Blog Directory CineVerse: Ushering in a new wave of gothic horror

Ushering in a new wave of gothic horror

Monday, October 11, 2021

The legacies of both Vincent Price and Roger Corman benefited from a serious bump in prestige thanks to their collaboration on the Poe cycle of films for American International Pictures, beginning in 1960 with The Fall of the House of Usher. While not the most faithful of story adaptations, this movie manages to stay relatively true to the spirit of the Poe source material while also showcasing Price’s indispensable ability to personify a disturbed and malevolent character in the gothic tradition. Our CineVerse tribe plunged into Shocktober Theater mode with full gusto last Wednesday and concluded the following about this film (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion):

What did you find surprising, memorable, impressive, or curious about The Fall of the House of Usher?

  • This is an extreme widescreen film, shot in CinemaScope at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a very wide framing that may or may not work to the film’s advantage. Many believe this aspect ratio hurts the picture, as it keeps the action at a distance and reveals ample dead space, preventing more intimate views of the four characters. On the other hand, it lends cachet and gravitas to the look of the film and makes the house appear ominous and sprawling, with many places for its creepy characters to hide.
  • Price is well cast in this role of an oversensitive aristocratic control freak who uses a hushed tone and reserved temperament to characterize this tortured, twisted soul; he’s not hamming it up here and chewing the scenery as he is accused of doing and other productions. Additionally, his bleached white hair and lack of familiar mustache give Price a unique look that deviates from his expected countenance.
  • This is probably the truest Hollywood adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, at least up to that point – certainly it’s the most accurate version of a Poe tale within Roger Corman’s Poe cycle of eight films. However, the filmmakers alter things a bit by changing the character of the narrator to the fiancĂ© of Madeleine and making his attempt to persuade Madeleine to leave, to the objection of Roderick, the central conflict.
  • In this version of the story, it is more strongly suggested that there are supernatural elements at work, such as a truly haunted house that is trying to kill the outside interloper and ensure that the last of the Usher line, as represented by Roderick and Madeleine, will not escape, nor will its secrets. As Corman said to the film’s producers in his attempt to get them to greenlight the picture, “the house is the monster.”
  • Arguably the worst element in the picture is the casting and performance of Mark Damon as Philip: a pretty boy face, but an actor with the worst tendencies and timing.
  • Corman, who’d already demonstrated for years with AIP that he was an extremely efficient director (sometimes shooting films in as quickly as a handful of days), proved how industrious, inventive, and resourceful he truly was by convincing the studio to choose a story in the public domain – one that any high school student would likely be familiar with – and by shooting on the fly of the location scorched by a forest fire to capture the opening sequence when Philip arrives. Some shots of the concluding house burning sequence were filmed at a remote California barn scheduled to be torn down but which Corman burned instead.
  • Corman was obviously motivated by the impact of Hammer Films and its reinvention of gothic horror tales like The Curse of Frankenstein and The Horror of Dracula, which were filmed in color, showcased fairly opulent sets despite a low budget, showed red blood to moviegoers for the first time, and featured voluptuous actresses. Corman copies this template in this, the first in his Poe series.

Major themes

  • The sins of the father are visited upon the son (and daughter). Roderick and Madeleine come from a cursed lineage and bear the psychological and biological burden of their family’s tainted line. One subtextual reading of this tale is that the Ushers are an inbred clan in which incest and sexual depravity have scandalized and weakened the genes and reputation of this family. There’s more than a hint here that Roderick has a secret sexual relationship with his sister.
  • The unhealthy symbiotic relationship between a dwelling and its inhabitants. The house of Usher stands as an externalization of Roderick’s id and a physical manifestation of his unhealthy thoughts and corrupted mind. It’s no surprise, then, that the house increasingly cracks and crumbles as Philip persists in attempting to lure Madeleine away from Roderick, who is determined to keep her in the house and prevent the Usher line from continuing.
  • The unavoidable power of the death drive. According to Wikipedia, “In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness.”
  • Blood is thicker than water. Despite Philip’s admirable love for and devotion to Madeleine, his will, youth, and determination cannot prevail against hereditary forces and familial ties.

Similar works

  • The Haunting
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tomb of Ligeia – two other Poe films similar in theme and design
  • Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 1960s
  • Great Expectations
  • The Shining

Other films directed by Roger Corman

  • Subsequent movies in the Poe cycle, including The Pit and the Pendulum, Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Haunted Palace, The Raven, The Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia
  • The Little Shop of Horrors
  • A Bucket of Blood
  • The Trip

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP