The House of Usher/Review

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

< The House of Usher
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Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is concerned for his fiancee Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). She hasn't been seen in a while, so Philip ventures out to the Usher home to see if he can figure out exactly where she has been. When he arrives, he is immediately confronted by Madeline's brooding brother Roderick (Vincent Price), who asks the young man to leave immediately and never return. Philip decides against better advice to stay and find out why it is that Roderick is keeping his sister as a prisoner in their own home, and he soon hears tales of a bloodline passed down through the Usher family line that contains a streak of evil that Roderick wishes to stamp out once and for all. Things get even weirder for the young man when Madeline ends up mysteriously dying and continues to haunt the house from beyond the grave.

Roger Corman's first stab at taking on the world of Edgar Allan Poe, House of Usher, resulted in one of the most popular series of films to ever be put out by the famed B-movie producer/director. Filmed twice before (once as a short film in 1928 and again as a feature in 1949), this version of the film paved the way for other Corman/Poe epics, such as The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror (featuring a trilogy of stories based on the Poe shorts Morella, The Black Cat, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar), and The Raven. In addition to the Corman films, it also spawned numerous other modern attempts to cash in on the new found love for the author's work. While it is interesting to see history in the making, I canít understand exactly why this particular film became so popular in the first place.

Corman's House of Usher is dreadfully slow and lacks a good deal of the fun that was normally associated with some of Vincent Price's more entertaining roles. While I enjoy a good brood just like everyone else, I found this film to be a bit too much on the depressing side for my tastes. I have always been a fan of Poe's writings and realize that he was a naturally brooding writer, but I didn't feel that the transformation from book to screen lent itself to his dreary ruminations very well. Poe's bleakness was always infused with a sense of irony, but in the hands of Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson, this bleakness just turns into stoicism and loses some of its dramatic punch.

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Particularly distressing is the fact that Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for the film (as well as some of the other Corman/Poe films listed above). I have also been a long time fan of Matheson's writings, both in the book world and in the theatrical world, and I hoped that this film would live up to the expectations that some of those works brought with them. For some reason, though, the man who gave us I Am Legend (which became the basis for three films, the most memorable being Night of the Living Dead) and the stories for Stir of Echoes and The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't able to pull off quite as interesting a story as he did for these other inspirations. It is a very rare occasion where I will comment that a Matheson story has ever made me sleepy, but his script here manages to do just that.

On the plus side, the film certainly does have some great production design. The sets are all lavishly designed and contain a great deal of red, which drives home the feel of blood and death, plus the film is appropriately lit to coincide with its depressing feel. I don't know if the film was meant to be set back in the era that Poe lived in, but the costumes feel as if they were patterned after such late 1800's designs as the ones folks might see if they happened to live back then. What all this amounts to is a film that feels very regal in appearance, but can't be sustained storywise.

Apart from the look of the film, it goes without saying that the performances are top notch. Vincent Price is his usual best here, though he does play quite a droll character, but he infuses his character with a subtle madness that many modern actors can't get a grasp on when playing similar roles. Though he holds his own against Price, Mark Damon's character doesn't feel as developed as the rest of the characters and he spends most of the running time doing nothing more than questioning Price's character as to his motives. Pretty Myrna Fahey, though, nearly runs away with the film while giving one of the most quiet and understated performances of the bunch. She really gets a chance to cut loose at the end of the film, but it is too much of a chore to have to sit through the entire film just to get to her intense performance.

Review by Pockets of Sanity

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