The Fall of the House of Usher Blu-ray Review
“The house, itself, is evil now.”
PictureArrow’s UK transfer of The Fall of the House of Usher is presented in its original and unmistakably lush 2.35:1 aspect, and comes via AVC.
This has been a long-awaited title, and fans have certainly had their appetites for such gothic fare well-and-truly whetted with the label’s largely excellent Mario Bava releases. Well, Corman’s classic Poe chiller looks fantastic on Blu. Yes, it is a little bit soft, and it has some indistinct lines. My wife claimed that it looked “fuzzy” when I showed it to her in the vain hope of trying to impress her with how well one of these vintage movies I so often bore her with can be transferred to hi-definition. She’s never really understood the value of Blu-ray, to be honest, so don’t take her opinion to heart.
I’ve already discussed the phenomenal cinematography from Floyd Crosby and the intricate baronial sets created by Daniel Haller, so let’s just reaffirm that this is a film that revels in colour and depth. The lighting and the set design are allowed plenty of room to breathe, and the attention to detail is highly forthcoming when one stops to peruse the books, the antiques, the furniture and the paintings.
Those amazing whip-pans and fluid camera movements are sublimely adhered-to with a transfer that doesn’t stutter or wobble or smear. Depth is surprisingly good. There are lots of scenes of characters wandering around the house, and these look quite splendidly deep. Also, the compositions of frames featuring several characters make fantastic use of foreground and background objectivity to lend a further sense of dimensionality. The transfer does nothing to detract from these inspired set-ups.
Colours are warm and beautifully depicted. The sets seem to glow. Those horrendous family portraits take on a fearsome luster of their own. Primaries are excellent, old school and seemingly very faithful. Greens and blues are entrancing. Reds and purples intoxicating. This isn’t Pixar bright and cartoonic. Far from it. The film has that older patina, but its fidelity is vivid and often arresting. The swirling mists and the grey/black of the exterior stonework, or the black of the iron railings are perfectly well integrated into an image that continually confounds with varied compositions and differing pockets of contrast and colour. Skin-tones are of their period. Lots of makeup. Heavy or soft lighting, depending upon who we are looking at. Poor old Harry Ellerbe’s Bristol looks quite shocking with his greyed-up whiskers and hair, and those deeply etched black age lines and blotches. Fahey and Damon are, by turn, pale and angelic, and orangey with health. Price, of course, is purely cadaverous, yet his eyes defiantly gleam and sparkle. His red robes ignite the screen. When we see blood, it is bright and garish and genuinely ghastly. The flames of the hellish inferno also drip from the screen with intensity. The swirling nightmare sequence is fabulously draped with gel-fabricated blues and greens, creating a wild sepulchral fog. There is no banding present during any of this, nor any over-saturation. Midnight blues are resplendent – and this is something that would be seen very prevalently in Bava and then Argento and Soavi, but would look mesmeric here in Corman. Very often, the frame is awash with varied hues and shades, and where this sort of rainbow soup could have become messy or subdued in former incarnations on home video, each aspect enjoys clean separation and radiance. The disc copes admirably with all of this.
Contrast is excellent. It would need to be. There are so many shades on offer, such as those down in the luxuriant parlours, or in the tombs, out on the balcony, or outside in the mist-swirling grounds that this is quite a test for the transfer. It makes no errors as far as I can see. Black levels are another essential aspect. Usher isn’t the darkest of the Corman/Poe films, but it certainly has its moments, especially down in the crypt, and the disc maintains deep shadows with consistency. There is no detail lost within them either.
As clean and as vivid as this image is, the grain is still permitted to capture the original integrity and texture of the film. This never seems to clump, float or slide into noise. Edges are smooth, with only the merest of haloes seen around certain objects - look at Philip as he approaches the matte-painted House at the start, for example - and this has probably a little but more to do with the source than to any untoward sharpening. Aliasing was not an issue to cause any concern, and the print, itself, has been wonderfully cleaned-up. There are little nicks and pops here and there, and a hair caught in the gate, but this is an impressively clean and vivid image that can’t fail to impress.
A strong 8 out of 10
SoundThe House of Usher Falls in 2.0 PCM, and it does so with some panache too.
Dated this sound design may be, but it is one that places emphasis on Les Baxter’s fabulous score, the various screams and the cracking, crumbling and tumbling of the spectral edifice itself, making for a track that is actually quite exciting and dramatic, albeit within the limitations of the original audio.
Dialogue is mightily important to convey the miasma of melancholy and misery that poor old Roderick is inflicting upon all those around him, and Price’s amazingly cultured, semi-effete voice comes across with clean, smooth mellifluousness. He is more delicate here than usual, and these softer tones and slight, whimsically cracking inflections come across with quite some distinction. By contrast, the other voices are more mundane, and far less rich in character. But this is not an error of the encode or the mix, which treats these with exactly the same respect as it does for Price.
The music is quite brilliantly delivered. We all know that Price couldn’t play the lute to save his life, but the sound of this medieval instrument, together with the gliding, ethereal harp genuinely glistens with clarity. Listen to the brass rearing up with bravura intensity during the fiery crescendo, and the wonderfully eerie moaning and wailing from the female choir. Instrumentation is cleanly picked-out and not just hurled into one ferocious blurting, so fans of Baxter's work should be quite pleased.
