But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, first published in 1839, is not a story to be read for its plot. Not a great deal happens in strictly narrative terms and the glory of the piece lies in the deliciously over-rich prose style, all florid description and teeming symbolism. The challenge for an adapter is to translate this verbal feast into visual terms and although the story has been made onto several films it found its perfect director in Roger Corman.
It was, superficially at least, an unusual project for Corman, who had been making a long series of very low budget black and white exploitation films which ranged wildly from the good – particularly A Bucket of Blood - to the unspeakable – notably the ludicrous It Challenged the World. He assured American International Pictures that he could make a colour film for the price of two black and white ones - about $300,000 and AIP, not averse to gaining a bit of respectability and diversifying out of the cheapo drive-in market, agreed. Having already made a film in Cinemascope - I Mobster - he used his experience to combine the widescreen process with quite gorgeously opulent Eastman Color. Adding genre savvy was the noted writer Richard Matheson whose early work in episodic television was trumped by his involvement with The Twilight Zone and a string of novels and stories including the brilliant I Am Legend. The key influence over the whole affair would seem to be the Hammer gothics of the late 1950s and the influence would go the other way when Hammer’s movies of the mid-60s often resemble the Corman Poe movies, particularly the Cinemascope compositions of Dracula Prince of Darkness.
The result is actually very faithful to the short story but moves the emphasis from the rather downbeat character study of a brother and sister whose grim existence is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger to the idea that the film is actually all about a monster – the monster being the house itself. Vincent Price plays Roderick Usher, a rich recluse who lives in a vast, rambling Gothic house with his sister Madeleine (Fahey). When Winthrop (Damon), a traveller, arrives with designs on Madeleine, the family secrets are simply begging to crawl out of the tomb and we soon discover that the Usher family is afflicted by a particularly morbid curse.
The idea of the monster being the house is a simple but brilliant one and it seems to me to come straight from the short story. Poe’s writing gives life to this gothic pile - While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters - and it is to the immense credit of Corman and his brilliant production designer Daniel Haller that the visual recreation doesn’t disappoint. From the beginning trek through the dead forest to the final destruction of the house, we get a feast for the senses which is somewhat more, for want of a better word, orgiastic than the climaxes that Hammer was offering at the time. Certainly, the colour seems richer and the drama more melodramatic. The dream sequence stands out in this regard as a highly symbolic and sensual moment which points forward to AIP’s later “trip” movies and, demonstrating Corman’s influence on his British colleagues again, Hammer films such as Plague of the Zombies.
Speaking of melodramatic, one should mention Vincent Price who soon became a fixture in the Corman Poe films – a series which this film kicked off and which ran until 1964’s Tomb of Ligeia. In this first instalment, he’s rather restrained and, perhaps, all the more effective for it because Roderick Usher is not a large baroque caricature but a pained, haunted man who is repressing his baser instincts. It’s a very powerful performance, all the more so when contrasted with the wooden supporting performances. Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey are not exactly bad actors but their resolutely 1950s American presence and diction keeps threatening to take one out of the story completely. Luckily, the power of Price’s performance, the beauty of Floyd Crosby’s cinematography and the sheer visceral drive of Corman’s direction combine to keep you riveted to the screen.
During the past year or so, Arrow Video has become a favourite label for British genre fans with their lovingly rendered, lavishly packaged editions of classic movies. The news that they were to release The Fall of the House of Usher was greeted with howls of delight and it’s good to report that the anticipation has been worthwhile.
The film is presented in its correct Cinemascope ratio of 2.35:1 and the transfer is utterly breathtaking. I seem to do little else but praise Arrow these days but what can I do when confronted with this kind of exceptional work. The first thing you notice is the exceptional colour reproduction, producing an image which is a treat for the eyes. Reds, oranges and blues are the particular delights but every colour is accurately represented. The level of grain is entirely appropriate throughout, although it does vary depending on the quality of the source. No trace of intrusive DNR work and although there is a small amount of damage and wearing, this shouldn’t put anyone off what is certainly the best presentation of this film I’ve ever seen. I wish that the various companies putting out Hammer movies would look at this and see what Eastman Color is supposed to look like. The soundtrack, which comes in LPCM Mono 2.0, is also excellent and a lot more powerful than you might suppose. Ambient sounds come across particularly well – creakings and breathings from the house and its environs are effective – and the dialogue is crisp and clear. Les Baxter’s score comes across nicely but is never allowed to dominate.
As usual, Arrow have made a real effort to create an extras package which really enhances the main feature. The audio commentary track by Roger Corman is the same one which appeared on the Region 1 MGM DVD – but didn’t make it over to this side of the pond – and it’s a good one. Corman has plenty to say about his way of making movies and his sense of humour keeps things light and amusing. He’s also unfailingly generous, even to people whom he has good cause to criticise. Equally gripping are two lengthy discussions on the film, one with Jonathan Rigby and the other by Joe Dante. Rigby focuses in some depth on the making of the film and its context – if you’ve read his books you’ll recognise Rigby’s characteristic mix of dry humour and impeccable scholarship – while Dante – who worked for Corman, first producing trailers and subsequently as a director - looks at the Poe cycle as a whole and the director’s method of working. Fragments of the House of Usher is a ten minute visual essay by David Cairns which has several points of interest but some may find Cairns’ voice a bit off-putting. I particularly liked his observation on how filming indoors makes the film a “stiflingly interior study of madness.” Finally we get the original trailer and a rather lovely eleven minute interview which Vincent Price gave for French television in 1986. This is presented in English with French subtitles and seems to have been intended to publicise Price’s appearance in Basil – The Great Mouse Detective.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the main feature and the disc comes with a booklet containing new writing on the film.