The Fall of the House of Usher - A Look Back

Curses. Insanity. Cobwebbed crypts. Misty moors.

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Article

The Fall of the House of Usher - A Look Back
SRP: £19.99
One of the most celebrated, visually sensual and alluringly doom-laden series of horror films came courtesy of Roger Corman’s outstanding love affair with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. A fan of these dark tales of dementia, jealousy and death since a child, he longed to be able to bring them to the screen and to project their dark magic upon audiences who had become saturated with atomic-mutated insects and brain-sucking saucer-men. After a slew of low-budget quickies that appealed to the Drive-in teen market he appealed to AIP that if he was awarded double the funds, he could create one sumptuous gothic horror film in colour and in widescreen and provide audiences with the sort of the jolt that had very recently been proved valid, potent and, most importantly, profitable for Hammer Films, who had singlehandedly brought such lavish and literary adaptations to gaudy, gory acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic.

He reminded them that America had its own legacy of critically lauded literary giants – Lovecraft and Poe – whose names were synonymous with unspeakable horror and dread, even if their actual stories were not that well known amongst the usual crowd of silver-screen thrill-seekers. With a fifteen-day shoot and a budget of $27,000, a highly reputable and bankable screenwriter in Richard Matheson, whose novels I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man were unparalleled masterpieces, and a slew of film and TV scripts to his name, he assured the studio that he could deliver something to rival the redolent and provocative titles from Hammer.

But the coup de grace was the procuring of an established and highly sophisticated actor to play the tortured lead role. The soon-to-be-legendary Vincent Price.

Well, with such a loaded deck, the gamble paid off, and AIP put Corman to work on The Fall of the House of Usher, or simply The House of Usher as it was known in the States.

Expanding upon Poe’s original, the film centres around the estranged and reclusive last male member of the decadent and debauched Usher Family, Roderick (Price) who believes that his bloodline is cursed with madness and infected with evil. Eking-out a fragile existence in a vast baronial hall, he reluctantly admits the dashing young Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who has ridden all the way from Boston to claim Roderick’s younger sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey) as his bride. The two had met in the thriving new city and fallen in love. But once in the oppressive confines of the House of Usher, he finds that Madeline has succumbed to the bleak fears and woes of her brother’s apparent madness. Roderick cannot allow their family to continue, pointing out the portraits of various descendants whose wickedness and foul ways corrupted the land and spurred on the hex that smothers the remaining Ushers. Yet, even as he struggles to convince Madeline to come away with him and leave this insanity far behind, it seems as though the very house, itself, is determined to be rid of him.

When Madeline appears to give in to the clammy grasp of death and is carried down to the family crypt, Philip becomes convinced that Roderick has actually had her buried alive … and he desperately seeks to save her from her terrible fate and end this madness once and for all.
Curses. Insanity. Cobwebbed crypts. Misty moors. Hallucinatory dreams in which the dead walk.
And even a barnstorming and fiery finale. The Fall of the House of Usher has it all … in big gothic spades. Part MGM historical romantic drama and part psychological thriller, the film is an epic tryst of feverish mood and blood-chilling intensity.

Despite some occasional refutation, Corman was obviously inspired and influenced by the Gothic splendor of Hammer’s groundbreakers The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Their period dressings, dramatic narratives and graphic illustrations of the grandest of Grand Guignol couldn’t fail to ignite a spark in sensation-seeking audiences and filmmakers itching to venture down paths new and outrageous. But whilst Hammer sought to show their horrors up front and unflinching, American studios were still stymied in the glowering mists of yesteryear. They had found success especially within their intense love affair with swooning cinematic romances that often eddied around dark psychological undertones. There had been Rebecca and Spellbound from Hitchcock, and Price, himself, had starred in the tragedian romance of Dragonwyck – all films that centred around doomed love and mental disintegration, and contained possible, though never properly fulfilled supernatural aspects. So whilst Hammer opulently created stories in the same milieu, they eschewed the romance in favour of outright horror and terror. Corman’s own fascination with Poe had been with him since a child, and the dark fears that his tales invoked were commodities that he longed to bring to the screen. And, ever with one eye on the commercial aspect and the other on the innovative, he saw ample opportunity to embrace Hammer’s lavish visual style with the deep and unsettling undertow of the tortured psyche – something that was an essential part of the American culture, his nation having built an arrogant society upon the ashes of the Native Indians and the bones of their own brothers during the Civil War. They were a troubled race, and one that hid its collective guilt in machismo, derrring-do and full-blooded self-grandeur. Thus, their films – War, Western, Gangster – tended to be brazen and cocksure and a celebration both of self-reliance and selfless dedication to duty.

