Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960)

Back in 1960, Jams H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures (AIP) wanted to produce gothic films to cash in on the success Hammer Films was having with their reworking of classic horror tales. Hammer had used the work of British authors like Bram Stoker (well, Irish, actually) and Mary Shelley for their English productions, and AIP would use the American author Edgar Allan Poe as the basis for their films. They began with The Fall of the House of Usher, to be produced and directed by the legendary low-budget maestro, Roger Corman. In contrast to Corman’s ultra-cheap earlier films, Usher would be shot in color and on a budget of $200,000, still cheap but gigantic compared to what Corman was used to working with. The movie would star established Hollywood actor Vincent Price, then seen as on the decline, and would be adapted by Richard Matheson.

Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides from Boston to visit his fiancĂ©e, Madeleine Usher (Myrna Fahey) at her family estate. It is a creepy place, with the vegetation dead for miles around, and the dark mansion itself beginning to crumble. Despite the best efforts of the servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) to dissuade him from seeing Madeleine, he insists, and is confronted by her brother, Roderick Usher (Price). Usher reveals to Winthrop that he suffers from a condition passed down through his family, wherein he is extremely sensitive to all outward stimuli, light, sound, smell, taste, touch. (There is a problem faced by the filmmakers in that Roderick can’t stand bright light, so most scenes should take place in near darkness. As this would mean the audience couldn’t see what was going on, the actors just say it’s dark.) Roderick tells Winthrop Madeleine is also cursed, and will get the affliction and go mad. He also tells of the depravity of his ancestors and his belief the house itself is cursed and the cause of the evil. (An argument can be made this is more reflective of Usher’s own madness than the truth.)

Roderick wants Winthrop to leave without Madeleine, as he wants to end the polluted Usher blood line. When he refuses, Roderick fakes Madeleine’s death, and has her buried alive. This is not the end of things, as the premature burial (a recurrent theme for Poe) drives Madeleine around the bend, and she breaks free to get revenge on her brother. As you may guess from the title, the house falls.

The movie was a success beyond AIP’s imagination. According to figures from MGM, it was one of the five highest grossing films of 1960, and amazing achievement. Corman and AIP would collaborate on seven more Poe adaptations, although they never equaled the success of this one, and Vincent Price would become a horror icon for the rest of his life. Fifty years later, how does the movie hold up?

First of all, despite the rather opulent budget for AIP, the cheapness of the production does show through. Boy, those sets really look like…sets. For modern audiences, the film is a bit slow starting, as not much happens other than dialogue for more than the first half of the movie. (There are also only four speaking parts, which I’m sure helped keep costs down.) Winthrop is, well, a bit of a wimp. When he learns his true love has been sealed alive in a hidden coffin, he emotionally vows to find and save her, but after about twenty seconds of energetic searching, he quits and takes a nap. Not exactly a stirring tale of sacrifice for love.

Still, the source material is good, the screenwriter is a legend, the acting is high quality (especially Price) and Corman’s direction under-rated. It might be too cheesy for modern audiences wanting spilled brains every five minutes, but if you are into the old gothic horror flicks, you should enjoy it. Note: in some releases, it is simply called House of Usher, I suppose to not give away the ending.

A personal note: I first saw this movie when I was a freshman in college, shown at Halloween on a double bill with The Premature Burial. (They were already old movies at the time. I’m not that old.) Sitting by myself next to a very attractive young woman who had also come alone, I received a horror movie reward when she grabbed me and practically jumped into my lap, where she stayed through the double feature. It was a very pleasant experience for an 18-year-old, as I got as far as you would expect on the third date in those days, and one of the reasons young men have been taking their dates to horror films since they’ve been around. To illustrate how sauve I was with the ladies, when the lights went up, I neglected to ask for her name or phone number, figuring I would see her around campus and be able to strike up a conversation on our shared experience. I never saw her again.

More Usher to come…

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