Has Edgar Allen Poe ever been so boring?
Marking the feature debut of director Hayley Cloake and writer Collin Chang, "The House of Usher" is the latest screen adaptation of the gloomy writer's most famous story; this one's a modern-day updating powered by liberal reshuffling of most of the details. But there are long stretches where nothing's happening at all, and a much-needed sense of dread that normally excuses such plotless meandering is conspicuously absent. And that's just the start of the problems.
Polish ballerina-turned-actress Izabella Miko ("Save the Last Dance 2," "The Forsaken") stars as Jill, an utterly bland club-hopper who acts as a female reworking of Poe's nameless male narrator. Here, Jill is the ex-girlfriend of Rick Usher (Austin Nichols), a wealthy socialite and successful author. Years ago, Rick and his twin sister/Jill's best friend Maddy suddenly broke off all ties with Jill and went into seclusion. Now word arrives that Maddy has died, and following the funeral, Jill spends time in the Usher mansion, hoping to rekindle her relationship with an ailing Rick. Ah, but there are creepy doings afoot, and in between snog sessions with her ex, Jill will uncover the dirty little secret of the Usher family line.
Chang's screenplay stumbles upon a few keen twists that aim to keep Poe's story fresh, most notably the gender switch of our main character (which provides a deeper dimension to the relationship with Rick) and the inclusion of the aforementioned dirty little secret (which adds a sinister edge to the proceedings).
Yet a couple of nifty ideas don't make a watchable movie. Not enough is done with either, really - the former feels added merely for sex appeal (scenes repeatedly come to a screeching halt so we can linger on slurpy, unerotic make-out sessions), while the latter is some contrived nonsense included solely for the lazy shock of a twist ending. In between, there's some bland haunted house nonsense that goes nowhere, or some overwrought personal melodrama that flops at every turn.
Cloake seems to be going for dark brooding, but all she really gets is mellow bore. The characters speak and act in a lifeless monotone (bad acting, bad direction, or both?), making the action frustratingly lifeless. (Only Beth Grant, as a clichéd sinister servant, shows any vibrancy in a nutty, hammy performance, but she's clearly trapped in a stupid role.) As a result, these are immensely boring people - who cares what happens to them? Clunky, amateurish editing adds in awkward rhythms that only emphasize the lousy performances and drab goings-on. (One phone conversation midway through the piece is so mishandled, with its clumsy cutting, hideous acting, and dry camerawork, that it earns derisive laughs.)
Little bits of stylistic flourishes tumble off the screen as they add a level of nonsense of the story. To enhance the idea of seclusion, we're offered notions of such romantic throwbacks as Roderick writing not on a computer, but a typewriter. The idea, I suppose, is that by entering the mansion, you enter a place that's completely cut off from the modern world. Except we still have cell phones with perfect reception and enough electricity running through the joint to power a room full of sensory deprivation chambers.
Indeed, the (aforementioned and very hilarious) cell phone scene contradicts the very notion of isolation the movie hopes to drive home. How can we feel worried for Jill if we know safety's just a phone call away? Things get bad, she can always catch a ride from a friend or just walk next door.
All of this undercuts the film's attempts at suspense and mood, neither of which are handled with any ability at all. The film would be annoying if it weren't so utterly, hopelessly dull, with characters mumbling their way from underwhelming plot point to unconvincing romantic moment to uninvolving finale. By the time the script finally piles on the juice for a frenetic third act, it's such a lumbering mess that we never bother to tune back in.
A final note, to aspiring filmmakers: if you want us to take your movie seriously, don't use the "Star Trek" font for your opening and closing credits. Because then we'll only laugh at you as we wait to see if DeForest Kelley is in the cast.
Video & Audio
The film looks passable enough in its anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) presentation. There's plenty of grain in the nighttime sequences, although this is likely a problem with the source material itself.
The soundtrack is offered in Dolby 5.1 and 2.0, both of which feature a solid balance between dialogue, effects, and music. Optional English for the Hearing Impaired and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Cloake's commentary track has a few interesting moments, but the majority is spent on either too-long gaps in the conversation or bland "this is what's happening in this scene" play-by-play.
Three deleted scenes (4:30 total) are pretty forgettable and add nothing to the story.
The film's theatrical trailer and a gallery of previews for other ThinkFilm releases round out the set. The preview gallery also plays as the disc loads; you can skip over it if you choose.
All bonus material is presented in a flat, non-enhanced letterbox.
"The House of Usher" is a dreary, stagnant attempt at updating a classic. It's a low-key failure. Skip It.