01/01/2012

The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960)


"Is there no end to your horrors?!"
-Philip Winthrop To Roderick Usher

Happy new year folks! I thought I'd start 2012 as I mean to go on with a lurid but literary Technicolor Gothic horror from Roger Corman, the first of his eight-film Edgar Allan Poe cycle for American International Pictures. The wholesome but faintly gormless Mike Damon stars as Boston gent Philip Winthrop, who ventures out on horseback in search of his betrothed, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), only to find her bed-ridden and apparently imprisoned within the grounds of her family’s crumbling New England ancestral seat by her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), a tormented aristocrat suffering from a "morbid acuteness of the senses", an affliction that renders the slightest sensation too much for him to bear. Usher, a morose, obsessive individual as fragile as "fine glass" but highly controlling, is hostile to the intruder and explains his belief that he and Madeline are descended from a cursed bloodline, the last of a cruel dynasty of decadent tyrants, rogues, harlots, drug addicts, murderers and smugglers. Determined that the Usher name should die with the current heirs, Roderick strongly opposes Philip's plans to depart with Madeline and a violent argument erupts, during which the waif appears to pass away from a heart attack. After she is buried in the family vault with unseemly haste, Winthrop grieves for his beloved and prepares to take his leave but not before learning by chance that Madeline frequently suffered from cataleptic fits and thus might not really be dead after all...


Corman's Usher proved to be a winning formula and a follow-up, The Pit & The Pendulum, also starring Price and scripted by Richard Matheson, would hurriedly follow its blueprint to the letter a year later. Here, as there, Corman assembled a workmanlike production and a distinctly average supporting cast around his theatrically trained star but it matters not as an ice cream-haired Price carries the film with ease. Just the right side of hammy, the former noir character player and stage thesp makes for a marvellous Roderick Usher, perhaps the greatest of Poe's sickly, morbidly preoccupied protagonists and arguably the actor's best role. The man is simply unforgettable plaintively plucking his lute and daubing grotesque portraits of his deceased relatives as the house tremors and shudders all around him, both he and it buckling under the weight of their own sadness and moral decay. For once, Corman's thrifty sets - all rotten bannisters and excessively dusty fixtures - are entirely justified in their flimsiness, the house of Usher being an unhappy place built on a fog-blasted swamp where nothing can grow, the sort of desolate locale that can only be set free from the nightmarish secrets it holds by the cleansing fire that finally razes it to the ground. Brrr...

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