Saturday, October 27, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: House of Usher (1960)

Films: House of Usher
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman before and I probably will again. Corman, of course, was the master of the low budget film, and his Poe adaptations rank among his best. In fact, the Corman-directed films tended to be better than the ones he just produced, and he poured a lot of himself into the Poe films. Adapting a classic like “The Fall of the House of Usher” seems like a natural, particularly when he also went to far less canonical stories like “The Tomb of Ligeia.”

The classic Poe story involves our unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his friend Roderick Usher, who has fallen into dissolution. Usher complains that virtually everything causes him pain. Bright lights, anything beyond the blandest food, loud noises, all of these send him into paroxysms of pain. We also learn that Roderick’s sister Madeline is ill and frequently falls into that favorite malady of the era, a cataleptic trance that is virtually indistinguishable from death. Madeline dies and is entombed, but of course she wasn’t really dead. She “rises” from her tomb, seeks out her brother and the two of them perish. The narrator flees, and when he turns around, he discovers that the entire house has split apart and sunk into the swamp that surrounds it. Cheery stuff, and par for the course for good ol’ Edgar.

The problem with making this into a film is that there’s not nearly enough story here, even for the dinky running time of this version. Do make it work even remotely, Corman needs to add quite a bit. For starters, he gives our narrator the name of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). He also gives us a backstory. To get Winthrop to get to the Usher house, he is given a relationship with Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who used to live in Boston and worked with him. Winthrop has arrived with the intention of taking Madeline away and marrying her.

Standing in the way of this is Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), who believes that both he and his sister are doomed. Roderick believes that the entire Usher line is cursed and that neither he nor his sister should marry or procreate so that the curse will die with them. He does his best to get Winthrop to leave and then puts up with him with poor grace. For his part, Winthrop does the best he can to convince Madeline to leave with him. She wants to, but she’s also convinced that she and her brother are doomed. In fact, returning to the family home has made her succumb to those cataleptic spells.

Corman has also given us a fourth character in Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), who acts as a caretaker for the Usher house and family. Bristol simply does what he’s told and is more or less resigned to the fact that when the Usher line dies, he’ll probably die with it.

Ultimately, House of Usher does follow the basic story of Poe’s tale pretty carefully, simply adding in the relationship between Madeline and Philip Winthrop as something to pad out the length and give them something to talk about. Philip trying to get Madeline to leave the house and marry him takes up a great deal of the narrative, and thus allows this story to expand out to something like feature-length.

As seems to be the case with these Corman adaptations of Poe in general, the reason to actually spend time with the film starts and ends with Vincent Price. Price was made for this sort of film where he gets to play this sort of tortured Gothic dude who is tortured by something in his past that he can’t speak of or simply can’t get beyond. Roderick Usher is different in that respect because in this case this terrible past comes from his family, not his own actions. But really, this is part for the course for Vincent Price at this stage in his career. It’s always interesting to see him sans mustache and, in this case, with bleached white-blonde hair. But it’s still clearly Vincent Price being tortured and overacting like a champ.

And, as tended to be the case, the sets are properly Gothic and dark, and yet still sumptuous, a sort of faded grandeur that Corman loved and Poe seemed obsessed with. House of Usher looks the part, and that goes a long way here, too.

But is it any good? It’s okay. Price is the best thing here and pretty much everything else is in service to him. You could find much worse ways to spend 80 minutes in front of a movie.

Why to watch House of Usher: No one chews scenery like Vincent Price.
Why not to watch: There’s not really enough plot here for even a short movie.

House of Usher, Roger Corman, horror


  1. What would Corman have done without Vincent Price at this point in his career? Or for that matter vice versa? Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre were bigger names in their prime but by the time they were reduced to appearing in this sort of horror outing they seemed worn out and resigned but Price seized the opportunity with zest and brio. He almost always seemed to be having fun which allowed the audience to do the same.

    1. My favorite of this Corman/Price films is The Masque of the Red Death where it's so clear that Price is having the best time being evil.

      There's a particular joy to these Corman adaptations of Poe.