The Film: 4/5
Boston gentleman Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) has traveled far and wide to the house of the Usher family to spirit away his betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Upon his arrival Winthrop is told by the family's loyal longtime servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) that Madeline has taken to her sick bed and cannot have visitors. When he insists on seeing his fiancée Winthrop is told by her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) that not only is Madeline is dying but he is as well. According to Roderick he and his sister suffer from a "morbid acuteness of the senses" that causes them to be extra-sensitive to their environment, an ailment they have been tormented by their entire lives. It is a curse that has driven three-quarters of the Usher family into total madness. Roderick begs Winthrop to leave the house and forget about marrying Madeline and siring children with her for that would only continue the Usher bloodline and the torture they suffer and inflict upon others in kind. Winthrop insists on remaining by the side of the woman he loves until he can take her away from what he perceives to be her brother's diabolical machinations. As the days and nights progress the mystery of the Ushers that Roderick desperately attempts to conceal carefully unravels, and the horrible house that has served as a final resting place for several generations of the family and their legacy of unspeakable evil is about to come crashing down.
The Fall of the House of Usher - known in the U.S. as simply House of Usher - was the first of several lavish silver screen adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe directed by Roger Corman. Despite having a reputation for being a cheapskate when it came to making movies you could never say that Corman rarely skimped when it came to putting money where it truly mattered: on the screen. His productions were made on meager budgets but each and every cent was clearly well spent. For House of Usher Corman insisted to Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson at American-International Pictures that the movie was worth spending a little extra money on to have it filmed in the majesty of full-color CinemaScope. He didn't see his Poe pictures as disposable fodder for drive-in double or triple bills; in making Usher Corman retained the services of High Noon cinematographer Floyd Crosby and had a first-class design team headed by production designer Daniel Haller (who would later go on to work in the venue of episodic television as a director). The make-up effects were created by Fred B. Phillips, who has worked credited and uncredited on many classic Hollywood features from The Wizard of Oz to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and also nearly every episode of the original Star Trek, and the special effects were accomplished by Pat Dinga, another of A.I.P.'s finest in-house talents who had began his career on Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.
With a small cast of characters and a plot mostly confined to the titular mansion of horror, House of Usher was the perfect story for Corman to adapt on a budget smaller than that of what a major studio would spend on similar productions. It was a bold step forward not just for himself as a filmmaker but also for American-International as an industry player to take notice of. The company had specialized up to that time in pumping out quickie drive-in flicks two for the price of one to play on double bills across the country. The decision to put the money typically allotted for funding two of those exploitation toss-offs into one feature was a risky venture on the part of Corman and his financiers, but it was one that paid off handsomely. Rather than rely on one of his go-to writers like Charles Griffith to script the Usher adaptation, Corman turned to acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson to see that the job was done properly and with intelligence and dignity. The major change Matheson made in turning the Poe story into a script was to replace the unreliable unnamed narrator with the dashing romantic lead Winthrop. Though the character had the rather thankless task of taking a valiant stand against an evil that cannot be conquered through simple swashbuckling heroics, creating Winthrop gave the film an audience identification figure who was also allowed to run a sizable gamut of emotions throughout the story.
In that regard Mark Damon is the ideal choice to play Winthrop. Damon was never the most devoted of actors; he was handsome, stoic, and could play roles that required little character development. In short, he was usually hired for his looks and credible screen presence. Damon was the guy you hired when the production couldn’t afford an actual movie star. But he was good at what he did and he makes Winthrop a sympathetic figure one could identify with. The same could be said for the characters played by Price, Fahey, and Ellerbe. Fahey doesn’t really get to do much in the movie until the chilling, action-packed finale except play the demure, helpless victim of the Usher family curse. Still though, she is lovely and not at all a bad actress so the very little she gets to do onscreen she does with grace and professionalism, as does Ellerbe as the family butler whose ultimate fate is also tied to the house - making him an unacknowledged Usher in a way.
But is it any wonder that the top acting honors for House of Usher have to go to the incredible Vincent Price? One of the last true stars of horror cinema who also had the virtue of being a brilliant and vivid actor, Price is the standout of the Usher cast. With icy blonde hair and a face everlastingly twisted in an expression of loneliness and unrelenting fear, Price’s Roderick Usher is a classic anti-hero who must act against his best instincts to keep others from knowing the terror he has lived with since the day he was born. His actions often seem cruel and villainous, but once the true nature of the Usher family is revealed they essentially appear rational in retrospect. Like the house of Usher itself with its untold dark secrets the movie only makes sense once you stick with it until every room has been uncovered and the contents exposed for the audience to behold for themselves.
