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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

The Films of Richard Matheson, Part 2 of 4

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Matheson wrote another important comedy for AIP in 1964. It boasted, once again, a familiar cast, including Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone, who had played the mesmerist in the final segment of Tales of Terror. But this film wasn't directed by Roger Corman, or based on anything by Edgar Allen Poe. The Comedy of Terrors was an original Matheson script but very much in the spirit of his Poe adaptations. What separates it from the earlier films is a strong commitment to black comedy and the exuberant direction of Jacques Tourneur—who also directed the Matheson-penned Twilight Zone episode, "Night Call." The jokes are unusually dark for Richard Matheson, and Vincent Price as Waldo Trumbull forestalls our every sympathy. Joyce Jameson, who played Annabel in The Black Cat, returns as the cause of friction between Trumbull and Peter Lorre's character, Felix Gillie. But this time, in an ironic spin, she's married to Price's abominable character while attracted to Lorre's.

The setup is very neat. Trumbull has married Amaryllis only to sneak his way into the family business, which has come to be called the Hinchley and Trumbull Funeral Parlor. Business hasn't been so good lately, though, and when Mr. Black (Rathbone), the owner of the house occupied by Hinchley and Trumbull, comes calling for a year of back rent, it doesn't take Trumbull long to devise a plan for drumming up a little extra business in order to pay the man off. Like most criminal schemes, the idea of committing murder in order to bolster profits for the funeral home is logically sound but destined to fail in the long run. Trumbull's first effort actually succeeds in execution, but he is denied the anticipated remuneration when his victim's widow, Mrs. Phipps, steals off to Europe with all of her husband's money and belongings. She hasn't even bothered to pay out her servant's wages. Trumbull solemnly asks the sky, "Is there no morality left in the world?" It's one of many such humorous concoctions.

As a point of trivia, attention should also be called to an earlier line of Trumbull's. When interviewing Mrs. Phipps immediately after her husband's demise, Trumbull comments with nauseating artifice that there's something he likes to tell his customers, to reassure them: "When loved ones lie upon that lonely couch of everlasting sleep, let Hinchley and Trumbull draw the coverlet." Matheson must have really liked this line, because a variation of it can be found in two other places. In his 1955 short story "The Funeral," Morton Silkline, the cleverly named funeral director, says to his newest client, "When loved ones lie upon that lonely couch of everlasting sleep, let Clooney draw the coverlet." In 1970, Matheson adapted that story for Rod Serling's Night Gallery, and the line is delivered as, "When your loved ones lie upon that lonely couch of eternal sleep, let Silkline draw the coverlet."

Trumbull's plot thickens when he decides to kill two birds with one … pillow. It occurs to him that if he and Gillie go after Mr. Black himself, they will have solved their problem in one blow. After much bungling, they appear to have killed the man. The trouble is that Mr. Black suffers from catalepsy, which gives the outward signs of death, but the effects are only temporary. I don't recall seeing Rathbone in a more enthusiastic performance. [RM: They all loved working on the film.]

By the end of the film it's no surprise that we're in the hands of one of the three most prolific contributors to The Twilight Zone. For the surprising conclusion, Matheson dusts off Karloff's Hinchley character, who has been little more than a doddering prop up to this point. Even now it's his doddering that brings about the poetic justice of the final scene, but his actions elevate him to a level of prominence, even though he will likely remain forever in the dark.

Stepping back to the same year The Fall of the House of Usher was released, Matheson scripted a film that wasn't an obvious fit for that period of his work, except that it was released by AIP, starred Vincent Price, and was an adaptation of another grand master's work. In Master of the World, Matheson, under the direction of William Witney, takes on Jules Verne, and the result is one of the most overtly political movies of his career. Price plays Robur, a godlike man of childlike ideals who sees a clear path toward the eradication of war on planet Earth. With his flying ship made of compressed paper, Robur emerges from the so-called Great Eyrie, a tremendous volcano in the Pennsylvania of the film, with the intention of blasting out of existence all machinery of war and the nations that refuse to put an end to its use. The relevancy to our time is remarkable. We can believe in Robur's motivations, but his methods are untenable. The duality of his character is punctuated by the fact that he insists on dropping cautionary leaflets before bombs. But when warning has been given, Robur keeps his word, and the bombs begin to fall.

The film's spiral into hopelessness and hypocrisy is amplified by the predicament of a handful of captives that Robur has taken aboard his vessel, The Albatross, before the journey begins. Charles Bronson's character, John Strock, is one of the captives, and he ends up spearheading a plan to destroy Robur and his ship. The audience is urged to find an alternative if we can, but it becomes clear that Robur will, if necessary, destroy all of civilization in his quest for absolute peace. It's easy to think of Robur as a terrorist, insane and perhaps touched by evil, but Price never allows us to settle for the easy. Just when Robur's truculence appears utterly indefensible, he shades it with enough honest compassion to leave us almost in desperation for a clear message.

