Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Fall of the House of Usher

1960
Dir. Roger Corman

When she returns to her family home after their engagement, Madeline Usher is visited by her fiancĂ©e Philip Winthorpe, who wants her to return to Boston with him. Her brother, the severely depressed Roderick opposes this suggestion with every inch of his brittle body. Philip discovers that the Usher lineage has been afflicted by an all consuming malady and that the siblings, the last of the Ushers, believe they are cursed to descend into insanity like their ancestors did before them. A series of morbid incidents unfold over the coming days as events seem set to reach a horrific climax bringing an end to the Usher bloodline, once and for all…

It suddenly occured to me, as such things usually do, that it’s been several months since I last watched anything featuring Vincent Price. Disgraceful. So, after I severely reprimanded myself, I poured a glass of Russell’s Cellar’s finest cheap red and settled down to watch Roger Corman’s first Poe adaptation, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Setting the standard for all his other Poe adaptations, Corman weaves a delightfully morose tapestry of gloomy sets, swirling dry ice and matte-painting back-drops that were no doubt used in many of his other shoe-string budget productions. Influenced by the likes of Mario Bava's Black Sunday and much of Hammer's output at the time, Corman's Poe films pertain to literature and high-art, whilst still providing the requisite chills and spills you'd expect from such a highly regarded and prolific schlock-meister. The opening images depicting Philip (Mark Damon) as he makes his way to the Usher’s house through twisted fairytale trees, wizened foliage and a grotesquely parched landscape, set a prescient that will continue to float wraith-like throughout the rest of the film, wrapping everything in a dank and unshakable melancholy. Corman actually filmed the opening scene after a brush fire in the Hollywood hills had been extinguished; the charred and still smouldering earth instantly evokes a mood of desolation and despair. The house itself when we see it, is oppressive and dark, steeped in a faded grandeur of long past decadence.

Price is as striking and resplendent as you’d expect. His portrayal of Roderick Usher went some way to map out similar mentally tortured and anguished individuals the actor would portray in Corman’s Poe cycle; from Nicolas Medina in Pit and the Pendulum to Verden Fell in The Tomb of Ligeia. These are but a few of the roles that Price will forever be remembered for – tragic, morose and utterly doomed men who are as much a danger to themselves as they are to others. We soon learn that he has ‘an affliction of the hearing’ and that sounds of any exaggerated degree cut into his brain like knives. You can imagine then, what histrionics will ensue when his dear sister is buried alive and her petrified screams rip through the house from the family vault below, as she helplessly pounds and scratches on the inside of her sealed coffin lid…



The film is rounded out by a small but solid cast. Mark Damon is dashing as Philip Winthorpe, suitor to Roderick’s sister Madeline. As Madeline, Myrna Fahey gives a quietly assured performance – her character, while she still has it in her, delicately fights against the encroaching madness of her brother and insists that they must forget the past and get on with living their frail lives. These siblings are THE original Goth-kids – lazing around out of the sun, overly preoccupied with morbid thoughts of death and despair. In the second half of the film, when she has become utterly deranged from the experience of her premature burial, Madeline skulks crazily through the house like a creature possessed: all wide-eyed and screeching profanities.

The only other character is Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), a faithful manservant to the Ushers and has been at the family’s beck and call for generations. Bristol’s character, or rather the function of his character (to gradually shed more light on the dark secrets of the family he works for) reappears throughout Corman’s other Poe films in the form of Kenrick in The Tomb of Ligeia, Bartolome in Pit and the Pendulum and, whilst not part of Corman’s Poe cycle, though it was certainly cut from the same cloth – The Terror’s Stefan. Each of these faithful servants is condemned to die because of their unyielding loyalty to the various unconventional family-units they serve. Some thanks for a lifetime of servitude, eh?

Much talk of the physical decay, rotting psyches, ill health and malignant obsession that has plagued the family for generations peppers the script. The screenplay by Richard Matheson richly enhances and indeed fills out the short story it’s based upon, without ever feeling like desperate attempts were made to pad it out to feature length. The language he uses feels appropriately ornate and formal.




