Friday, October 30, 2015


Edgar Allan Poe's original tale about the decaying house of the Usher family and its equally decaying inhabitants is considered a small masterpiece of psychological horror. Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline, both sickly individuals, live in the house, which is crumbling physically as the Ushers are crumbling mentally, supposedly due to a family curse. Roderick has an intense sensitivity to tastes, sights and sounds and can barely stand to be around anyone; Madeline has no energy, is wasting away, and is prone to falling into trance-like states. A young man, a friend of Roderick's, visits and witnesses their final days as Madeline dies and is buried in a basement vault, but turns out to have been buried alive. The story, roughly twenty pages, is wonderfully creepy and tantalizingly ambiguous as concerns the decay of the family; it is stated that too much intermarriage had weakened the line, and some readers believe that Roderick and Madeline are an incestuous couple. Both of these attempts to put the story on film miss the mark, but both have their moments as films of bleakness and mystery.

The 1949 British version is a low-budget affair which interpolates a fair amount of background material into Poe's story to give the film more traditional horror elements. The visitor, Jonathan, vanishes for long stretches of time and ultimately does not have a large role in the proceedings. We're given the backstory about the family: Mom was having an affair with a secret lover out in a small temple on the Usher property. Dad found out and used the temple as a torture room for the two of them. Before he died, the lover put a curse of the Usher children. Now, Mom is still alive and insane, living in the temple. A family friend tells Roderick that burning the head of the lover would lift the curse, but Mom keeps the head under close watch and might just kill to protect it. The scenes in the temple are indeed horrific but, as I knew the Poe story, these elements felt shoehorned in to pad the movie out to 70 minutes. Still, on its own as a creepy little B-film, with the usual B-level acting and production values, it works fairly well. There is particularly nice use of candlelight and shadow in many of the interior scenes. The picture above left is of Gwen Watford as Madeline. [TCM]

The most well-known film version is Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER with Vincent Price as Roderick. It's historically significant as the first of the Corman Poe movies, and was probably the movie that solidified Price as the leading horror star of the baby-boomer generation.  In this version, Philip, the young and handsome visitor (Mark Damon, pictured with Price), is not a friend of Roderick's but a suitor of Madeline's (Myrna Fahey). Apparently they became close in Boston but she mysteriously retreated to her isolated family manse and he is visiting in hopes of marriage. Roderick is not happy to see him and tells him that marriage is impossible as she is very sick. Still, Philip manages to see Madeline, who is indeed thin and pale, and Roderick allows him to stay in the house overnight. The rest of the story follows the basics of Poe: Roderick's sensitivities, a family curse, Madeline's apparent death and her live burial. This film, having a bigger budget—though still in the B-movie range—has a more spectacular finale involving fire and destruction (which, for the record, is not how the house falls in the Poe story). Price is very good as the gentlemanly but batty neurasthenic, and because I saw the movie before I had read the story, I've always pictured Roderick as an older man, but in Poe, he's about the same age as the young visitor. Both movies are worth seeing, though the Corman one is the more entertaining one, and the colorful and detailed sets in this version really help build the Gothic atmosphere. [DVD]

PS: I'm taking off for a week on the Turner Classic Movies cruise, where Roger Corman will be a guest, answering questions and introducing a showing of X: Man With the X-Ray Eyes. Reviews will return the week of November 9th.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

I loved Vincent Price's performance, and I especially loved the way they made him look - he really does look like the last representative of a line sunk in terminal decadence.