Fall of the House of Usher
= Highest Rating
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
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.
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.