Depth isn’t too bad either. We get the impression of movement within the film and of sounds emanating from off-screen locations, which, of course, is terrific. Though we have to remember how old this film is, and how limited the source material. I find it hard to believe that we could hear it sounding much better than this on home video. What you would really need to improve upon this would be to hear it playing in a large cinema auditorium. But, to be honest, this sounds quite impressive at home, as you imagine tragic, misguided Roderick Usher simpering from the staircase, and the rending, cracking of the masonry all around you. The horrific scream from the chained casket, the jumble of cascading bones from a fallen coffin, the impact of a dropped chandelier.
Although this would have the outward appearance of being one of the quieter horror films, depending as it does on mood and languid passages of creepiness, it is actually quite aggressive and aurally violent.
This track does it justice and comes across with power, detail and warmth. Despite some obvious out of limitations, this manages to excite and thrill. 7 out of 10.
ExtrasThere’s some great stuff here, folks … so catch ‘em before the House of Usher actually does Fall.
Arrow have a couple of editions of this coming out. We have the standard with the reversible sleeve, and there is the majestic steelbook version that I recommend you plump for. It looks outstanding.
They have secured a commentary track from Roger Corman, himself, who flies solo on this gig, without the usual moderation of Calum Waddell. There are only a couple of lulls in what is a very fact-packed and highly informative chat about a film that he made a helluva long time ago now. But you will find that his memories and his opinions are still very sharp, often very humorous and always valuable. I love the moment when he takes the time to establish one of his theories about how he filmed an element, really elaborating upon why it was done just so … and then has it blown completely apart the very second he has finished telling us about it. His reaction is, ahem, Price-less, and I love his frank and self-deprecating way at digging himself out of the hole he has dug. Brilliant stuff all round.
The next terrific feature, which is worth its weight in gold, is the discussion on the film by regular Blu contributor Jonathan Rigby. This features lots of cleverly edited clips and allows him to discuss in great detail the elements that he believes works and those that don’t work so well. He is also great at placing House of Usher within the context of the other horror films being made at the time and how Corman’s series evolved as they went along. I love listening to Rigby and have sat through this piece about three or four times now already. Wonderful stuff.
Then there is another rather ubiquitous contributor to genre BDs in director Joe Dante who, in Legend to Legend also supplies a fun and anecdote-filled chronicle upon the film and how Corman came to make it, and how he then progressed with other similar projects, his methods and his innovations improving. Dante, too, is a fabulous raconteur and he is eminently entertaining to listen to.
We get to meet the great Vincent Price as well in a brief, but amusing archival interview that he gives for French media on a sun-kissed veranda. Full of amusing asides and perfectly charming, Price discusses his iconography and some of his films with genuine mirth and good-nature.
A specially commissioned video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns examines Corman’s adaptation of Poe’s story in Fragments of the House of Usher. With little text quotes from Poe’s prose, Cairns delivers a discourse upon the film and how Corman went about it, visually, metaphorically and thematically. It plays entirely over appropriate clips from the movie, and runs for about ten minutes. An enjoyable, if brief personal account of the themes at play here.
The film’s Original Trailer is also offered.
A collector’s booklet with new writing on the film from author and critic Tim Lucas and extracts from Vincent Price’s long out of print autobiography is illustrated with stills and posters. Sadly, at the time of writing I have only the PR disc to work so I cannot comment on the quality of this material.
Verdict“I heard her first feeble movements in the coffin … we had put her living in the tomb!”
Edgar Allan Poe
I love this film, but it is not the best of the Corman Poe adaptations. All the elements that would make the filmmaker’s style so indelible are here, of course, but the story, itself, is not as dramatic, nor as compellingly complex or chilling as those that would follow. But, be this as it may, The Fall of the House of Usher is marvelously moody and atmospheric, and rife with dread and doom in a cobwebbed, goth-packed detour to a place entombed in implacable calamity. Graced with captivating imagery and insanely gorgeous to look at, it becomes a hypnotic treat of pure gothic dementia.
If the supporting cast isn’t exactly memorable – save for Myrna Fahey’s bloodcurdling finale, which is truly nightmarish – Vincent Price more than makes up for them with a mellifluous, cultured and darkly strained performance of maudlin and melancholy that reaches out from the screen and clutches you around the throat with desperate beseechings of sensitive psychosis.
The release, itself, has a fine transfer that really translates those fabulous baronial sets with depth and clarity, and all those redolent colours with entrancing potency. The extras lend further grace and class to the release. Jonathan Rigby is, as always, a delight to share time with, and Joe Dante’s fond passions are infectious. Roger Corman providing a commentary is just the icing on the cake, and let’s hope that he supplies many more for these fabulous early classics.
Well, for me, even given the plethora of genre greats that have trundled off the hi-def assembly line this year, The Fall of the House of Usher is one of my absolute favourites. A horror gem that has been treated with utmost respect and really gains a new lease of life on Arrow’s Blu-ray.
Personally, I cannot recommend this enough. There are better titles to come, and I can only hope and pray that they are treated with the same loving care and attention as this.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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