking into houses of the elderly (Gillie has a past as a burglar, but remains reluctant nevertheless) whereupon Waldo will smother them with a pillow and just happen to be passing when the body is discovered. This works out fine for the evildoers the first time we see them try it, but that success is not going to last.
This is down to the choice of their next victim, Rathbone's Black who is their landlord and demanding money from them - a lot of money that Waldo does not have. The solution? Well, he's getting on so why not bring about hs demise? The answer to that is not just because murder is immoral, but that it causes a massive headache for the undertakers for Black suffers from catalepsy, so when they think he's dead he really is not. Rathbone is the most fun here, spouting Shakespeare as he wields both sword and axe, driven loopy by his experience, but really everyone here puts a lot more energy into the movie than perhaps it deserved (or needed). Jameson has a running gag about her singing being positively ear-splitting, Karloff has an entertaining bit delivering the service and messing it up, Lorre is a convincing sad sack, and Price's Herculean efforts keep things afloat, but the trouble was that strain did show. So appreciate it for the cast: fans of these classic perfomers would enjoy it for their interplay. Music by Les Baxter.