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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe
If the previous decade of American horror films had anything in common it would be that they tended to be contemporary set, with some kind of science gone wrong at its heart. The post-WW2 era had seen and heard of enough real world nightmares that the old gothic horrors had lost their power.
That all changed when across the Atlantic, Hammer Film Productions sent shock waves throughout the cinema-going world with their vivid, full-colour updating of Universal staples Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy. Horror didn’t need to be modern anymore to pull a crowd and over in America, a struggling B-movie company were paying close attention.
Up until 1959, American International Pictures had only made cheap, black and white double-bill fodder, but in deciding to roll the dice with a relatively big-budget main feature, they would not only save their company, but kickstart a whole new era in American horror.
Looking to his own country’s gothic history for inspiration, director Roger Corman began what would become a hugely-successful eight-film series adapting the works of Edgar Allan Poe, seven of which would star Vincent Price, albeit one (The Haunted Palace) being a Poe adaptation in name only.
It all began here though and while screenwriter Richard Matheson takes more than a few liberties with the original text, The Fall Of The House Of Usher retains more than enough of the great man’s story themes to make for a glorious adaptation.
When Philip Winthrop (Damon) arrives at the secluded house of the Usher family in search of his fiancé Madeline (Fahey), he is met by her brother Roderick (Price), who informs him in no uncertain terms he must leave without her.
Roderick explains that his family are cursed and a malady runs through their bloodline that affects them both physically and mentally. His senses are so finely attuned that the slightest loud noise causes him pain, as does even the softest of materials on his skin. Even food of any mild flavour is too much for him.
Worse, madness runs in their family and he can see no future but tragedy for either himself or his sister, so pleads with the young man to forget her and go back to his own life alone.
Philip will hear none of it though and insists on staying until he take Madeline away from the house, despite her illness.
There is even more going on in the house of Usher than it initially appears though as the sickness that blights both the land and family bloodline runs deep…
While Fall of the House of Usher is most definitely a horror film, for a large part of its runtime, it’s more of a dark family melodrama with spooky trappings. It’s also an absolutely riveting piece of cinema.
Right from the off, we are left in no doubt that the titular house itself is as much of a character in the story as any of the people who inhabit it. It’s a foreboding place, swathed in dense mist, with even its entrance covered in dust and cobwebs. This is a place that doesn’t get much in the way of visitors and by the looks of it, not much traffic the other way either. One thing is for sure though, nothing good can come from here.
One we see the decay of the once-grand mansion inside, it’s even more apparent that things are not right. It’s a sprawling, sumptuously-realised affair, but it, like the family who have held it for generations, is in terminal decline.
And what a family it is.
As the last living male and head of the house, Roderick Usher is a wonderfully complex character. His measured, almost-whispered tones give the impression of a barely-repressed cauldron of…not rage, but something. There’s anger in there, as we first see in his reaction to Philip bring initially allowed in his house, but they’re a great sadness to him too. He’s a man trapped by history, by genetics and by fate itself. Worse, he doesn’t just feel he and his sister Madeline are doomed, he knows they are and knows it to be inescapable.
That relationship with his sister is equally complex. Despite her accusations of him hating her, he clearly loves her. To what extent though? That’s the real question here, as there is more than a whiff of incest about his attitude towards her. Maybe it’s the decay of the house adding to it, but it’s a transgression that wouldn’t feel out of place in that grim setting.
It goes without saying that Vincent Price is absolutely magnificent here, but Roderick Usher is one of his finest roles. That layered, gentlemanly but borderline unhinged tips of character absolutely plays to his strengths as an actor. He’s ostensibly the villain of the piece, but he’s a tragic character all the same and in less capable hands, Roderick Usher would be so much more one-dimensional.
Madeline on the other hand, is much more of a straight up victim, at least until the closing scenes. She’s had a life away from the house clearly, where she met and fell in love with Philip, but the Usher curse has dragged her back and she is now a shadow of her former self. She’s wasting away and barely capable of being out of her bed for more than a few minutes at a time and it’s hard to imagine any good future for her.
Watching both Roderick and Philip argue over what is best for her (answer: staying with them), while treating her like a fragile doll is hard to watch. Yes, she’s sick and weak, but both men in her life have completely removed any agency she might have and that is the real tragedy here.
As for Philip, well he is the hero to an extent. He’s handsome, determined and clearly adores his fiancé, but he’s in a world he doesn’t understand. Yes, the music might swell up in a grand romantic crescendo when he’s alone with Madeline, but Corman and Matheson go out their way to alienate him from his surroundings at all times.
Roderick, dressed always in deep reds and warm colours not only perfectly matches, but almost is absorbed into the similar reds, oranges and browns of his house, while Philip in his different tones of blue couldn’t look more jarring. He doesn’t belong there and as Roderick tells him, the house is “not a healthy place for you to be”.
It’s the house and its history that really brings the horror to this family though. Disturbing portraits of their ancestors hang on the walls, illustrating their long history of tragedy and corruption.
Describing the blight on the land that led to the “plague of evil” that has cursed the house ever since, Roderick describes a history of savage degradation, with a succession of thieves, usurers, merchants of flesh, slave traders and mass murderers. Must the sins of father be visited on the son? Roderick certainly thinks so and Madeline is at least half-way convinced too.
The Ushers are sick, but they expect to be and in accepting what they see as their fate, they hasten it along too.
When the house finally falls, it falls both physically and metaphorically, with the crumbling of Madeline’s fragile psyche triggering a catastrophic chain of events that Corman drains every ounce of drama out of. The melodrama that has characterised most of the film is abandoned for lurid, intense horror, but it doesn’t feel tacked on. Instead it is just the inevitable conclusion to the tale we have been watching, one that we have saw being slowly crept towards, the tension and sense of dread rising with each scene.
The house falls, but so does the family. It was always falling, we just see the end.
Roger Corman made the perfect start to his Poe cycle with The Fall Of The House Of Usher. There would be even better entries in the series to come, but this is up there with the finest.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy