/horror visits “The House of Usher” (1960)

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Alta Vista Productions

Baddie: I mean, the House of Usher. It’s in the name.

Lesson: The Usher line is tainted, Mr. Winthrop.

Octoberween is a time for reflection. SciFridays is now /horror, the leaves are changing (but not in Texas) and I’m trying to be good at Twitter. (Follow me on Twitter @slash_horror!)

It seemed appropriate, then, to theme this Octoberween “Roger Corman”. He’s a champion of cult cinema, a low-budget loving independent pulp film icon. He’s worked with greats like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Sharktopus.  He tweeted at me once, so I can die happy.

We’ll start Octoberween with The Fall of the House of Usher (also called House of Usher), because that’s where I started originally. These are my first heebie jeebies. It’s based off of an Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, and is the first of Corman’s Poe adaptations. It also has Vincent Price, which is normally Second Breakfast’s territory. Chris wrote about three other of the Poe adaptations, which you can and should read.

Roderick (Vincent Price) plays the foreboding and protective brother of Ms. Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). He’s none too pleased when her fiancee Winthrop (Mark Damon) shows up. Both Ushers are afflicted by hyper-sensitivity. Roderick is the most special, not able to withstand loud noises, harsh fabrics, bright lights, or flavorful food. He tries desperately to get Winthrop to leave, to un-betroth Madeline (the whole Usher family has gone mad, she’s therefore not wife material) but of course, Winthrop staunchly refuses. For his loyalty, a chandelier tries to kill him.

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Alta Vista Productions

This movie is classic. Eerie music underscores a minimalist, theatrical set (some pieces are clearly painted, etc., but that’s also indicative of Corman’s low-budget love). It’s a Victorian era movie filmed in the 60’s and the gravitas and acting performances belay that clear as day. Everyone is so ar-tic-u-late. Our hero Winthrop is expertly coiffed in a powder blue suit and cream ascot, while Vincent Price prowls in red velvet and a black tie. Roderick a physically striking character, tall and thin, his coat sweeping the ground. Madeline, too, is often garbed in red. Well, most of the house decor is red. A little heavy handed, but the symbolism is intact.

House of Usher is super duper ominous. Roderick and Madeline exchange tense glances, shake off weird occurrences and speak in riddles. Roderick clearly has some power over Madeline, which he exerts effortlessly with a stern Vincent Price-esque gaze. We learn Madeline used to live in Boston and has since returned to her family estate for some reason. She’s also not a passive partner in her house arrest, but her sibling relationship is clearly emotionally abusive, “My life is my own,” she asserts firmly at least once. “Is it?” questions Roderick, alluding to the still-then unknown threat.

Winthrop, to his credit, seems like a genuinely decent guy. He tries really hard to be a good, doting fiancee. He’s concerned for her well-being and attempts to be nice to Roderick as best he is able. Their affection is real and appears to be healthy, if somewhat Victorian.

For all the schlock and camp associated with Roger Corman, House of Usher features some really solid technical moments. Long silences followed by sweeping camera pans around a complete room. Tight framing within the house creates a sense of claustrophobia. The earthquakes (fissure beneath the house) give the actual structure life, and breath, and a sense of relative autonomy.

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Alta Vista Productions

About halfway we’re given a little insight into the mystery of the house and the family Usher through a painstaking visit to the family morgue. Violins gently swell and rise as they discover the coffins that await Madeline and Roderick. Madeline is obsessed with death, and, feeling that hers is impending, why shouldn’t she be? We’re then treated to a classic Vincent Price monologue, and it’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of and more. You never realized how beautiful the word ‘stagnant’ was until it passed Vincent Price’s lips.

It’s through this monologue that we learn the reasons for Roderick’s issues, his fears, and why he tries to keep Madeline confined. Basically it escalates from there, but I don’t want to incur too many spoilers, just in case. What follows next is my heebie jeebies.

The quiet horror of House of Usher is its genius. The tension shifts and passes and the family dynamic is effortless. I suppose we can attribute that primarily to the origin content, from Edgar Allan Poe, while the drama (and I do mean drama) is conducted effortlessly by Corman. The movie’s descent into madness is executed well by the petite four-person cast (there is also a manservant who is essentially the plot grease).

I know it’s tempting to watch a bunch of crazy slasher movies at Halloween, but Vincent Price, Edgar Allen Poe and Roger Corman are never out of season.

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