All this hid a stricken conscience.

And buried loathing crept to the surface through cracks and fissures, not unlike the widening chasm in the wall of the Usher House, itself, to become manifest in all manner of ghostly threats that had to be defeated. In populist terms, these would tend to be alien monsters or leviathan prehistoric awakenings, vampires and werewolves, reds-under-the-bed and redneck maniacs. All sorts of subtext can be applied to these genre waves that came crashing over picture houses, Drive-ins and then television sets. Most of the metaphor is overt and easy to disseminate. But the cleverest and the most insidious is that of the romantic melodrama, the gothic collapse of etiquette and pride, and the deep-rooted assailing of the ghosts of the past.
The sins of the fathers …
The perceived madness and melancholia that afflicts and consumes the remnants of the Usher Family has been dyed-in-the-wool, as it were. Roderick sees the effects of the clan’s curse everywhere he looks, with everything he hears and touches, a pure epitome of his hyper-alert senses. Just how much of this is entirely psychosomatic is debatable, but he is irrevocably trapped by his ancestors as all-consumingly as if he were enmeshed in a giant spider’s web of their own umbilical weaving. His power of melancholy suggestion is strong enough to infect his own sister, and their servant, too. Yet, it is clear that Madeline was indeed able to escape this black poison of the mind during her stay in Boston, where we are told she was the life of the party, full of gaiety and laughter, so it is certainly the influence of the house, propagated and given sustenance by Roderick that has the power to reduce her back into a crumbling, catatonic ruin, and easily bent to his cataclysmic whim.

It is all a little too trite, of course. But this is the key to the film’s lasting resonance and haunting ectoplasmic residue. Poe’s writings were rife with paranoia and emotional pain. His own bleeding, mixed-up senses stained the pages of his brutalized and terrified tales, his characters, so bleached of life and courage, couldn’t hope but succumb to the malaise that their creator struck them down with. He has trapped them within his own mind … and from that the only escape lay in death. And in some cases, even that would not be enough to allow them final solace.

Corman loved all this. The redolence, the atmosphere of slow-sleeping dread, the sense that everything is preordained and inescapable. He loved the idea of the interloper stepping brazenly over the threshold of these cold, dark and haunted enclaves and stupidly, blithely assuming that he could alter such arcane and ridiculous mental regimes. This was perfect fodder for appeasing the youth market who had flocked for his racing movies, monster rampages and cheapo womens’ prison sagas. The kids needed to see one of their own going up against a rigid familial establishment – going for the girl, no matter what. The conceit was that he wasn’t necessarily going to win, and that he, too would be reduced to a whimpering wreck, Corman duping the very crowd he was attempting to entice into the theatres.

For Corman, the mood of the story was the integral essence. The heartbeat. Hammer needed cleavages and bodily desecration, severed heads and dripping fangs. They needed deaths and pell-mell chases through the woods. Kensington Gore had to splash the screen at regular intervals. Corman had no desire to emulate that … at least … not just yet. As a producer later in his career he would have no such qualms about spraying the claret and exposing the flesh, but whilst he was pulling the strings on these literary adaptations he wanted to maintain his atmosphere of brooding angst over any showcase of explicit bloodletting. But there is no doubt that his Poe pictures can stand shoulder to shoulder with their bloodier Hammer cousins in sheer mood, menace and the embodiment of the damnedest uncanny.

