Horror Movie A Day: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1960) I suggest you leave. No? Then perish with us.
Published at: Oct. 21, 2008, 2:45 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[The regular A Movie A Day list has been frozen in order for me to do an all-horror line-up for October. I’ve pulled many horror titles from my regular “to see” stack and have ordered many more horror and thriller titles to make sure we have some good stuff. Like the regular AMAD column all the movies I’m covering are films I have never seen, but unlike the regular AMAD column I will not connect each film to the one before it. Instead I will pull a title at random every day and watch whatever the movie Gods determine for me.]
Today’s our first Edgar Allan Poe movie of the horror AMAD run. It’s fitting we got to this one, actually, since we kicked off October with an HP Lovecraft movie (THE DUNWICH HORROR).
This 1960 movie was produced and directed by Roger Corman, but is about as far from his schlocky cheeseball pictures as you can get. There’s a whole lot of class to this flick, thanks to two main sources.
The first is its script, penned by one Richard Matheson, author of I AM LEGEND and scripter of some of the best TWILIGHT ZONE episodes ever (Nightmare at 20,000 Feet anyone?). Matheson strikes a perfect balance, keeping Poe’s poetic sense without making it ridiculous. The characters don’t speak in rhyme, of course, but there’s an elegance to the dialogue and character work.
That leads me to the second biggest strength: Vincent Price. Here he is sans mustache and with bright blond hair, playing the mysteriously menacing, yet somehow sweet and fragile Roderick Usher.
The poor Ushers are a doomed bloodline. Roderick and his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) are the last and he means to keep it that way. They live in their creepy, crumbling mansion in the middle of a burnt land, resting atop a tar pit that will eventually swallow the house. Their only company, besides each other, is the family butler, a kind man named Bristol (Harry Ellerbe).
Apparently, Madeline spent some time out of the house, in Boston, where she met and got engaged to a handsome man, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon, no stranger to the AMAD column, having put in appearances in both BLACK SABBATH and NAKED YOU DIE!). He shows up at her door, trying to make her stay true to her word and elope with him.
Here’s where it starts getting really weird. The house is kind of haunted by the imprint of the evils done by the previous Ushers. Stephen King might have borrowed that idea from Poe for THE SHINING.
Not only that, but Madeline is supposed to be very ill and we find that Price is a very sensitive person. No, not emotionally, but all of his senses are heightened. Any noise above a whisper is agonizing to him, the touch of anything but the softest fabrics is grating, any light brighter than candlelight is blinding.
So, he’s vulnerable. And in his own world he is the hero of the story, which I love. He stands between Madeline and Philip because he wants to save them and their potential children the agony of being an Usher, inheriting the curse and spreading it beyond the walls of this gothic home.
But the real question is how much of this is real, how much is the supernatural exerting influence on the living world and how much of it is all being orchestrated by Roderick… a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? Is there a real curse or is Roderick just insane and trying to kill his sister for no reason other than he has it in his mind that he’s doing her a favor, putting her out of her misery?
Mark Damon once again stands out as a good looking guy that has some substance to him, not just a pretty face. He goes through hell in this film, trying to get his love out of the house, take her away from the nightmare. His acting is very realistic, not at all stagy, which isn’t common in this era. He’s kind of the perfect foil for Vincent Price’s trim and proper quiet menace.
The final act gets crazy. There’s a fucked up nightmare sequence where Mark meets the entire line of Ushers and that’s followed up by a real world stalking through the house as a crazy person is loose. And how they pull off the insane person, hands bloody, eyes crazed… really fuckin’ creepy.
Actually, you know what this reminded of the most? Another AMAD, a Val Lewton movie starring Boris Karloff called ISLE OF THE DEAD. Especially in this last act. I don’t know what it is about the execution of insanity in both of those films that gets under my skin, but it does.
This is a smart little movie and one that really takes itself seriously. Not in a bad way, in all the right ways. Atmosphere, production design, real creepiness and beautiful Technicolor… Corman went all out on this one, not throwing out another cheapie.
Final Thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. Everybody is working at the top of their game, but even if the rest of the movie failed Vincent Price’s awesome performance alone is worth watching this film. The mix of charm, danger and sympathetic vulnerability is outstanding, complex. Price awed me a little with his performance here. Also keep an eye out for some truly creepy family portraits on the walls of the castle, painted by Burt Schoenberg, which are abstract and very stylized. They kinda reminded me of the kind of stuff Dave McKean does.