The Fall of the House of Usher

This is the one that started it all, o long as you consider “it all” to be the first cycle of films based, usually very loosely, on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and directed by low-budget legend Roger Corman for American International Pictures (AIP). Prior to this film, Corman  made a name for himself by slapping together competent drive-in quickies, on time and under budget. Wielding past success, Corman asked AIP to show him a little more trust, give him a little more time, a little more money, and for the first time, some color film stock. Eventually, AIP relented, influenced no doubt by the international success of a film company with which they would go on to have a long relationship and more than a few similarities. England’s Hammer made a name for themselves with low budget, wonderfully acted, gorgeously designed horror films dripping with atmosphere and literary tradition.They were huge hits, and Corman thought that AIP could pull off the same trick.

Just as Hammer launched their horror films using Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley as source material, Corman would turn to America’s greatest writer of weird fiction: Edgar Allan Poe. For this initial venturing forth into the murky waters of Poe’s imagination, Corman chose The Fall of the House of Usher and stuck fairly closely to the original story – at least relative to how far afield he would soon be going. By the time Gordon Hessler inherited the role of house Poe director from Corman, the movies were Poe adaptations in title alone.

We meet young Philip Winthrop, played by genre film regular Mark Damon (Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath), not to be confused with Mark Harmon (Summer School, not directed by Mario Bava), a Boston gentleman who is paying a visit to his most beloved Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who has herself returned from Boston to her ancestral home in Nightmaresville, USA, or some other similar New England locale. Philip’s plan to arrive at the creepy old manor and sweep Madeline off her feet into the welcome arms of marriage is stymied by Madeline’s elder brother, Roderick, played with delicious menace and sympathy by Vincent Price, who also sports a head full of blond hair. But the shocks don’t end with the locks.

Roderick is convinced that his sister is possessed of that ol’ Usher madness that has caused so many of the ancestors to go on to lucrative careers as swindlers, murderers, rapists, adulterers, slavers, and any number of other unsavory profitable pursuits. For that matter, Roderick Usher is himself something of an eccentric. He has hypersensitive eyesight and hearing, can only bear the touch of the softest materials, and plays the lute on a regular basis. So basically, he’s a 21st century indy music guy. He’s also committed to eradicating the evil curse of the Usher family by seeing that neither he nor his sister get a chance to have children. Roderick considers this the least he can do to atone for the suffering the Ushers have inflicted on the world.

Philip thinks the guy is a lute-playing loon, especially when Roderick begins speaking of how the very house itself has absorbed the madness and become a living creature of pure evil. From time to time, the house does seem to exert a certain will, hurling about bits of flaming charcoal and letting drop the occasional big, gaudy chandelier as the stonework of the house cracks and threatens to collapse. When Madeline seems to die of heart failure, Philip discovers that Roderick’s determination to keep her cloistered in the house can take on sinister proportions.

The Fall of the House of Usher represents so many things to the genre of horror. For starters, it is the beginning of both Roger Corman and Vincent Price being taken with greaterseriousness than anyone had ever invested in them before. People in the industry knew that Corman could be depended on to do a job and do it competently. Find fault with the man and his body of work where you will, but what Corman was able to do is nothing short of a cinematic miracle at times, given what he was to work with. With budgets far smaller than average and shooting schedules that would make even the sturdiest director weep, Corman managed to make movies. Not great movies most of the time, but entertaining ones that delivered the goods. Corman also had a wonderful eye for selecting and fostering new talent, which is why the list of his assistants and actors includes the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich.

So all this was known about Roger Corman. By 1960, however, he was growing weary of the black and white quickies and wanted to do something a little more complex. So he pitched AIP the idea for House of Usher. Afforded a whole five more days than usual to shoot the film, plus a chance to work in color and scope, Corman proved that he wasn’t just a reliable workman director; when given the chance, he was also a reliable artistic director. It brought newfound respect to AIP in general and Corman in particular, who needed a does of respectability after directing films like The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Journey to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.

Likewise, Vincent Price was recognized as a horror movie stalwart with known value, but few people had ever really taken him seriously as an actor even as they saluted his ability to make even the worst material enjoyable. In particular, his role in 1944’s Laura was proof of the untapped dramatic ability in the man, but for all his power in that role, short-term memory meant he was primarily known as the hammy millionaire dancing around with his impossibly complex skeleton marionettes in House on Haunted Hill. But Roger Corman believed that there was more to Price, and so cast him as the brooding, tortured, and possibly insane Roderick Usher. Price turns in a spectacular, moving performance as the melancholy heir to the Usher curse. The script, by Richard Matheson, doesn’t allow Roderick to become the easy-to-hate hand-wringing villain of the piece. Though we’re appalled at some of the things he does, Price invests in the character an air of intelligence and sensitivity that makes him difficult to despise even when he’s going about the business of entombing people while they’re still alive. It’s obvious that, mad or not, he sincerely believes that the purpose of his life is to end the Usher curse, and Price’s agonized performance make him less of a villain than he is a fallen hero.

Matheson was fresh from writing for The Twilight Zone and went on to pen three more of Corman’s Poe adaptations: 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum, 1962’s Tales of Terror, and the comedic send-up, The Raven, in 1963. In addition, he wrote the script for another Gothic black comedy with Vincent Price, 1964’s Comedy of Terrors; and wrote the novel I Am Legend which served as the basis for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price. He’d later go on to provide another AIP/Hammer link by writing the script for one of Hammer’s very best films, 1968’s The Devil Rides Out. Hammer also had plans to film their own version of Matheson’s I Am Legend, a tantalizing project which, unfortunately, never came to pass.

His script here is, like just about all the AIP Poe films, heavy on dialog, which means in order to keep moving forward the film has to be equally heavy on atmosphere and strong performances. The opening shot – the only exterior location in the entire film – is of Philip riding through a mist-choked dead forest. Roger Corman had heard about a fire in the Hollywood Hills and sent a film crew up there to shoot the scene. The result is an oppressive eeriness, really one of the finest moments of atmosphere in any Gothic horror film as our hero is dwarfed amid this haunting landscape of skeletal trees, mist, and barren, lifeless earth with the menacing gray-black hulk of the house looming above it all. It sets the tone perfectly for the film, and Corman maintains this hypnotic sense of decay and something just beyond the shadows. The film becomes such a mood piece, such a visual banquet, that one scarcely notices that there’s precious little action and a lot of talking.

Corman’s philosophy for the Poe films was that they shouldn’t necessarily reflect the familiar or the real world, that Poe was a psychological writer and so any films based on his work would have to inhabit a different world from the one we see everyday. Thus the limited number of exteriors and locations. Apart from the initial scene, the entirety of The House of Usher takes place within the house. The scope photography creates an odd sensation of wide-open claustrophobia, if that makes any sense at all. Corman said in an interview that he didn’t really think it was worth shooting in scope for a film set almost entirely indoors. What was the point? Well, it works out for the best. The house, which the script turns into a character, becomes this sprawling beast, immense and overshadowing and threatening to swallow up the human characters lost in its decaying opulence. Crosby’s cinematography meshes perfectly with the production design by Daniel Haller, which follows in Hammer’s footsteps by draping every inch of the set with gorgeous, vibrantly colored props. It all has an aged, lived-in appearance, which not only makes things more believable but also works in thematically with the notion that this is a house and a family whose existence, sanity, and very foundations are crumbling.

When the scares do come, they’re usually quick and melodramatic. A startling entrance, a sudden death, the collapsing of a railing. The film draws its frightfulness not so much from the shock as it does from the overarching sense of dread that permeates every corner of the house. Whether there is some evil force lurking within its walls, or whether that evil force is simply Roderick’s madness or substandard contracting, is inconsequential. Corman makes sure you can feel that something is out there. That isn’t to say, however, that the film is not without its shocks. Madeline’s entombment is particularly harrowing, as is the finale in which she and her brother struggle to come to grips with the madness that engulfs them as the entire house catches fire and rumbles thunderously to the boggy ground. The score by AIP’s resident composer and exotica pioneer, Les Baxter, further enhances the mood with its creepy blend of orchestral bombast, haunting soft spots, and occasional use of “the tortured howls of the damned.”

