Produced and directed by Roger Corman.
“You must leave this house now. It is not a healthy place for you to be.”
Why Did I Get This?
Picked this up on Blu years ago but can’t really remember why – I assume it was because I was just getting into enjoying Vincent Price films and heard the Poe movies he made with Roger Corman were particularly well-regarded. I remember watching it and thinking it was fine but haven’t revisited it since, so I’m assuming it didn’t really do it for me.
A few years later, and a lot more films watched (not to mention the fact I’m currently reading Corman’s brilliant autobiography), and I think I’m in a better place to go in knowing what to expect and, hopefully, enjoy it a lot more this time. Going into it off the back of House Of Wax should also be an interesting test too, so let’s see how it goes…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), visits his fiancee Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), at her family home where she lives with her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), and their butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Inside the crumbling mansion, he learns of the Usher family’s cursed bloodline as Roderick descends into madness.
Shot in about a fortnight for less than $300k with just four cast members and a script by Richard Matheson, Roger Corman’s first foray into the works of Edgar Allan Poe looks a hell of a lot bigger than it is.
That starts with the striking opening shot too, with Mark Damon riding towards the Usher mansion through a barren landscape of smouldering trees and grey dirt – Corman’s opportunistic streak meant he heard about a recent wildfire devastating a local forest then grabbed a camera and organised a few free shots which would’ve cost a fortune to stage. It’s a bold and effective opening shot, and means we’re set on an eerie location from the get-go, before we’ve even got to the wonderful matte painting of the titular house and its lavish interiors.
The internal sets are gorgeous too, vast and roomy without being flashy, it feels like every cent is up there on screen. It’s a cliche to say the location is a character, but Corman sold this to the AIP suits as a monster movie where the house is the monster, and it really feels that way – the characters are fairly small in the sets, while imposing portraits and wall hangings loom over them, fireplaces spit sparks at the outsider, drops a chandelier on him, breaks a banister he’s leaning on and almost causes a steaming hot cauldron to spill on him too. That’s before we even get to the actual human characters.
I know I’m inclined to enjoy a Vincent Price performance, but coming off the back of House Of Wax to this was a surprise for me. His quiet, tortured and malicious Roderick Usher is a different beast to his Jarrod – obsessed with his sister and utterly convinced of his family’s madness being inherent to their bloodline, he is at once disgusting and pitiable. The monologue he gives explaining how the slightest sounds or sensations cause him shattering pain is beautifully written by Richard Matheson, but delivered beautifully by Price too, with none of the camp or knowing winks he might use in other roles. Admittedly, there are a couple of points as the story goes along where his big eyes and theatrical gestures are more over the top, but it’s fitting with the progress of his character’s madness and doesn’t remove from the powerful, calm delivery in those early scenes.
Myrna Fahey is fine as Madeline Usher, and while she seems too passive a character to start with, she’s doing the best with the role as written which largely involves her talking to her fiance about what a great time she had in Boston with him, but how she could never leave her home again.
In fact, she’s literally written out of the film for a bit with a sleeping sickness which allows her to be buried alive by her scheming brother – but that brings her back with plenty of drive, insofar as she goes utterly insane and claws her way out of the coffin to run screaming around the house then murder him with her bare, bloody hands. She’s a terrifying sight, by the end.
The other two cast members (yeah, there are only four), Ellerbe is the kindly servant who is doomed to suffer the same fate as the Usher family but wants to help the guest as much as his master. Damon is perfectly fine, if a little bland, as the outsider trying to make sense of the Usher clan and take Madeline away from her disturbed brother. He gives good grief as he realises she’s been buried alive followed by his terror as he encounters her screaming through the secret corridors, but the role is mainly telling her they’re leaving, going for a nap, falling over, telling Roderick they’re leaving, etc, etc.
In terms of Corman’s style, the atmosphere is terrific and moody, and the film looks great. There’s a moment where Madeline takes Winthrop for a tour of the family crypt which loses focus for a few seconds in a lingering two-shot which I found distracting until I realised it was the lead into a lengthy camera move following her lit candle across the nameplates of several caskets. It’s a lovely move, with the camera gliding smoothly, always busy without being too fussy.
There’s also a beauty of a whip-pan to introduce Roderick – often wearing some of the coolest costumes I’ve seen in these films. His long crimson housecoat is a thing of beauty, and really emphasises both Price’s leanness and just how pale he is from being under self-imposed house arrest.
The weirdest section of the film for me was an extended dream/nightmare scene where the evil members of the Usher family – each painted in brilliant, lurid modernistic portraits on the set – come to ‘life’ and mock Winthrop as he tries to save Madeline. It’s a lengthy scene shot through blue and red filters with so much dry ice you can barely see Vincent Price, and I found it strangely simultaneously fit perfectly with the tone of the film while also feeling completely out of place.
Before long, the house has spectacularly burned down and fallen into the earth and Winthrop has staggered away from the wreckage as the only survivor, leaving me wanting to watch (or in some cases rewatch), the rest of Corman’s Poe cycle.
If eerie melodrama is your thing, then get this cued up right away. It’s brilliant to see a cheapie director take his budget and make it look this good, with a decent cast and some fantastic ideas.
Price is always good value, and while its simple four-person, single-location setup might put some off, it worked really well for me.
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