Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

“…And with every evil rooted in its stones…”

Yes, I know. Five film reviews, and all of them horror films. The next one will be different, I promise, and this time I mean it. Honest.

The opening scenes of the lands belonging to House of Usher, the eerie and claustrophobic setting within which the whole film is to be set, are great. There’s no attempt at realism, of course; this is a heightened reality of smoky mists, gnarled, dead trees and eternal dusk. It looks more like a theatre set than anything you’d see in real life, but so it should. These scenes not only set the tone but signal to us that we’ve entered a heightened version of reality.

It’s a heightened version of reality we see indoors, too. Not only is the house itself an increasingly sinister presence, but the claustrophobic mood is enhanced by the fact that the entire film has a cast of four. You don’t get more American Gothic than Poe, of course, but I think there’s something distinctly American about the eerie mood of this film, especially to this British viewer. For a start, there’s a real sense of isolation. The comforting normality and life represented by Boston, representing “our” world, are a long, long way. The wide, open spaces of America (yes, even New England, from a European perspective) are used here to emphasise the isolation, a trope often and successfully used in American horror films of all kinds. And the existence of aristocratic families such as the Ushers and the (real life) Winthrops, with their grand homes and butlers and inherited wealth, looks particularly decadent and decayed in the context of this young republic (Poe wrote the short story in 1839, and the costumes indicate a similar date for the film. The United States was sixty-three years old).

The isolation and alienation of the setting is carried much further than in the original; Poe has his short story narrated by an old friend of the narrator, which adds a certain touch of cosiness. The writer here (Richard Matheson, no less) gives us a protagonist, in Philip Winthrop, who is in a position to be as unsettled by his surroundings as we are, being a stranger to the house. He’s the fiancé of Madeleine Usher, with whom he fell in love in the happier surroundings of Boston, but a stranger to Roderick, and the house. We first meet him traversing the bleak lands of the house, approaching the large, intimidating doors, and using one of those big, iron ring-like knockers which always appear in films like this. He’s accosted by a sinister butler, Bristol- there’s another horror trope- and warned that his employer will not accept visitors. It isn’t long, though, before we meet Roderick Usher- Vincent Price is sublime in the part- and the beautiful yet doomed Madeleine.

We begin slowly as the mystery is gradually and unsettlingly established. We know that Roderick Usher, and the his sister, are unable to bear any strong sensation with any of their senses- which indicates that Madeleine would probably not make the best of sexual partners for Philip! This kind of medical condition is also, of course, the sort of thing which affects those with money and leisure suspiciously more that those who need to work for a living…

We learn that the sinister Roderick is unwilling to allow either himself or his sister to leave the house or, worse, beget children. For the moment, the sense of dread is dialled down. But it isn’t long before two incidents- a falling chandelier and an unsteady railing on the stairs- make it clear that there’s something very unnatural and eerie about this house.

We get hints early on- an Usher family history of madness, ensuing superhuman strength, a dark family history meaning the family line should not be perpetuated- but the opening scenes centre on a to- and fro between Philip and Roderick over the doomed Madeleine. But things ratchet up after Madeleine shows Philip the family tomb, with places for herself and her brother. This horrifies Philip, who is by this point explicitly having a parallel experience of the film to the viewer.

At last Philip confronts Roderick and gets an explanation. The speech is poetic and so wonderfully delivered by Vincent Price, whose performance is simply astonishing. Not only does the family have a history of moral dodginess (although not all of the ancestors described by Roderick, and painted in that strange Goya-cum-Graham Sutherland style, are all that irredeemable, surely?), but it seems the house, and its grounds, are a metaphor made literal; the grounds have become tainted and infertile, while the house is rocky, unstable and, Roderick believes, actively trying to kill Philip! This echoes the earlier references to the “settling of the house” by Bristol, a butler of sixty years who appears to essentially be an integral part of the house himself.

Of course, Philip is appalled by such superstitious nonsense, and immediately convinces Madeleine to come away with him. She starts packing immediately but, alas, seems to die while arguing with Roderick. A disconsolate Philip helps her brother to bury her in the crypt. He’s about to leave until Bristol’s casual mention of “catalepsies” brings him to a horrible realisation. It’s evident that the Americans of the early nineteenth century had a much wider medical vocabulary than the British of the early twenty-first!

Madeleine has been buried alive! Horrified, Philip rushes to her coffin and finds that it’s empty. He confronts Roderick, who glumly confesses that he deliberately buried his own sister alive, but refuses to tell where he left her coffin. Tiring himself after searching for hours, Philip settles to sleep. Roger Corman’s directorship has been superlative up to this point, but the ensuing dream sequence is inspired and extraordinary. It’s an abstract, tinted, sepia dreamworld, evoking the imagery of silent film and the surroundings of 1920s German Expressionist film in particular, with some extraordinary out-of-focus shots of various ghostly Ushers, who look like something Lon Chaney could have portrayed during the 1920s. This sequence raises the dramatic stakes; as Philip wakes, we know this is the climax.

An initially calm Roderick confesses to Philip that he has heard every scream and every scratch of Madeleine’s bloody fingernails as he listens to her slow and horrible death. Finally, Madeleine appears, mad, and strong enough to have ripped the coffin lid from its hinges. The house begins to fall apart as Madeleine strangles her brother. Both of them are crushed by burning masonry as Philip barely escapes the house which crumbles around him.

Extraordinary; the script, the direction, the set design and the central performance from Vincent Price are all of the very first class. This is one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and certainly the best I’ve watched for this blog so far.

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