Reportedly shot by Roger Corman for the princely sum of $200,000 over a marathon (by his standards) fourteen days, it’s safe to assume AIP must have made a pretty good return on their investment, as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ proceeded to kick-start a series of releases that spanned the whole of the following decade, defining the aesthetic of gothic horror cinema to such an extent that, perhaps even more-so than Hammer’s early successes, it is this film that can take responsibility for flooding the world’s screens with a tide of coffins, crypts and candelabras in the years that followed.
Right from its opening moments, ‘House of Usher’ seems intent of defying the limitations imposed by its low budget, as a wide tracking shot across a bleak, mist-laden moor haunted by dead, overhanging branches leads directly to a spectacularly overwrought matte shot of the titular house that remains breath-taking, in spite of its evident unreality. In fact, Daniel Haller’s production design in this opening sequence is so grandiose it suggests a cartoonish, almost ‘disneyfied’ take on gothic horror – diving headfirst into the kind of heady romantic imagery that Hammer hinted at, but were always reluctant to dwell upon, let alone take to the level of garish excess seen here. Such impressions are reinforced by Les Baxter’s quirky, over-bearing score, featuring a preposterous main theme that anticipates Danny Elfman’s oeuvre just as thoroughly as the accompanying visuals succeed in inventing about 90% of the cloying, comfort blanket gothic aesthetic that Tim Burton would later call his own.
As soon as future Italian b-movie stalwart Mark Damon his dismounted and made his entrance to the house however, it becomes clear that this bombastic introduction has overplayed things somewhat, and that, initially at least, we’re in for a drama that is considerably more sombre and low-key than casual viewers might have been anticipating. In fact, lacking any capacity for special effects or rampant supernatural shenanigans, the first half of the movie very much becomes a challenge to see how well the audience’s attention can be held by a cast of only four actors discussing largely abstract concerns within the confines of a few finely adorned sets. Not exactly a recipe for runaway box office success you might think, but when Corman is in the director’s chair, the script is by Richard Matheson and one of the actors in question is Vincent Price, you can rest assured that the viewer’s attention is not going to waver for long.
Price’s smooth-skinned, albino-like appearance will initially come as something of a surprise to those of us used to his more haggard demeanour in later films - but when he begins to speak, all doubts fade. Whilst it’s easy to throw such distinctions at any number of the films he made in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, for my money this is truly a career-best performance from the great man, with the hyper-sensitive recluse Roderick Usher seeming very much like the role he was born to play. The speech in which he describes the “morbid acuteness of the senses” with which his character is afflicted is rightly the stuff of legend, and just hearing his inimitable voice roll across Matheson’s perfectly turned Poe-esque dialogue is an absolute joy (“Two drops of fire… guttering in the vast, consuming darkness..”).
Like the film itself, Price’s art lies in taking things to the very edge of camp, but NEVER stepping over the line, maintaining an old world seriousness of purpose that allows him to invest a line as simple as “believe me sir, I bear you no malice” with a crushing pathos, his delivery alone telling us all we need to know about the dark secrets and untold years of torment that the remainder of the film proceeds to elaborate upon in more colourful detail.
As would become the norm with the Poe films, Matheson’s script takes considerable liberties with its literary source, but necessarily so in this case, given that a direct adaptation of Poe’s characteristically peculiar story would probably last about twenty minutes and include a lengthy poetry reading and scenes in which a guy recites quotations from a fictional medieval romance. Nonetheless, I think Matheson captures the feel of Poe’s work excellently, the dialogue-heavy format allowing him to pluck choice phrases from the original text and extrapolate them into icy, tormented soliloquies that – I would contend – stay remarkably true to the author’s pitch black intent.
One of literature’s blunter tales of the conflict between entropy and death and the eternal urge to life, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ of course exemplifies the underlying themes of all classically composed gothic horror, and Matheson’s script very much maintains that focus. “Something crept across the land, and blighted it,” Price intones with chilling relish at one point, as Poe’s central device of allowing psychological malady to assume physical form and transform the world of his characters remains paramount, more-so than the more conventional supernatural hi-jinks that took centre stage in later instalments.
Even the film’s nominal supernatural conceit – that of the house literally becoming possessed by evil as a result the misdeeds of its former inhabitants – remains true to Poe’s original notion of a psychological subjectivity and his understanding of the way a curdled mind can infect its surroundings, even as Price’s descriptions of the “savage degradations” of his ancestors express a wonderful, fairground ghoulishness sure to tingle the spines of a 1960 horror crowd (“Vivian Usher – blackmailer, harlot, murderess… she died in the madhouse..”).
(The portraits themselves incidentally are wonderfully striking, expressionistic works (the tormented canvases seen in Roderick’s study even more so), far more memorable than the usual knocked-up-in-a-few-hours-by-the-set-designer efforts that tend to pass for great art in films like this. Interestingly, the paintings are credited to one Burt Shonberg, a guy who, along with art department credits on several Corman films, is probably best known as co-proprietor and chief decorator of the legendary Laguna Beach beatnik hang-out Café Frankenstein. He subsequently painted murals for other LA counter-culture venues such as The Purple Onion and Pandora’s Box, and created the spectacular cover to Love’s Out Here album in 1969.)
Artwork aside, the design of the film’s interior sets is of course executed in definitive gothic style, with Haller & Corman’s décor and choice of visual motifs exerting a huge influence upon the aesthetic of ‘60s horror in general, and upon the Italian school in particular. For an example, just check out the rusty, wrought-iron gateway to the family crypt, and the way that not only this device itself, but also the decision to frame characters behind it as some kind of broad signpost of mental instability, turned up in all kinds of movies over the next few years (Whip & The Body and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock to name but a few).
In fact, the entirety of the film’s crypt sequence (featuring the revealing of brass name plaques identifying coffins as belonging to the still living, the obligatory disinterment of an uncannily preserved relative, etc etc) was reintegrated so persistently by the Italian directors that it became a cliché almost immediately, making it difficult to really judge the original effectiveness behind what now seems like ‘House of Usher’s most conventional horror movie moment, when a coffin falls open to reveal a dusty skeleton (“shit, they’ve sat through twenty five minutes of this stuff, let’s give ‘em a skeleton”).
With such a limited range of dramatic possibility, things do start to get slightly creaky as the picture creeps toward feature length, but in fact this inadvertently allows ‘House of Usher’ to add another notch to its impressive list of ‘firsts’, as the tradition of the psychedelic dream sequence that would follow through all the AIP/Corman films is hereby established. A characteristically enjoyable blue and purple-tinted fantasia ensues, as Mark Damon’s sleeping spirit is harangued not just by the ghosts of Usher ancestors, but by swatches of coloured mist and sharp, expressionistic frames and shapes… that strange, slightly LA-beatnik tinged strain of modernism shining through again, maybe..?
Anyway, the deftness with which Corman handles the sombre tone of the material here is hugely impressive, given that his most successful directorial efforts up to this point (‘A Bucket of Blood’, ‘Little Shop of Horrors’) had been comedies, and that the Poe series itself would veer off into similar territory almost immediately with the knock-about matinee fun of ‘Tales of Terror’ and ‘The Raven’. All of those are great movies, no question, but immeasurably different in tone from this one, in which – despite occasional hints of knowing humour - a genuine feeling of crushing morbidity predominates, evoking a macabre atmosphere that is easily on a par with the grimmest of the Italian epics that followed. Whilst conventional horror ‘shocks’ are few, in Corman’s capable hands the story still builds to a tremendously suspenseful conclusion that, though it would be reiterated a thousand times over the next decade, is still powerful enough to make an indelible impression upon anyone who has allowed themselves to be caught up in the drama.
“At least she has been spared the agonies of trying to escape”, Roderick Usher here proclaims after his sister’s apparent death - a blunt reminder of the unflinching pessimism at the heart of Poe’s universe that few if any subsequent adaptations of his work would dare touch upon.