House of Usher (1960)

chouseofusher2

*. Say you’re a highschool English teacher and you’ve assigned Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” You know most of your students aren’t going to read it (nobody reads any more!), so you want to show the film in class. Is there any help for you?
*. Not much. It’s a story that’s been filmed many times, but usually with only a casual regard for Poe’s story. I mean, it’s a little better than all those movies called The Raven that only take Poe’s title, but there’s still a lot of creative license going on.
*. Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome is the whiff of incest that pervades the Usher household. In Jean Epstein’s 1928 version this was done away with by making Roderick and Madeline husband and wife. Here, the character of “Philip Winthrop” is introduced as Madeline’s fiancé.
*. This makes the story safe, at the risk of making it incredible. It’s more than a bit odd that Madeline and Philip are betrothed but Philip seems never to have heard of Roderick, or he of him.
*. What we have here is the first instalment of Roger Corman’s eight-film “Poe Cycle.” I believe seven of these had Vincent Price in them. The idea was for AIP to go big in Technicolor, and when I say “go big” I mean Hammer time. Everything from the costumes to the sets to the storylines to that garish colour screams the House that Dripped Blood.
*. I’m not a big Corman fan. He could do a more than competent job on a tight schedule and no budget. But with more resources (he spent all of fifteen days on this one, which must have seemed like a luxury) he never showed himself capable of greater things.
*. Anyone can hear the claws of rats in stone walls. They’re pretty loud.
*. I wonder how many people who see this movie (or, for that matter, read the story) know what a “tarn” is.
*. In 2005 this movie was listed with the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” A lot of movies must be so listed if this one made the grade. I mean, we’re talking about a film with very, very limited cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.
*. Aside from launching the Price-Poe franchise, there are only two items that strike me as interesting: the grotesque Usher family portraits by Burt Shonberg and the luridly tinted dream sequence. The paintings I find particularly effective, as they shock us out of the oppressive Hammer-style decor into a warped kitsch modernity.
*. There’s nothing else worth noting. Price is good, as usual. The role of Roderick Usher seems made for him: sinister, cultivated, and fey. Mark Damon as Winthrop looks and sounds like he’s in way over his head (he’d go on to have a very productive career as a producer). Myrna Fahey has nothing to do and seems quite bored until she is resurrected as one of Dracula’s daughters. The burning-house effects (it was actually a burning barn, which is what it looks like) were re-used again and again by Corman. He always liked to get full value, and then some.

chouseofusher1

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