The Fall of the House of Usher
is a magnificent first step in Corman’s exploration of Poe’s highly personalized depiction of the miasma of the broken mind. Sensational baronial sets really transport you to another time and place, a realm completely removed from anything that even remotely resembles a colonial corner of the United States. This could be anywhere in the void – a nightmare landmark on a side-road to oblivion. It is a dark, lonely and clearly avoided tract of pestilence and despair, and drained of life, colour and humanity. We only have one external shot of Philip riding through the scorched and barren woods towards the House of Usher – actually a fortuitous fire had blighted the woods in the Hollywood hills and Corman, always quick to turn calamity into fortune, used their bereft and spidery forms to depict the corruption of the environment that the family’s influence has wrought about.

Impressive matte-paintings position the mansion like a dying beetle, beset with mist and choked with an unhealthy lack of sunlight. No matter how fatigued, hungry and lost a traveler may be, he’d think twice about knocking upon this door for sustenance or direction.

The widescreen photography from Floyd Crosby elongates the sets, stretches the halls and the corridors and allows panning shots to give the impression of dizzying width. The sets weren’t actually anywhere near as large as they seem, but the cinematography literally breathes light and life into them – ironic considering that this is a place suffocated with death and fatalism, closing over its occupants like a coffin-lid. Crosby had worked with F.W. Murnau, establishing light and shadow in black and white classics, and then discovered how to perfect ripe and often over-the-top colour to create further imaginative intricacies to trick and arouse the senses. It is fair to assume that he studied Jack Asher’s incredible use of colour and composition for Hammer, but he definitely brings a sumptuous zeal to Corman’s baroque world, with abrupt and startling whip-pans – the sudden appearance of Roderick during the lovers’ canoodling being a marvelous example – and fluid camera movements that follow characters around the ornate and fully dimensional sets that production designer Daniel Haller created. Hammer, Bava and Corman were the dark princes of the cinematic gothique.
Those within these haunted walls.
Vincent Price was already known as something of a horror star, thanks to his work with gimmick-maestro William Castle, the great House of Wax and obviously Dragonwyck – a nominal horror film, but one that is suitably gothic and ominously laced with dark insinuation – but he still had some way to go before he would become one of the genre’s outright titans. His tenure with Roger Corman would be essential in cementing that position, and his role as Roderick Usher its foundation stone. He is not a villain in the story, though, and this is both the common misconception that audiences have and the ace up the film’s nebulous sleeve. He does some untoward things, yes, but he is acting out of a fear-glazed and accursed mindset that renders his volition in the more desperate deeds a little more sympathetic. Well, almost. He brilliantly conveys all the morbid morosity of a soul addled by fate, and his intense revulsion whenever touched or shouted at is profoundly effective. But his worried, nervous wariness when he spots his supposedly dead sister’s fingers moving is a fine display of suddenly pricked conscience and inflamed guilt. Price’s face is a movie unto itself. He would ham things up considerably in the years to come, although this would tend to be a celebration of the perpetually agitated conditions his characters would find themselves in. In these Poe films, he was quite, quite masterful. Never an aristocratic threat like Christopher Lee, even when he was playing a good guy, and never the versatile saint or sinner that Peter Cushing could assume. Price was something else entirely. Only as Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General was he to play an out-and-out evildoer. His other “monsters” – Dr. Phibes, Lionheart etc – were wronged artistes driven to acts of revenge when something cherished was robbed from them.

So this is perhaps the role that leached into his DNA and helped to construct the soul-leached, yet eloquent personality of desecrated nobility that would become his stock-in-trade.

So, as Usher, Price is magnificent. Bleached hair, harried expression, gaunt yet regal frame – he could well be a younger version of the lonely Count Dracula, trapped in his regal folly with only his demented memories for companionship. His twisted devotion to his sister and the family name both the driving force that keeps him sucking the musty air of a collapsed and desiccated dynasty and the very venom that is driving toward his own unavoidable date with destiny.

