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Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Believe it or not, the first serious writing on 'genre' movies in America didn't get started until the 1940's, when James Agee talked about silent comedians in his famous essays. William K. Everson and a young Curtis Harrington wrote about horror films for the first time around 1950; in Harrington's case, since many of the films were half-remembered from old museum screenings, there are some understandable errors in his work. One of the more difficult titles to see, even now, is the 1928 French film, La Chute de la maison Usher.
Horror films started as high art with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a tradition that didn't get very far. There was a popular American wave of 'haunted house' movies in the 20's, the kind derived from stage plays where someone was killing off all the heirs, etc. Even in Europe there wasn't much of a horror tradition, and the cinematic followers of the hugely successful and artistically original Nosferatu were few and far between. By 1928, the height of commercial chillers were the films of Lon Chaney. The breakout sound horror films were a few years away. But in Paris, there was a healthy tradition of experimental filmmakers already in residence, doing mostly short subjects. Expressionist, surrealist, dada - every contemporary art movement was represented. The Fall of the House of Usher is considered to be Expressionist avant-garde feature, one of the few that gained enough attention to be released in the United States. A young Luis Buñuel was director Jean Epstein's assistant on the movie, but upstarts Buñuel and Salvador Dali probably looked on Epstein's fussy pictorial literalism with disdain, taking notes for their own provocative An Andalusian Dog.
In a wind-blown castle on a haunted moor, Roderick Usher paints portraits of his wife Madelaine, claiming that she is more alive in his art than in real life. Middle-aged visitor Allan (Charles Lamy) sees her wandering the halls, sickly and forlorn, and it is true that as Roderick's portraits become more vivid, she seems to wane in vitality. The visitor leaves, but a storm forces him back, and with Madeline's death, Roderick thinks that she may be lying alive in her coffin ...
'Great Art' movies are just as likely as popular thrillers to warp the stories they adapt. As a version of the Poe classic, Roger Corman's 1960 version is much more accurate. Jean Epstein may have been a great stylist, but he removed every bit of Poe's thematic morbidity. On the page, Madeline is Roderick's sister, and their cloistered, sickly life suggests incest. Poe was pretty groundbreaking in his pre-psychological use of taboo ideas and unhealthy relationships. His Roderick is a mass of (inbred?) ailments and sickly symptoms, such as being hyper-sensitive to light, sound, and touch, as if he were allergic to life itself. And finally, Poe's story definitely becomes fantastic with the suggestion that perhaps Madeline does become a ghost from beyond the grave. The irrational crumbling of the Usher mansion into the muck is a poetic 'resolution' of the incest theme.
Epstein flattens all this out, grossly misrepresenting the Poe story. His Madeline is Roderick's wife, and the subject of his portraits - in fact, the only family curse mentioned is a 'hereditary inclination for the masters of the house to paint their loved ones,' an idea that sounds like it came from the pen of a bored inter-title artist. Madeline becomes sick as the painting progresses, an idea behind another Poe story, The Oval Portrait. And instead of returning from the grave to claim her terrified brother, Madeline instead saves him from the self-destructing house. The theme of Epstein's movie boils down to a bad real estate problem: don't build on unsteady ground, or anywhere with so many lightning storms.
The Fall of the House of Usher is bad Poe, but that didn't stop it from being acclaimed a landmark of expressionist cinema. Its atmospheric effects and constant cinematic invention are stylistically very advanced. The House is the only real character in the film, and it does seem a living thing of billowing curtains and wind-strewn leaves. Candle flames flicker over tables covered with strange instruments, and a huge hearth contains a fire like a blast furnace. Stacks of books and closets full of possessions are constantly shifting, falling. Howling winds blow the trees outdoors, yet Usher never thinks of closing a window. Classic horror movie sets (Dracula, Frankenstein) imitate the dead, static quality of a crypt, but this house is truly alive.
The film also has some visuals that were very unusual for 1928. Some judiciously chosen effects, such as very successful superimpositions on the distraught Madeline, are noted whenever the title appears in reference books. Some very modern-looking fast cutting in a storm sequence, that is very arresting. Other effects, such as the model work for longshots of the castle, with stylized light-bulb stars visible in the supposedly stormy night sky, haven't aged as well. And Roderick's protraits are represented by having Madeline sit very still behind the frame and pretend to be a painted image. Unfortunately, she blinks in almost every take, ruining the illusion.1
As a horror film, Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher doesn't come near Murnau's Nosferatu or Dreyer's Vampyr, both of which integrate their fantastic effects into great horror themes. But it is an impressive experimental film in the cinema-study sense.
All Day Entertainment's DVD of The Fall of the House of Usher is sourced from a preserved 35mm master print. The transfer is fine for a film of this vintage, except for patches of white specks that look like some kind of authoring flaw, as they crop up in a few scenes with lower than normal contrast. The intertitles are in the original French, a nice touch, so Jean Pierre Aumont translates them in English ... but with an accent so thick one must concentrate to follow them. The 1990 soundtrack is credited to Rolande de Cande. It is effective and atmospheric, but in many cases seems to work against the natural 'music of the movie', as when a bell ringing on camera is ignored by the rythym of the score. The box hopes to generate more interest by calling the film, Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel's The Fall of the House of Usher, when Buñuel's credit is as assistant director. Perhaps his involvement was greater? A short essay by Epstein himself is printed on the package insert. It reads like many another avant-garde artist's notes on his own work ... very abstract!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fall of the House of Usher rates:
Packaging: Alpha Pak
Reviewed: May 10, 2001
1. Funny that just sitting still is so difficult in these movies. Several actresses in Mystery of the Wax Museum have the same problem - posing as wax dummies, their eyes and lips twitch in full closeup!