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The first big thrill movie of summer 1960 was a Gothic horror picture, The Fall of the House of Usher. Usually shortened to House of Usher, the posters and ads were everywhere. I certainly was aware, at age eight. Although I was too young to see the movie, the effective ad artwork was in itself chilling. On a mostly black field, men carrying candles descend a crooked stairway to the bottom of the poster, where a screaming woman appears to be trapped within a sealed coffin. With House of Usher Roger Corman took a major step up to color and CinemaScope, bringing with him most of his crack team of low-budget artisans: cameraman Floyd Crosby, editor Anthony Carras, production designer Daniel Haller, AD Jack Bohrer and even the costumer to the cheapies, Marjorie Corso. The step up meant ditching his dedicated writer Charles B. Griffith for the trendier, better established Richard Matheson, and taking on American-International's unofficial new house composer Les Baxter.
Roger Corman's earlier B&W fantastic films always had a good basic idea and an interesting wrinkle or two, but House of Usher is arguably the first time that he tackled respected literature that would certainly draw serious critical attention. Except for some short subjects, Edgar Allan Poe hadn't seen many film adaptations. Those that were made were unrecognizable, like Jean Epstein's 1928 version. Matheson and Corman retain quite a few of Poe's original ideas.
Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides across a misty wasteland to the Usher mansion, to collect his sweetheart Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), whom he wishes to marry. He's blocked by the hostile hospitality of her effete and sinister brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price). When Roderick can't convince Philip to leave immediately, he allows him to see Madeline, who seems to have become passive and distracted. Roderick fails to explain the blight on the locality and the strange condition of the house -- which seems to be cracking and crumbling in response to Philip's presence. Philip insists that the only problem with Madeline is the unhealthy, morbid environment, prompting his host to give more details of the family curse. In addition to having bad hearts and fragile constitutions, most Ushers suffer from an acute 'allergy' to all sense stimulation -- sound, light, taste. Roderick's own skin cannot stand being touched. When Philip persists, Roderick says that most Ushers have also gone raving mad at an early age, and that Madeline already shows the signs. To Philip's dismay the servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) confirms this last claim. Philip is trying to give Madeline the courage to leave with him, when something horrible occurs, that nobody wants.
Corman's film is quite an achievement -- who would have thought that literary horror from a poet read in school textbooks could attract kids, without the promise of a monster? House of Usher caps eighty minutes of spooky atmosphere, creepy characters and bizarre dream sequences with a couple of minutes of flaming violence. It does so without encouraging jeers from the tough teen audiences of the day. The original story has no romance whatsoever, and the addition of Philip Winthrop lends Poe's tale a needed pressing conflict. Undisturbed is Poe's concentration on the kinds of worries that might have obsessed people in the 1830s -- the fear that horrible maladies and insanity could be inherited in the blood. Corman also depicts a superstitious fantasy element -- the house itself seems to be alive and rotting as we watch. Roderick claims that the house is evil, but movie has it both ways. In classic terms the Ushers are cursed because they have retreated from the world into an unhealthy (and unmentionable) decadence.
This is where the special talents of Vincent Price come in. Price was uniquely equipped with an aristocratic bearing and a stage authority that could bring Roderick Usher to life, and suggest the many 'unspeakable' ideas running through House of Usher. From the evidence on view it seems very possible that Roderick's unhealthy influence on his sister could be sexual. Her passive behavior and half-hearted response to Philip might be an effect of Roderick's domination. Haunted house stories are almost always about the guilty secrets of the tenants. In this first Corman/Poe movie the house might as well be Roderick Usher's Monster from the Id -- the longer Philip hangs around, the more the old building threatens to collapse, or explode in flames.
Mark Damon is acceptable even with his teen idol hairdo. The beautiful Myrna Fahey is appropriately somnambulistic. But Vincent Price's arresting white hair and pale skin dominate the movie. Roderick Usher is dour and irritable yet also sympathetic; we never know to what degree he's being honest with Philip. Price manages to infer all manner of corruption behind Roderick's solicitous tone -- is his refinement just a mask for madness? Price puts across his stylized dialogue without inviting derision. His personality is such that kids accept him -- he became a very unlikely teen personality favorite of the 'sixties. I remember watching one of A.I.P.'s unfunny Beach Party movies, and sharing the audience's approval when Vincent Price made a tiny cameo appearance. Perhaps we were unsophisticated (perhaps?) but when House of Usher was discussed, it was always in the same respectful tone as Psycho.