Some flack heads off towards the supporting cast, which, to be fair, is only to be expected. When compared to the supporting members of the Hammer Films or even the older Universal classics, they certainly come up wanting. Though, to be fair to them, there is only so much that they can bring to this overwrought banquet of misery, bleakness and self-perpetuating depression. Mark Damon was to become one of the staples of Italian Cinema, appearing in proto-giallo, Spaghetti Westerns and even the classic Bava portmanteau, Black Sabbath. With his teen-idol looks, he is unmistakably the heart-fluttering hero that Corman needed if he wanted to secure the kids to come and see the film, but the screenplay makes him a rather wimpish reactor to events, rather than as a demonstrative pioneer for change. This is what I like about such a characterization. You don’t get the male heroic lead acting in such a meek and mild, soppy manner these days, and it does, ironically, make him a refreshing hook into our voyage into this maelstrom of madness. He does okay with the role, but Matheson really isn’t too sure about what to do with him. He might be our conduit into the history and madness of the Ushers, but he is not the focus of the story – which is, naturally, Price’s Roderick, and the growing sense of imminent destruction.

Madeline Usher is the most maddening of characters in this dark and labyrinthine plot. She has evidently revealed enough of her radiant personality to arouse and ensnare Philip from his unmistakably more propitious lifestyle back in Boston, and lured him all this way into the scorched wilderness of the Usher netherworld, but then she has lapsed into that Shakespearean melancholia that was so bewilderingly fashionable. Most blokes would pretty much give up the ghost when confronted with such a chilling and miserable family story, especially when informed that the curse afflicts them all. The fallen beauty is another common American concept.

Hitchcock would do the same thing in Vertigo, and many other films feature a haunted damsel whose haunted personality is deemed as being attractive. It is a Brontean thing, a Byronistic thing. And, interestingly, this is the mock-misery guise that would go on to form the goth-look and mentality that predominated during the 80’s and still makes fluttering, fright-wigged comebacks from time to time. It is fair to say that Fahey only really comes to life in the film when she is apparently, and to all intents and purposes, risen from the dead. But here, at least, she delivers a powerhouse performance of demonic proportions.

As Bristol, the Usher’s loyal manservant – having served the household as man and boy – Harry Ellerbe gets rather short-thrift, I’m afraid. In his wonderful little featurette on the film, English writer and critic Jonathan Rigby makes the point that regular support players in TV Westerns, like Ellerbe was, may not have been exactly the most appropriate of players for a part in a supernatural gothic chiller. Well, this may well be the case, and if you consider how somebody from English shores would have approached the character – Michael Ripper, say – then you can clearly see his point. Ellerbe has a rather thankless role. He knows more than he lets on, which is obvious. But he never delivers a single frisson of potential threat or menace. He is something of a weakling, and a character that exists merely to simper and sniff with remorse. He is not supposed to deliver an aura of dread, I know, but the exchanges between him and Philip would have carried more weight and tension if we suspected something else was afoot, some darker ulterior motive, however erroneous this assumption may have been. Imagine if James Whale had been behind this! You would have trusted nobody at all! Not even the trees outside.

So, as it stands, the film has only four characters, and most of them are abject miseries to be around.
Yet it still works superbly well.
The house is a character, and the truest monster in the story. Its proximity to a life-sapping tarn of the blackest mire is a fabulous invention. If Lovecraft had created this tale, there would be all manner of mutated fishmen and elder gods threatening to rise, dripping from it. For Poe and Corman, the very fact that it is there is enough to inspire shudders. There is even a moment when it clearly anticipates the demonic, time-shifting capabilities that the Overlook Hotel in The Shining has over those unfortunates who contrive to end up within its walls. The dream sequence when all the loathsome characters from those hideous and surrealist portraits come to life and greet Philip is something that definitely played a part in Kubrick’s mind when he fashioned the various entities populating the isolated, snowbound Colorado hotel. Thus, even if the main players, bar Price, don’t quite pass muster, the house and its tricks, traps and taunts delivers enough strength of character for the lot of them. The shifting of the stones, the creaking of the timbers and the falling of caskets are all supremely well done, really announcing that the structure has a mind of its own, and this does help to keep you on your toes. Mind you, it would be great if one of the portraits in the wall was actually that of Jack Nicholson!