There isn't one to be had, really. But Master of the World does provide us with the means for critical reflection on Robur's fundamental philosophy of peace. The possibility that peace, if it is to remain unequivocal, must divorce itself entirely from violence, comprises the opposing viewpoint to Robur's mad vision, but it's largely implied. When Strock succeeds in destroying The Albatross, he owns some responsibility for the inevitable continuation of war throughout the world, just as Robur must admit complicity in the deaths of those who have refused to put down their weapons under his ultimatum. But unlike Strock, Robur accepts his responsibility and considers those who die by his hand to be acceptable casualties in an effort that strives to bring everlasting peace to the world. If Strock's actions against The Albatross and its crew could be construed as self-defense, we might see none of Robur in his personality, but Matheson makes sure that Strock and his friends are safely on the ground before the plan is brought to a head. Consequently, and despite their obvious differences, Strock and Robur are shown to possess an identical, seemingly altruistic predilection for world peace. Even their methods aren't so dissimilar in the end.

Also in the midst of Richard Matheson's screenwriting for Roger Corman came a very interesting collaboration of another sort, and one that would prove highly influential to the horror film genre. In 1962 Matheson joined forces with friend and fellow Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont to write the script for Burn, Witch, Burn, based on Fritz Leiber's novel, Conjure Wife. In a recent assessment of Robert McCammon's first novel in ten years, Speaks the Nightbird, Stephen King considered the work to be a cross between The Crucible and Burn, Witch, Burn. High praise for all three works, it seems to me. [RM: Maybe he meant the novel.]

Burn, Witch, Burn is the only feature film that Matheson and Beaumont worked on together, though they had already co-written a number of teleplays. The film, directed by Sidney Hayers, centers on a young married couple, Norman and Tansy Taylor. Norman is on track to becoming chair of the sociology department at the college where he teaches, and it soon becomes evident that the Taylors are the envy of some of their closest friends. At first they're so likeable that we take their side wholeheartedly. Norman seems to have worked very hard to gain his professional reputation. But we're knocked off center when we learn that his success may be the result of Tansy's witchcraft, which she's been practicing in secret ever since their return from a trip to Jamaica, where a witch doctor named Carubius demonstrated to Tansy's satisfaction the efficacy of the craft. Norman can't believe his eyes when he starts finding his wife's charms all over the house—which happens shortly after we see him at his typewriter working on a paper about neurosis. Belief in magic runs counter to every conviction his pragmatic mind has ever nurtured, and he has obviously assumed that Tansy felt the same way.

There's a lot to keep an eye out for in Burn, Witch, Burn. One of the first clues we get in this puzzle of a movie is a shot of a gargoyle atop one of the gateposts at the entrance to Hempnell Medical College. This is followed momentarily by a lengthy shot of an eagle statue perched above the entrance to one of the buildings. Something is definitely going on here, but for the time being we can only wonder what the eagle and the gargoyle might symbolize—or portend. We will see many more carefully composed views of the various eagles adorning the campus before the credits roll. Near the end, one of the eagles is given additional significance when it comes to life and attacks Norman (the special effects involved in this sequence are astonishing for the time), but it's only in the film's surprising final moments that we truly understand why so much has been made of the stationary birds. The gargoyle from the beginning, it appears, is only there to throw us off the scent.

There's also a lot of doubling going on in Burn, Witch, Burn. In an effort to teach his class that magic has been debunked by science, Norman writes the words "I do not believe" on the blackboard for his students' edification. These four words, he assures the class, are all that are needed to combat the allure of supernatural beliefs. This is how the story begins. Near the end, Norman ducks into this same classroom to get away from the gigantic eagle statue that has come alive and broken into the building to pursue him through the halls (or has it?). His words of encouragement are still visible on the blackboard behind him, and it seems a clever enough touch, bringing us full circle. But when he thinks he spots the eagle outside the window, Norman bumps into the chalkboard. The camera cuts away, and when we return to Norman, he's regained himself enough to go to the door and make sure the hallway is clear of its monster. As he crosses the room we see that the word not was completely rubbed out when he backed into the blackboard. It's through the pure grammar of cinematography that we get a clear idea of how recent events in Norman's life have affected his philosophical outlook. No dialogue, no voice-over. In truth, it's one of those moments when the art of film announces itself as an essentially visual medium.

Characters are also brilliantly doubled. Tansy isn't the only witch in town, for instance. Norman's colleague, Flora Carr, also dabbles. In fact, while Tansy has been consulting her talismans to secure a happy life for Norman and herself, Mrs. Carr has been laboring to conjure her rival's destruction. Carr at one point tries to bring about Norman's demise by stabbing a voodoo doll. Tansy becomes temporarily possessed by Carr's spirit in order to perform the actual stabbing. This, like the accidental erasure of the word not from the blackboard, is expressed without any reliance on exposition. While possessed, Tansy inherits Mrs. Carr's distinctive limp, which tells us all we need to know. Carubius is also doubled, but less significantly. When Norman averts a collision by ditching his car, one of the men who come to his aid has a Jamaican accent and wears an unusual pendant around his neck. It's a brief encounter, but it presents Norman with the certainty that coincidence is wearing thin as an explanation for the nightmare he's embroiled in.


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