Roger Corman took special care with certain sequences. Madeline tours the family crypt to show Philip that dying seems to be what Ushers do best. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and oppressive, especially with Les Baxter's superb haunted house music and its ghostly vocal effects. In his earlier films, refined visuals sometimes seemed a luxury Corman felt he could not afford. In Usher he blocks the camera beautifully for the wide screen. One extremely effective shot at a funeral sees Roderick and Philip argue back and forth from opposite ends of the screen, not noticing that the face and hands of the deceased, in giant close-up between them, are twitching and alive.
Finally, Corman takes the plunge into special effects for weird dream sequences bathed in distorted blue and sometimes split into double images. The Usher chapel is suddenly crowded with the family's ghoulish ancestors, which may have been an inspiration for Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers. Polanski also copied Usher's creepy gallery of family portraits. Burt Shoenberg's distorted paintings hit the perfect disturbing note.
For some reason American-International went to the trouble to distribute Corman's film with two title sequences, House of Usher and the full The Fall of the House of Usher, which appears on this release. The surprise is that A.I.P. would go to the additional expense. The main titles on their later The Haunted Palace misspell Edgar Allan Poe's name, but nobody bothered to fix it.
Arrow Video's Region B (UK) Blu-ray of The Fall of the House of Usher uses a beautiful HD encoding mastered by MGM. Colors are terrific, and not pitched toward green or blue as we've seen in recent UK transfers of Hammer horror pictures. As Roderick Usher might say, this augurs well for the Region 1 release expected shortly -- BUT -- for those with all-region capability Arrow's release offers unique extras.
Roger Corman's commentary was produced by Jeffrey Schwarz for the 2001 MGM DVD. Unlike some of Corman's other tracks, we can almost see him beaming with pride over this particular picture. He even shows his amusement at seeing the American-International logo preceded by a shiny new MGM logo. Next up is a fun interview piece with director and Corman acolyte Joe Dante, who goes into detail with his feelings and opinions about House, and then Roger Corman's entire Poe series. Even Dante alludes to Corman's legendary cheapness: when it came time to take the fledgling director out for a session of advice, Roger treated Joe... to a Coke!
Shadowplay blogger and recent docu director David Cairns narrates a half-whispered meditation on the film's relationship to the Poe story, accompanied by wall-to-wall scenes of décor and insert cutaways that emphasize the active role played by the house. In a lengthy (33 min) featurette (The House is the Monster) Jonathan Rigby goes over many of the same facts but adds a number of amusing observations. He calls Mark Damon a "Jr. League Tony Curtis", and offers a fine Corman-Poe compare 'n' contrast with the Hammer Films of the day.
A trailer is included as well, but the capping extra is an excellent French interview with Vincent Price, who is in fine form and excellent humor. Price places his horror career in perspective without disparaging it in any way. This is perhaps the most engaging bit of video I've seen on the beloved actor.
A booklet with an essay by Tim Lucas and a reprint from Vincent Price is part of the package, but was not provided for review.
Although a domestic disc of The Fall of the House of Usher will soon be out in a Shout! Factory boxed set, the unique extras on Arrow's release will surely attract plenty of U.S. horror fans. The U.K. disc also comes in an oversized, attractive steelbook packaging option (pictured just above). The dramatic lettering reminds me very strongly of that poster I stared at, back in the third grade... 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. When Cannon released Harry Alan Towers' awful, awful horror movie entitled House of Usher in the late 1980s, the Cannon title department was right across the hall from my trailer cutting room. I therefore took it upon myself to show the woman in charge the wicked-looking typeface that gave the Corman film its special "identity". Unfortunately, the Cannon brass invariably chose the dullest title sequences ever conceived by man.
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