Exactly what is going on in the house is never fully explained. We’re certainly led to think that Roderick might be right, that there is some malevolent supernatural force at work. But we’re just as likely to believe that he’s simply insane. Kindly at times, intelligent, and caring, but thoroughly mad to the point of committing unspeakable atrocities against himself and his sister to keep the Usher name from venturing forth to commit even greater atrocities against mankind. While Corman’s Poe films are, production-wise, on par with Hammer’s, the one thing that makes them different is that Hammer had a policy that stated no matter what sort of devilry took place in the film, good had to obviously triumph over evil by the end credits. The Poe films were never so forgiving to the forces of good, and often the “winner” is unclear, if indeed there is any winner at all. Subverting expectations was the fact that evil or madness was just as likely to conquer all as was good; perhaps even more so.

With the mood of the film established, the rest of the weight of such a dialog-heavy film falls on the cast. It’s a small cast, which undoubtedly allowed Corman to move fast and cheap while maintaining a high standard. Aside from a dream sequence in which some infamous Usher ancestors menace Philip, there are only four humans in the film: Philip, Roderick, Madeline, and the butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Myrna Fahey’s Madeline spends much of her time doing what the women in these films so often do, which is hugging the hero and collapsing on the bed. Her big scene doesn’t come until the very end when the Usher madness begins to run rampant through the house. And when given the chance to go all out, she’s terrifying. Most of the film’s lines come from Price and Damon. Since Damon is the hero of the film, that means he is more boring than Price and confined mostly to exclaiming “Good God, man! You can’t be serious!” and “Good God, man! Are you mad?” before he finally gets to stagger around a burning set in the end. He’s as serviceable a hero as any Gothic horror film hero who isn’t played by Peter Cushing. Damon just can’t stack up next to Price, but that’s not really a fair comparison since Price is really turning in one of the most elegant, emotional and non-hammy performances in his career.

Our remaining supporting character is Bristol the butler, a man who seems much saner than Roderick but also seems to believe the same things as his more flamboyantly mad employer. Bristol’s character, like all the Ushers, is cloaked in mystery. He’s only partially explored, and his more tempered belief in the Usher curse and in the sentient evil of the house helps us understand and have more compassion for Roderick. All of the characters deliver Matheson’s eloquent, perhaps overwrought at times, Victorian purple prose, and everyone takes yet another page from the book of Hammer by checking any sense of tongue-in-cheek camp at the door. Price, in particular, has some “creature of unspeakable horror” type of gloom and doom dialog that might have undone the whole film if it had been delivered with any hint of irony or anything but the greatest sense of sincerity and gravity. No matter how outrageous the claims may be, no matter how melodramatic the language, you never once fail to believe it. Price makes you believe it. It’s easy to see how, if indeed the supernatural force is just a figment of his twisted imagination, he could have convinced his sister and butler to believe in it as fervently as he does.

House of Usher was a hit, and critics and fans alike suddenly had to reassess the way they thought about Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and AIP. It is a grand accomplishment of American horror, full of imagination and wit and ambiance. It certainly convinced AIP to invest more time and money (relatively speaking) in Roger Corman, resulting in several more Gothic horror films drawing from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. All of Corman’s Poe films are good, and a few are, quite frankly, absolutely brilliant. Masque of the Red Death and Haunted Palace run neck and neck with The Pit and the Pendulum, and together the three represent the paramount of American Gothic horror, not to mention showing how elegant and sumptuous a film can look even with a meager budget and blink-of-an-eye shooting schedule. House of Usher is just a tiny bit behind them, along with Corman’s final Poe film with Price and AIP, The Tomb of Ligeia. For anyone who appreciates the history of horror, House of Usher is a treat. It creaks and creeps with menace and is crawling with angst and doom. It is a poetic, delicately crafted masterpiece of the macabre that fuels itself with atmosphere and an inspired performance from Vincent Price. Reality fades away completely as the movie pulls you in the way the plot pulls the characters into the downward spiral of insanity.

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