Roger Corman, 1960
Starring: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe
“Mere passage from the flesh cannot undo centuries of evil.”
Roger Corman’s House of Usher (1960), known as The Fall of the House of Usher in the U.K., was the first film in Corman’s series of eight Edgar Allen Poe inspired films for American International Pictures (AIP) which starred horror veteran Vincent Price. This was AIP’s first color film and they took somewhat of a risk with this vibrant, yet low budget and restrained effort that was meant to compete with Britain’s growing Hammer Studio. Hammer recently rose to prominence with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958). While House of Usher shares the period costumes, lush visuals, and literary sources of Hammer’s beloved early classics, it is a more subtle work of Gothic horror, devoid of ample bosoms or plentiful bloodshed, but steeped in decay and madness.
The young Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides through a foggy, decrepit forest towards an old New England mansion, the isolated Usher home, to locate his beloved Madeleine (Myrna Fahey). He meets with some difficulty as both the family servant, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), and Madeleine’s older brother, Roderick Usher (a weirdly blonde and clean-shaven Vincent Price) insist that she is bed-ridden and must be left alone. Though he eventually gets to see Madeleine, Usher insists that she cannot leave and they will never be allowed to marry, due to the inherited Usher curse, which also manifests itself as a sickness. Winthrop nearly convinces Madeleine to ignore her brother and go away with him, but she dies before they can leave. After a disturbing dream, Winthrop comes to believe that Madeleine has been buried alive and rushes to save her from her horrible fate.
Full of atmosphere and subtle horror, this is one of the finest films in Corman’s Poe cycle and certainly set a standard that the rest of them tried to meet. As the film is called The Fall of the House of Usher, we have a general idea of where things are leading, but it does not lessen the suspense. The film is slow to build, but there is a growing sense of dread that reaches a horrible inevitability around the 50-minute mark, as Winthrop begins to succumb to the madness of the house. Though only one murder takes place in the film, the house is haunted by the ghosts, whether literal or imaged, of the evil and debauched Ushers of past centuries. The eerie dream sequence that brings the Usher ancestors to life is evocative of the later films of Mario Bava (in 1960 he came out with the fantastic Black Sunday aka Mask of Satan, which was still in black and white) and helps move the film away from it’s thus far restrained tone.
The basic plot and characterizations are minimal, which allows the crumbling Usher mansion to emerge as the film’s central villain. As with Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and Stanley Kubrick’s much later The Shining (1980), the house is the central focus of the film, both in terms of plot and visuals. It begins to crack and crumble as the characters give in to madness. The house is primarily decorated in warms tones like deep reds and velvety scarlet, which is echoed in the elaborate costumes of Roderick and Madeleine. While it may be assumed from the general plot that Roderick Usher is the villain, he is simply a product of a twisted family line, bent and corrupted by decades of misdeeds. The film does not attempt to explain whether Usher’s beliefs are real or the product of madness, which is certainly one of its strengths.
This is one of Vincent Price’s best and most unassuming performances, devoid of the enthusiastic scenery chewing of some of his later camp-horror classics like The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Mark Damon (Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath) as Phillip Winthrop is a bland leading man, but this fits the tone of the film. Winthrop’s relationship with Madeline Usher (the Barbara Steele-like, but less exotic Myrna Fahey) becomes somewhat melodramatic, but is the necessary catalyst for the film’s fiery climax. His love for Madeline and his attempts to remove her from the house drive the Ushers towards their inevitable fate.
Though Corman’s Poe cycle in general has several elements of the unexplained or supernatural, the emphasis is more on psychological horror and unraveling personalities. The script from horror writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth) is excellently understated and doesn’t attempt to include too many elements outside of Poe’s story. His one main inclusion is the love story, which is blended in quite well. Matheson would go on to write half of Corman’s Poe films, as well as episodes of Twilight Zone, Rod Sterling’s Night Gallery, and other horror films. House of Usher may seem tame compared to some of his later work, but it does include someone being buried alive, a possessed house, an almost psychedelic dream sequence, characters succumbing to madness, etc. The violence is tame, but there is a terrifying, effective sequence where Madeleine claws her way out of a casket and leaves a trail of blood through the house from her torn and dripping fingers.
House of Usher looks better than it ever has with a 1080p High Definition restored print in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Further restored from MGM’s original elements, the colors look particularly wonderful, though clarity, details, and shadows/contrast are also excellent. There is some grain, which gives the film an authentic patina of age, rather than the flat, digitized way a lot of recent films look in H-D. Though Corman shot this on a very cheap budget, it seems far more expensive than it is with the richly colored and detailed set and stunning cinematography from Floyd Crosby (High Noon). Corman and Crosby’s visuals are some of the strongest elements of the film and are definitely at their best with this release.
The available audio, both for the film and the commentary, is a Linear PCM 2.0 track. Both the dialogue, creepy sound effects, and Les Baxter’s ominous, effective score all sound excellent and clear. While some of the more eerie, whispered and layered effects sounded muddy on the old VHS version of the film I first saw, here they are much crisper and sound fantastic. Though Corman’s use of sound grows steadily throughout the film, it is an integral element in the horror that spreads through the house. Optional English subtitles are also available.
There are a number of nice extras with this release and Arrow fortunately got a hold of the excellent Roger Corman commentary track, which was on the previous MGM Midnite Movies DVD. “Legend to Legend” is an interview with director Joe Dante (Gremlins), who once worked with Corman. There’s another interview with expert Jonathan Rigby, who has written books about English and American horror, Christopher Lee, etc. There is a mandatory interview with Vincent Price from 1986 and a segment called “Fragments of the House of Usher,” a video essay by writer and critic David Cairns that looks at how Corman and Matheson adapted Poe’s story. Arrow has also outdone themselves with the collector’s booklet, which includes a new essay from Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, a piece from Vincent Price’s autobiography, and plenty of archival illustrations.
Arrow’s The Fall of the House of Usher comes highly recommended and is currently the only way to see this film on Blu-ray. Keep in mind that it is region B, so you will need a multi-region player to watch the film. While Scream Factory is releasing a region 1/A DVD and Blu-ray of this film later in the year, it will include a different set of extras. Arrow’s presentation of the film in a collector’s steel-book case with some very lovely artwork by Graham Humphreys makes this a must-have for any Vincent Price fans. (The art is included as a reversible sleeve in the regular Blu-ray edition.)