Roger Corman’s first foray into the world of Edgar Allan Poe is an elegant, beautifully realised tale of death and madness with a scene-stealing performance from the incomparable Vincent Price…
Roger Corman’s first foray into the world of Edgar Allan Poe is an elegant screen adaptation of the great mystery writer’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. Telling the twisted tale of the Usher family, we are introduced to their history of mysterious madness through Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who goes to the Usher mansion in order to bring his fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey) back to his home in Boston. His romantic intentions are, however, stopped by Madeline’s brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) who fears their union will continue the family’s cursed bloodline. It must be stopped at all cost.
The film was a daring departure for American International Pictures (AIP) as the studio was, until that point, primarily concerned with black and white movies to be screened as double bills. Due to falling audiences for this form of cinema, AIP decided to put more money into a lavish cinemascope colour film, with Poe’s fiction being the inspiration behind a slew of adaptations. The Fall of the House of Usher, the first of Corman’s attempts and still considered one of his best, is beautifully realised on screen thanks to its lavish production design and a captivating performance from Vincent Price.
Taking every opportunity to celebrate colour film, The Fall of the House of Usher benefits from clinical detail paid to its production. Corman clearly wanted to give the audience every chance to be immersed in this grand, gothic mansion so he pays the closest attention to every element of the set. Everything from the doors and the bed frames to the long, flickering candles that light the scene, add texture to the experience. This is aided by cinemascope giving that wide aspect ratio that encourages the eyes to look around, almost as if the answers to the enigma might be in the corners of the frame. The crypt is even better; foreboding and cobweb ridden with creaking hinges adding a sonic ambience to the ghoulish atmosphere.
Yet, it’s Vincent Price as the self-appointed patriarch of the Usher family who steals the show. His gleaming white hair has a ghostly, aged look about it, almost as if he has already departed this lifetime. He also glides about his gothic home like an apparition, a sense of emotional weakness in the face of his family’s supposed curse tempered by his unsettling motivation. He’s dangerous, you just don’t know how dangerous (or to what extent he’ll go to ensure his will is met). The outcome is undoubtedly shocking.
Whether or not you feel Corman along with acclaimed screenwriter Richard Matheson do a faithful job of bringing Poe’s story to the screen, there’s little argument as to the effectiveness of their attempt. The film looks as elegant as the gothic mansion from which the madness ensues, and satisfyingly creeps under the skin thanks to its gorgeously realised setting, an unrelenting atmosphere of dread, and the captivating performance of Price.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Richard Matheson
Starring: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe
Country: USA / IMDB
This film was reviewed as part of Arrow Video’s brand new six-film Blu-ray Collection featuring The Fall from the House of Usher plus Tales of Terror, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven, The Haunted Palace and The Tomb of Ligeia.