THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) dir. Roger Corman

Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Roger Corman
Writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Matheson
Stars: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey

“She’s obsessed by thoughts of death, poor child …

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The Fall of the House of Usher (alternately titled House of Usher) (1960)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) is the first of seven Poe adaptations that Roger Corman would commit to film. Poe fanatics who prefer only pure and literal interpretations of his stories will dislike Corman’s House of Usher; it is a generous interpretation of Poe’s tale and the following films in the “Corman-Poe Cycle” would continue to be as the series continued through the early 1960s. For the record, I am never bothered by—and, in fact, often appreciative of—a director who creates an homage to a piece of literature, rather than a scene-by-scene copy, often, for example, cutting scenes or revising plot for the sake of brevity. Corman necessarily did the opposite: Poe’s stories are short (if dense), and much of the text’s composition is physical detail, which translates in exciting ways to set design, but not so much to dialogue and actual plot construction. As a result, his story is quite a diversion from the original. As for its faithfulness to the spirit of Poe’s story—that is arguable. At times, Corman’s film seems a fitting representation and, at others, seems to lack something essential (though whether or not Corman altered the mood to fit his preference is better left to experts on his horror, which I am not, having only seen his science fiction). However, as a stand-alone piece, and taking the source material into account to a lesser extent—as I prefer, so as to not overshadow Corman’s product itself—The Fall of the House of Usher is a visually pleasing, eerie, and entertaining movie and a stark depiction of repressed Gothic sexuality.

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The desolate site of the House of Usher. (Image courtesy of Roger Corman and Floyd Crosby.)

Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) travels from Boston to the fallow, desolate site of the House of Usher in search of his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who left for her ancestral home months back, and has since fallen ill. Mr. Winthrop is uncertain of her condition, but eager to marry and return to the city. Unfortunately, the appearance of the manse is approximate to the dread it inspires; to say that Winthrop’s greeting is discouraging is putting it mildly. After the manservant, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), leads him nervously inside, he leaves him at the threshold of an imposing study, wherein sits Roderick (Vincent Price), mournfully strumming a lute and positively horrified by Winthrop’s arrival. Roderick makes it immediately clear that Winthrop is unwelcome, but once Madeline is alerted to his presence (rather conspicuously, when the chandelier falls and nearly kills him), the gig is up, and Roderick is forced to reluctantly allow him to stay. Over the course of several days, as Roderick fights to keep Winthrop away from Madeline, he is forced to reckon with the curse of the Ushers and, perhaps more dauntingly, his own powerlessness in the face of it.

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