Two years after the first of Hammer’s full-colour horror shockers unleashed raw sexuality and hitherto unseen levels of visceral violence (ie, some heavy bosoms and a spot of red of paint) on hysterical cinema patrons, US audiences found similar terrors coming not just from overseas, but from their own shores and from the minds of one of American literature’s defining voices of the 19th Century – Edgar Allan Poe.
The first of the eight-film ‘Poe Cycle’, The Fall Of The House Of Usher – released in the US with the truncated title of House Of Usher – was a significant shift toward greater respectability and critical acclaim from prolific exploitation master Roger Corman (The Little Shop Of Horrors). American International Pictures’ first colour film, and one of the first not to be released as a double-bill with some equally low rent drek, Usher brought together a period horror dream team of director Corman, novelist-turned-screenwriter Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and star Vincent Price (The House Of Wax) that would soon start to give Hammer a serious run for their money.
Classically shot and slow-burning, especially in contrast to the more lurid and melodramatic later films, it’s also fairly faithful to the 1839 short story that inspired it, only giving the narrator a name and a relationship to increase his – and therefore the audience’s – investment in the events that unfold.
Emerging soberly from from the fog to the creaky old mansion, handsome hero archetype Phillip Winthrop (Black Sabbath‘s Mark Damon) has travelled to the crumbling Usher family home to see his fiancée, the beautiful Madeline (Myrna Fahey), but instead finds his way barred by obtuse servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), who finally allows him in to see Madeline’s hypochondriac brother Roderick – a near unrecognisable Vincent Price with blonde hair and a naked upper lip.
The more the square-jawed Ken-doll Phillip insists on staying and on seeing his beloved Madeline – who is apparently ill – the more Roderick’s warnings become more bizarre and melodramatic, rolling his eyes and delivering one of his endless monologues on the ancient madness of the Usher bloodline, showing off red-eyed and altogether too modern family portraits to match.
Price is certainly vamping it up – scheming and monologuing his heart out – but compared to later films a lot of the end-of-the-pier scenery-chewing is absent, just as Corman’s cinematography has yet to embrace a more opulent colour palette (although a somewhat psychedelic dream sequence, as well as Roderick’s taste in dressing gowns, gives us a taste of things to come) – there may only be a year separating The Fall Of The House Of Usher from The Pit And The Pendulum, but it feels a decade in film-making years.
The pacing is so languid and the concerns so macabre but mundane – Phillip is concerned that Roderick’s forehead-mopping fatalism has inspired the same in Madeline, and then heartbroken by her apparent death – that the escalation in the last third is genuinely shocking. As Madeline descends into madness and the house itself – forever splintering its bannisters and dropping its chandeliers – sinks into the earth, consumed by fiery metaphor, the arc has definite upward trend and it’s the restraint is what makes The Fall Of The House Of Usher arguably the strongest in the series in pure filmmaking terms.
Compared to later movies, where Price is in full flow, exuding villainous camp with ever flounce through a hidden passageway, there’s a very real sense of ambiguity and suspense to Usher that places you firmly behind the protagonist, peering over his shoulder instead of hooting from the circus stalls.
The quality of the HD transfer is immediately obvious from the opening credits, although this may not be the best film in the ‘Poe Cycle’ to really get the benefit of that treatment – imagine the sickly kaleidoscope of Masque Of The Red Death in high definition. As with every vintage Arrow release, they make a damn good fist of compensating for the major players being either deceased or inaccessible with a host of new and archived materials, including an Eighties interview with Price followed up by a lecture from Gremlins‘ Joe Dante on the genius of Corman’s gothic period movies (his studied hosting of an Italian documentary on Mario Bava is well worth hunting down, incidentally), and a specially commissioned video essay looking at the literary allusions and connections.