Roger Corman’s work has been often been described as schlock film; a pulpy mass of horror, sci-fi and B-movie nonsense of only vague merit and achievement. Excluding his actual films for a minute, looking at the number of people who have developed under the man’s wing, whether as a producer or director, is quite astounding. On the director’s side, he’s nurtured and helped the likes of Francis Ford Coppela, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich amongst others. On the acting side he helped launch the career of Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner and Robert Deniro.
With this in mind, Corman must have been doing something right and his films are often far more intelligent and affecting then they’re perhaps given credit. His late fifties and early sixties horror films often stand next to Hammer Horrors in the pantheon of classic horror, taking stories by Edgar Allan Poe and layering them into fully fledged horror films.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is one of his strongest films, thematically and visually. Aware of the length of Poe’s original but effective shorts, it has taken real skill to fill up each narrative without bloating it with obvious excess and useless scenarios. House of Usher is the most powerful of these films and is again heady exploration into American, period horror.
Philip Winthrop is visiting his fiancé at her family mansion in the middle of a foggy nowhere. However it appears that she is ill and under house arrest from her over bearing brother Roderick Usher. It soon becomes clear that Roderick will do anything to prevent his sister Madeline leaving with her fiancé for Boston but this is not all that lies within the house. The house itself is falling apart, crumbling with bile and hatred at its heart, almost as if it were alive.
The Usher’s family past is coming back to haunt and overwhelm the modern day Ushers; themselves complete husks of people unable to eat proper food or leave the house due to their delicacy. Vincent Price is in most of Corman’s Poe films and steals the limelight pretty much on every occasion with his nuanced and enunciated performances. His Roderick Usher is at once an unnerving character, unsure of whether to be trusted and potentially possessed by the ghosts of the past. The film is ambiguous in whether Roderick does what he does because of his paranoid state of belief or whether the evil relatives of the past are influencing him to do them. Either way, it’s a frightening and brilliant performance that holds the majority of the film together.
The film covers a number of spooky topics from premature burial, possessed houses, malicious ghosts and paranoia resulting in a film quite ahead of its time. The clawing of a character to get out of a casket is one of its best scenes, leading to a suspenseful following of a trail of blood from their bleeding hands. Myrna Fahey gives an excellent performance as Madeline and is particularly frightening later on when apparently possessed after being locked away in the family tomb.
Visually the film is a flurry of rich colour and lighting, with velvet reds and purples being juxtaposed to the grey, crumbling walls and windows. Corman often puts dream sequences into his films and House of Usher is no different with possibly his scariest sequence involving paintings of the family that come to life and have a horribly eerie sound to them. Like most objects in the house, they house an evil in them from the past, often portrayed with Ligeti like vocals in the soundtrack reminiscent (or foreshadowing) the sounds of the stargate sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Though it may not be gory or even particularly scary in the cold light of 2012, The Fall Of The House Of Usher is an enjoyable and exciting foray into the horror genre when it was still more about entertaining the viewer rather than repulsing them. Corman and Price may not be considered the most sophisticated auteur/actor relationship but their films are more than a mere guilty pleasure; they are underrated gems of a genre rarely given enough credit for its creativity and success.
“The house itself is evil now”…