The concepts of decay and moral desolation within the family bleed out into the very building that provides them with a home; the house seems steeped in the same gloominess that shrouds their family history and is rotten to the core. As the story progresses the house becomes more and more unstable, with various parts of it disintegrating and crumbling away into the dank moat that surrounds it, wonderfully showcasing the instability and rapidly fracturing mindsets of the Usher’s themselves. Roderick and Madeline are the last in a line of tainted individuals bearing the Usher name. Heavily reclining in a state of perpetual and stifling melancholy, they are a fragile and brittle pair and despite Philip’s best efforts – they are ultimately doomed.

Giving Philip a tour of the house (and Corman the opportunity to fully utilise and show off his exquisite production design courtesy of Daniel Haller) Roderick shows him a room full of portraits of the motley Usher clan. ‘The history of the Usher’s’ rasps Roderick, ‘Is a history of savage degradation.’ The sordid and fiendish family portraits are a revelation and Corman commissioned painter Burt Shonberg to provide the lurid depictions of past Usher family members in all their morose glory.



This scene also features a debate between Philip and Roderick that wouldn’t be out of place in any Poe story – the subscription to the belief that the sins of the parents and of the past hang over and dictate the lives of the children. This idea that individuals can never escape their past, or indeed their gloomy destiny, is typical of Poe and further entrenches the film in a mood of hopelessness and despair. It’s enough to drive anyone to drink. Hic.

As with the bulk of Corman’s Poe films, The Fall of the House of Usher is largely made up of scenes in which the ‘outsider’ protagonist wanders around vast and imposing sets, furnished lavishly with heavy drapes and chaise-lounges, usually in the middle of the night, candelabrum in hand, investigating strange noises or half-glimpsed shadows. The look of the film belies its low budget and hasty shooting schedule and is testament to Corman’s flair and ability to wring the most out of his limited resources to tell a compelling story in a stylish way.

Aside from all the highly evocative dialogue trimmings waxing lyrical about death and melancholia, the film also contains a couple of highly unsettling scenes, such as the nasty shock in the crypt when Madeline shows Philip her coffin (what a tease) and her mother’s body comes tumbling out of the dark for a impromptu reunion from beyond the grave. Another distressing scene unfolds as Roderick and Philip are mourning the ‘death’ of Madeline in the family chapel. Her open coffin is positioned at the forefront of the shot as the two men sit on the pews behind it. Madeline, clearing suffering from some form of catalepsy, begins to move her fingers. On noticing this, Roderick stands and closes the lid of the coffin, instantly sealing the doom of his family forever.

As in Pit and the Pendulum and Masque of the Red Death, The Fall of the House of Usher features a tripped-out dream sequence where Philip is accosted by Roderick when he tries to free Madeline from her premature internment, and boasts all manner of disturbing imagery unfurling beneath garish colour filters and dry ice.

A highly atmospheric and Gothic melodrama that Poe himself would be proud of. Beneath the gloomy opulence and resplendent foreboding, lurks a nasty subtext including incest and hereditary insanity. This film kicked off Corman’s love affair with Poe adaptations and is certainly one of the best of these.

A severely melancholic Vincent Price, catalepsy, creepy mansions, enough dry ice to chill a nice Sauvignon Blanc and premature burials. What’s not to love?

3 comments:

Carl (ILHM) said...

I have Tales of Terror and Twice Told Tales left in my Price box set, which (if memory serves) are also Poe adaptations by Corman, but I will have to add this one to the list! Thanks for the review!

Matthew Coniam said...

Great post. Love those creepy paintings! Seem to remember there were some similar ones in Pit and the Pendulum too. In fact, the two films are pretty similar all through, as I recall. I got them both as a birthday present (my 16th, I think) and watched them back to back. I think Pendulum just slightly overshadows Usher; slightly more confident, has the pendulum itself, and of course that amazing final shot of Barbara Steele's eyes.

James said...

Carl: Thanks for stopping by! Yes, House of Usher is well worth checking out - particularly if you liked the other Corman/Poe films. It sort of set the trend and is another opportunity to see Mr Price do what he does best. Which I'm sure you'll agree, is always good :)

Matthew: The creepy paintings are pretty special, aren't they? If memory serves me correctly there are indeed similar paintings in Pit and the Pendulum - which is probably my favourite out of the Corman/Poe collection. What a final shot indeed! I also love the opening scenes as John Kerr makes his way along the desolate coast towards the imposing castle... Brrrr. And that opening music! Double brrrrr. Thanks for stopping by - always good to hear from you. :)