House of Usher is Creepy, Gothic Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella
American International Pictures and director/producer Roger Corman took their low budget horror productions to the next atmospheric, macabre level with this 1960 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, the first of eight delightful, demented Poe-isms.
Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the gloomy Usher estate to inquire upon his ill betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Though longtime family butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) is kind to Philip, Madeline’s elder brother Roderick (Vincent Price) fears for his sister and the engagement thanks to a history of family illness and vice. The siblings suffer from several afflictions and sensibilities, and marriage, life in the outside world, and having children is out of the question as far as Roderick is concerned. Nonetheless, Philip wants to take Madeline away – but the Usher lineage and the crumbling mansion itself threatens them all…
Corman’s (The Little Shop of Horrors, A Bucket of Blood) big CinemaScope color spectacle may be a little slow to start for today’s viewers, but this deliberate build sets the bizarre, melancholy tone and let’s the audience know something’s afoot. The would-be marital conflict is immediately established on top of the decaying house fears, sleepwalking tendencies, and deathly obsessions. Much of Poe’s spirit is here in that chilling Twilight Zone feeling thanks to screenwriter Richard Matheson’s expansion on The Fall of the House of Usher. More back story is added, names and new characters are fleshed out to lengthen the short story to 80 minutes of material, but the designs are largely faithful and appropriately demented. Hints of the decadent family history, past excess, and religious sins of the father upon the children questions help explain or make excuses for this current sibling crazy. Can their house itself – physically capable of causing destruction in its crumbling state – actually embody the Usher vice and vile? Or is it all a bad case of hypochondria and self fulfilling prophecy? It is fun to be a fan of Poe or at least be familiar with his work before seeing House of Usher in order to fully enjoy all the twists on the big screen, however, new audiences can certainly come into a viewing cold and enjoy the kickers all the same.
“Peculiarities of temperament” aside, Vincent Price (The Pit and the Pendulum) is simply rocking the swept back platinum hair in House of Usher! The style really brings out his eyes as the crazy mounts – it’s a wonder he didn’t keep the look for all his other loony characters. Of course, Roderick is just a little too creepy and overly attached to his sister. Today’s viewers will certainly be thinking of something more incestuous or scandalous that couldn’t be out rightly stated in 1960 or even directly by Poe, and with those acute senses and other disorders on top of this weird, there is definitely an uncomfortable feeling in the titular household. You wouldn’t want to visit this guy and no wonder he wants his sister to remain at home. Ironically, Roderick’s opinion of marriage and family legacy is understandable – the viewer never doubts his smart, refined, classy sensibilities – but the fatalistic attitude, looming doom and gloom, and almost casual acceptance of illness and death is off putting to say the least. Again, is Roderick being prophetic and unnecessarily fearful or is there really a sickness? After such a lineage of bad apples, it’s reasonable that one might wonder what kind of saving grace he could put on the legacy. It’s easier to succumb to it, however, and Price is perfect in this crazy, moody, melancholy. I really don’t seen any of this supposed over acting for which Price is allegedly so famous. He’s just wonderfully bent, crawling out of his skin, and spot on here.
There are a few questions and even plot holes as to how or why Mark Damon’s (Black Sabbath) Philip meets Madeline, granted, and it is a touch awkward the way he just shows up and storms in looking for his supposedly soon to be wife. Some of the fifties lovey dovey between Damon and Myrna Fahey (Zorro) as Madeline is also a bit much and too forced amid the creepy in one of the deviations from Poe’s original unnamed narrator. Philip’s a tad annoying in his not taking the hint about his girl and his touchy, clingy style, too. Fortunately, he becomes the relatable anchor compared to this freaky family – the character even stands out visually by wearing blue suits and coats amid the other decidedly burgundy, moody designs. The viewer didn’t see their supposed happiness and Philip may be just as much to blame for Madeline’s condition, yet the audience needs to believe in the possibility that this couple might just make it. We want alls well to end well, but we should know better! Harry Ellerbe (Desk Set) is also a kindhearted edition as Bristol the long serving, loyal butler. He’s aided the family despite its faults but must now be nice to this, well, Philip is almost an intruder, isn’t he? Fahey makes for the perfect fair, ethereal, yet appropriately feeble Madeline, too, and her obsession with death and crypts crescendos wonderfully in House of Usher – those eyes, that bloody trail, classic!
Although the picture may look slightly flat or not as crisp as we spoiled audiences today expect, House of Usher is still a luxuriously dressed and good looking movie for its time and budget. From the great smoky, foggy, barren, and thorny approach to the Victorian creepy of the titular house itself, red candles and candelabras, antiques, top hats and capes, and scarlet frocks add a sinister elegance amid the shadows, cobwebs, and decrepit. The gothic styled mansion sets are surprising warm as well thanks to carpets, tapestries, and classic woodworks, and a hazy, eerie, tinted, and bizarre dream sequence adds to the surreal feeling. We know when and where this is taking place, but it all seems like an abstract purgatory or increasing nightmare as the scale gets smaller and more claustrophobic. Some of the voices are too soft or the music uneven, but thunder and lighting pop as the foundations literally crack. Fire tops off a morbid finale of dust, destruction, and building perils. All this happens in House of Usher, and yet I’d live in this house, dang straight!
Strangely, the DVD editions of House of Usher seem elusive – Netflix is Save Only at best – but the new Vincent Price Collection blu-ray set is brimming with interviews and commentaries. Due to its fifties sensibility over the contemporary, scary, sexy, scandalous, and more or less weaker Usher adaptations, this rendition is classroom friendly whilst still capturing the right demented and moody atmosphere. House of Usher proves all you need for great film is the right cast, a good story, and an eerie stage. Fans of Roger Corman, the ensemble, Edgar Allan Poe, and gothic horror surely know and love this adaptation already, and if you don’t, for shame!