The house, of course, is Usher in a great many ways. That terrible crack that threatens to split it asunder is a pure mimic of the rift within his own mind. But are they actually one and the same, the brooding edifice and Roderick? Or has one been assimilated into the other by some form of clannish, degenerate osmosis? The house certainly does more than anybody else. Even when quiet and not creaking, it invites us to creep along its halls and passages, perhaps drawing us deeper and deeper into its own decrepit and diseased mind.

But there is another character working deviously here, as well. And his contribution is one of the most stunning and memorable.
The Music of the House of Usher.
Les Baxter was one of the stalwarts of these pictures, composing for several of Corman’s Poe series, and also responsible for overlaying entirely new scores for many European genre films that ended up on American shores, such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Black Sabbath. Arguably, he improved upon the original scores – I have both in most of these cases and pretty much concur with this belief – and his contributions add insurmountably to the acres of creepy atmosphere prevalent within the insanity-rife and claustrophobic confines of these dark yarns. His score for Usher is one of the more romantic that he wrote for these horrors. There is a genuine appreciation of the swooning, windswept, harp and string embrace of many an MGM period drama for the scenes in which Philip and Madeline are together in each other’s arms, which would appear to go against the roaring hullabaloo that James Bernard would be unleashing upon his Hammer Horrors. But Baxter was a master at interweaving these romances with dark threads of mystery and desperation, and he could begin a piece sweetly and with tranquility yet have your nails chewed down to the quick by the end of it, without you having even noticed when or how he changed tack. His score mingles aching mood, period charm and, ultimately and most satisfyingly, intensely creepy dread and unease, as well as downright, blistering terror.

Baxter would compose many more scores for Corman, even managing to combine typical suspense and horror with mischievous comedy for the likes of the satirical and knockabout The Raven. I have written an extensive review of his score for Usher on this site already.

The film may be slow to build up its cloying mask of decay and madness, but once Roderick’s sickness really begins to kick in, events pick up with alarming severity. Many of Poe’s most famous themes are explored, with the notion of the premature burial (something he had a terrible and morbid fear of) being the catalyst for a full-throttle final act that has reverberations throughout a huge array of genre outings that would follow. It is certainly true to say that the lengthy final act is reminiscent of Val Lewton’s classic Isle of the Dead, but I would say that Corman added much greater intensity and created a far more memorable set-piece. Dario Argento clearly paid a lot of attention to some of the most frightening imagery in the film when he made the awesome Suspiria, what with a ghastly, bloodied female spectre arising from the dead in a maddened and cackling rage, and the whole concept of a house of evil finally destroying itself amid a welter either of hellish flame or seismic implosion has been witnessed in all manner of things. Even Poltergeist followed this staggering template. It is widely known that Corman took advantage of planned burning down of an Orange County barn to lens his volcanic roof collapse, and then reused this footage time and time again because it was that effective.

The story feels cyclic and impossible to evade, pretty much like most of Poe’s macabre adventures. There are less avenues for thwarting a curse when it has been penned by Poe, who seems, at heart, to be a remorseless demander of climactic comeuppance. His characters tend to know roughly what is supposed to happen to them come the finale, and the majority of their conflicts arise from the futile attempts of well-meaning interferers who know nothing of curses and star-crossed destinies.

Upon its release, in which it played in double-bills with either Hitchcock’s Psycho or Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf for Hammer, ironically going up against a much more full-blooded and go-for-the-throat thrill-ride from a studio that it so wanted to beat at its own game. Yet it did enormously well on its own merits, regardless of its apparent subtlety. Its eloquent screenplay, bizarre characters and doomed atmosphere of decay and death spellbinding many, and its gothic psychology provides a rare antidote to the more visceral and gory productions that were sprouting-up all around it.

It remains a masterpiece of permeating tension, dread and haunting darkness even today.

Movie score : 8
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