Using a high-definition print owned by MGM - which owns the huge chunk of A.I.P.'s sizable library that hasn't fallen into the public domain and had previously released this film on DVD back in 2001 - Arrow Video's 1080p Blu-ray transfer of The Fall of the House of Usher is presented in the film's original 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical exhibition aspect ratio. The bold, lush colors of Crosby's beautiful cinematography and the creaky, menacing details of Haller's design work are the greatest beneficiaries of the upgraded transfer. The tones are cold for the outdoor scenes and a final act dream sequence and very warm and inviting for the interior footage. Grain is kept to a minimum and any digital noise reduction done on the print was used sparingly. The film's original mono soundtrack is preserved on an uncompressed 2.0 PCM audio channel. With strong volume levels for the haunting Baxter score and the theatrical dialogue that occasionally veers close to camp territory, every crucial component of the sound mix has been balanced accordingly and audio distortion is nowhere to be found. English subtitles have also been included.
Ported over from the 2001 MGM DVD is an excellent audio commentary with Roger Corman. Always full of warm stories and honest filmmaking insight, Corman dissects the development and production of House of Usher and the impact its success had on his career and the later Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he would make for American-International Pictures. He looks back on the experience of making this movie, as with almost every movie he has either directed or produced, with grace and fondness. Outstanding commentary.
This wouldn't be a true Arrow Video unless the company had included some new bonus features of their own creation, and as usual they do not disappoint. First off, filmmaker and Corman protégé Joe Dante is front and center for "Legend to Legend", where he talks with amazing depth and recollection about growing up a huge fan of Corman's films, working for him later in life as a trailer editor and how that work helped young Dante learn how to craft a lean but effective narrative, how he learned to be a director by watching Corman's own directorial work and studying the B-movie maverick's technique, and offers some history and insight into the making of the Edgar Allan Poe films. If Arrow has more vintage Corman releases on Blu-ray in their immediate future it would behoove them to get Dante back for new interviews. The man is a national treasure and a terrific filmmaker and historian in his own right.
"The House is the Monster" (33 minutes), named for Corman's House of Usher pitch to A.I.P. executives, features author and Gothic horror expert Jonathan Rigby (Christopher Lee: The Authorized Screen History) discussing The Fall of the House of Usher, past Poe adaptations for the screen, changes that were made in Usher's translation from short story to film, and Corman's cinema career prior to making the movie. A very detailed and scholarly documentary that might teach you more about Corman and his Poe movies than you already knew, and if you didn't know anything at all about them you will find this infinitely fascinating.
The legendary Vincent Price is the subject of an interview conducted in Malibu in July 1986 and broadcast on French television the following November (11 minutes). Speaking to an off-camera interviewer Price is - pardon the pun - characteristically priceless as he shows off a sculpture of Professor Ratigan, the character he voiced in the Disney animated feature The Great Mouse Detective, that was created specially for him and talks about working for Howard Hughes on a trio of movies and briefly touches upon the Poe features with Roger Corman. Some interesting remembrances of his fellow Hollywood horror icons Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Lorre and narrating another Disney feature, the short film Vincent that was directed by a young Tim Burton. Burton would later direct Price in one of his final performances as the inventor in 1991's Edward Scissorhands. The interview features non-removable French subtitles for the off-camera questions and Price's responses and optional English subtitles for the French narration.
The last of the new supplements is the video essay "Fragments of the House of Usher" (11 minutes) which was created by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, who also narrates in whispery tones. The essay juxtaposes passages from the original Poe short story with scenes from the film reflecting how those pages were adapted onto celluloid. For aficionados of the writer's work and the movie version of The Fall of the House of Usher this feature is well worth a viewing.
The original theatrical trailer that also appeared on MGM’s DVD release rounds out the bonus features on the Blu-ray disc. Arrow has also included a reversible sleeve with the original poster art on one side and a newly-commissioned piece by Graham Humphreys on the other side. Inside the Blu-ray case you'll find a collector's booklet prepared for this release featuring a new essay on House of Usher written by author and film critic Tim Lucas and an excerpt from Vincent Price's long out-of-print autobiography in which he discusses working on the film. The booklet is illustrated with original archive stills and poster art.
The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the finest Edgar Allan Poe adaptations ever made for the silver screen, and a sumptuous and haunting film to boot. A highlight in Roger Corman’s abbreviated career as a director has been given new life on home video thanks to another stellar presentation by Arrow Video. Lovers of lavish period horror classics will find this Blu-ray an essential purchase.