Eamonn McCusker has reviewed Roger Corman’s wonderful first entry into his series of adaptations of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall Of The House Of Usher.
When Roger Corman was faced with a skeptical studio as he laid forth his plans for an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall Of The House Of Usher, which was to be true to the original text as well as playing on Poe’s rich and colourful writing, the head of AIP put down his cigar, sat back in his chair and asked Corman, “So where’s da monster?” Realising that The Fall Of The House Of Usher is a rather lyrical tale concerning a pair of siblings living in an isolated and decrepit mansion whose lives are forever altered by the arrival of a rich young man and doesn’t have anything so basic as a monster – Poe’s characters are haunted both by guilt over their actions and the fear of being buried alive – Corman thought fast and leaned forward saying, “The house is a monster…and it’s alive!” Corman had the money to make his movie and The Fall Of The House Of Usher became an all-too-literal title of a film that saw Madeline and Roderick Usher living in a house that creaked and was drawn ever closer to collapsing around them.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher stars Vincent Price as Roderick Usher, who is the heir not only to the large estate that has remained in the Usher family for generations but also to an evil than he believes has survived through the years and that he will now bring to an end. In the hall of the great house in which he lives, Roderick has all but imprisoned both himself and his younger sister Madeline (Fahey). When a well-off young man, Philip Winthrop (Damon) arrives at the mansion claiming to be Madeline’s fiancé, Roderick tries at first to convince him to leave them alone but, following a series of near-fatal accidents, Winthrop insists on Madeline leaving with him for Boston. When Roderick pleads with Winthrop not to marry Madeline and have her bear any children, which will extend the reach of evil in the Usher family for further generations, Winthrop pushes him to one side and begins packing their cases. However, when Madeline is found dead in her room, Winthrop begins to believe what Roderick has been telling him but the house of Usher continues to collapse around the one remaining member of this accursed family…
Roger Corman might have been less than honest with the central premise of The Fall Of The House Of Usher but one is glad that he was when the result was as good as this. Filmed in fifteen days and costing a little over $200,000, The Fall Of The House Of Usher was the point at which AIP moved out of the drive-in and into major theatres, leading to Corman’s later success with further adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe short stories including The Pit And The Pendulum, Tales Of Terror and the wonderful The Masque Of The Red Death.
As with many of Poe’s short stories, The Fall Of The House Of Usher is concerned with the fear of being buried alive but Poe teases out his phobia around a tale of immorality within a house that is physically decaying as its inhabitants are morally ruined. As played by Vincent Price, Roderick Usher is consumed by his need to see the Usher family brought to an end with not only his death but also that of his sister Madeline. Whilst the slight shadow of incest in the short story has been sacrificed for this film, the feeling of dread that seeps out of the walls of the house of Usher has not. Despite there being the merest hint of science behind Madeline’s premature burial here, one is left in no doubt that it was Price’s Roderick who, by means unknown to the viewer, caused the collapse of his sister before burying her in the crypt as she scratched at the coffin lid to escape. Despite one being repulsed at Roderick’s actions, Corman never lets the audience escape from the feeling that there may indeed be an evil within both the family and the house of Usher that Roderick is bringing to an end as he sees fit, saying at his end, “There was no other way…no other way”, as the house of Usher burns and collapses around him.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and looks fantastic. The film was photographed in Technicolor by Floyd Crosby and this DVD contains few, if any, blemishes. The colours are rich, the picture wonderfully sharp and there are few better examples of the style Roger Corman brought to filmmaking than this.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher has been released with a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack that sounds fine but offers little that the original Mono soundtrack would not have coped with just as well and which is most effective during the dream sequence one hour into the movie. There are a range of subtitles.
The only bonus feature is the following:
Original Theatrical Trailer (2m28s, 2.35:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Mono): Beginning with the lurid and preposterous description of Vincent Price as, “The screen’s foremost delineator of the Draculean!”, this is a tidy little trailer that makes the most of the film’s literary origins alongside a summary of the main plot.
Unfortunately, the audio commentary recorded by Roger Corman for the Region 1 release of this film has not made it to Region 2. Would it really have been that difficult to bring this across when everything else is identical?
Edgar Allan Poe’s writings are probably the most effective collection of horror stories from any one writer and The Fall Of The House Of Usher is amongst his best. Whilst a little of Poe’s lyricism and symbolism is absent of this adaptation, Corman’s version of The Fall Of The House Of Usher is still a marvellous film and whilst not as good as his later adaptation of The Masque Of The Red Death, is not far off.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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