The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

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*. I like experimental, art-house and avant-garde cinema as much as (and maybe a little more than) the next guy, but you have to call them out when they don’t work. As here.
*. Poe’s story has always presented a challenge to filmmakers. It’s a reflective mood piece, whose main plot points revolve around the act of reading. There’s also a suggestion of incest that has to be worked around.
*. Usually, the story is changed or adapted in significant ways, but this time it’s almost unrecognizable. Part of this is due to the absence of any intertitles, and part is the short running time (just under 13 minutes), but mostly I think it’s due to the directors (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber) not being all that interested in the source. I mean, who is the traveller here anyway?
*. Jean Epstein managed to capture Poe’s melancholy poetry in his version of the story, La Chute de la maison Usher, which came out the same year as this film did. The sound of silence was hauntingly evoked by Epstein by way of visual cues. Here we have words floating on the screen that seem to acknowledge the limitations of the directors.
*. In my notes on Epstein’s film I mentioned how flimsy the role of Madeline is. But Roderick Usher is another story. He’s one of the great originals in all literature, a morbid and dangerous dandy overripe in decadence. He is the distasteful man of taste. You can’t even feel sympathy for him since he’s obviously more than half in love with death.

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*. Speaking of the love of death, I really like the touch of fetish we get in Roderick’s hands gliding down Madeline’s corpse as it’s lain out in her coffin. You almost expect to see him rubbing her back to life.
*. Instead of a story, what we get is a kaleidoscope of strange imagery, seemingly launched by a bout of food poisoning. After Madeline swoons at table before an uncovered dish we enter a world derived from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with sets that are all off-kilter angles and wall scribbles.
*. The other distinguishing visual effect is the somewhat cubist technique of shooting through prisms to create multiple images. This is merely bizarre: it serves no thematic purpose and is done so repetitively that it gets tiring even in a short.
*. The result is mainly just an excuse to throw camera tricks at us. It has a nice shot at the beginning as the traveler approaches the house in silhouette, and Madeline’s final appearance is terrific, distorting perspective in a grotesque way as her oversize and seemingly disembodied hands open wide the door. Aside from that the story has little weight, and the only mood achieved is one of confusion.

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