The Fall of the House of Usher
U.S.A. / 1960
Directed by Roger Corman
Vincent Price
Mark Damon
Myrna Fahey
Color / 80 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
MGM Home Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    7   10 = Highest Rating  
Richard Matheson's literate script and a marvelous performance by Vincent Price elevate this adaptation of the classic Edgar Allan Poe story to the top tier of gothic horror films.
Roger Corman shot this, the first of his "Poe Cycle", in 15 days for about $250,000. The entire cast consists of only four actors: Price, as the doom-obsessed Roderick Usher; Myrna Fahey as his sister Madeline; future film producer Mark Damon as her suitor, Philip Winthrop; and as Bristol, lifelong servant to the Ushers, Harry Ellerbe. Corman makes maximum potential out of his meager resources to create a film that looks and feels much more expensive. It is Price, though, who remains at the heart of the film's success. Occasionally given to hammery in other genre parts, the veteran actor plays the role of Roderick at the perfect pitch: equal measures of melancholy, menace, and even sympathy. It's one of the best roles in Price's long and varied career.
Handsome young Philip Winthrop rides to Usher Manor to visit his betrothed, Madeline, whom he courted while she lived in Boston for a time. He is shocked and perplexed by what he finds there. The huge house is a crumbling, dangerously dilapidated ruin, the surrounding landscape a dark and gloomy terrain almost devoid of vegetation. (Corman slyly shot some exteriors at the site of a recent forest fire in the Hollywood Hills.) Within the walls of Usher Manor itself he discovers a lingering, pervasive sickness one of the mind, spirit and soul. The surviving patriarch of the family, the artistic Roderick, suffers from an acuteness of the senses to the point that loud noises or human touch sends him into fits of agony. Madeline, he explains to Philip, is dying. They are the last of the Usher line, an accursed gene pool that's brought much evil into the world. Their ancestors included murderers, slavers, drug addicts, harlots, swindlers, thieves and professional assassins. These past sins have tainted the Usher blood, so Roderick claims, dooming him and his sister. Philip will have none of this, determined to remove his beloved from her malignant, oppressive home. "You need light," he tells her. But Madeline, too, seems overcome with Roderick's fatalistic ennui...
    From its eerie opening scenes to its pyrotechnic conclusion, Fall of the House of Usher (entitled simply House of Usher in the film's opening credits and in the trailer) is a masterwork of gothic horror, one of the best such films ever made in America. As mentioned, most of this is due to Price's masterful performance and Corman's ability to squeeze the most from a small budget. While not flashy or innovative, his direction is sure-handed in establishing mood and creating atmosphere, letting Price and Matheson's fine, intelligent script do the rest. There are some nice visuals here to be sure; one scene the crazed Madeline is caught in a flash of lightning, bloody fingers raised like claws before her face, then lowering them to reveal her maddened gaze is positively Bava-esque. Even the matte paintings of the Usher house look astonishingly good, particularly when seen in letterbox format. (No so good, it must be said, when it becomes a blazing inferno at film's end.)
If you enjoy films like Mario Bava's Whip and the Body or the gothic horrors of Britain's Hammer Studios, then this their American "cousin" is sure to entertain.

Released as part of MGM's "Midnite Movie" line, the budget-priced DVD is an excellent value. Picture and sound are simply outstanding given the film's age. The widescreen presentation opens up its visual compositions and is far superior to the pan and scan version used for TV broadcasts. An optional French language track is provided, as well as French and Spanish subtitles. As with the other Midnite Movie discs the original theatrical trailer is also included. This one's a bit unusual... It begins with music lifted from, of all things, Corman's '50s sci-fi cheesefest It Conquered the World. One blurb flashed across the screen amusingly refers to Price as "The Foremost Delineator of the Draculean". (???) The trailer uses words like "epitome" and "prurient" while describing the film. We doubt that, at the time, many folks seeing this promo in Armpit, Oklahoma or thereabouts had any idea what some of this meant. Obviously Corman and company were trying for a bit of upscale respectability here it's the Merchant-Ivory version of a drive-in horror movie trailer. But the film fully merits it. The disc's best extra is a delightfully informative audio commentary by the B-movie king himself, Roger Corman. He takes the viewer step by step through the processes and pitfalls that he, the cast and crew went through to get the movie made. It's Quality Low Budget Filmmaking 101, taught by a master. 6/18/01