The Fall of the House of Usher, DVD released 2001 by MGM Home Entertainment
80 minutes, Dolby Digital Mono, Audio Commentary by Roger Corman, Original Theatrical Trailer. Suggested Retail Price: $14.95.
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When I was young, I can recall Vincent Price films being a staple of the Saturday afternoon and late night “creature feature” TV programming. With the advent and popularization of DVD, many of the actors films have been resurfacing, and Ive had the pleasure of reliving some films that I hadnt seen in 15 or so years and discovering those that I had missed. MGM, with its “Midnite Movies” series, for example, has recently released a couple classic Price films that he did in the 1960s. They were directed by Roger Corman for American International Pictures and were inspired by the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Sandwiched in between Prices timeless 1950s sci-fi and horror run (including The Fly, The Tingler, and The House on Haunted Hill) and early 1970s revenge fantasies (the superb Abominable Dr. Phibes and Theater of Blood), these Poe films are among his best, and The Fall of the House of Usher stands as the noteworthy seminal first in the series.
MGMs DVD release of The Fall of the House of Usher (the title in the film is actually The House of Usher) is an excellent addition to the library of any classic horror film fan. Reasonably priced, the disc sports a fine transfer (enhanced for widescreen TVs), the original theatrical trailer, and a running commentary by director Roger Corman himself. The House of Usher has never looked so good, and the widescreen presentation helps the viewer better appreciate the depth and scope of the shots Corman was attempting within his rather limited budget, set, and shooting schedule (the film was shot in only 15 days). Like many DVD aficionados, I now realize how much I was missing when I first saw this film on TV in that dreadful “pan and scan” format. The commentary by Corman is very interesting and insightful. Though Corman has the habit of repeating himself several times, his manner is so friendly and quaint that one doesnt mind too much.
The films screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, a fantastic writer best known for his work on TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek as well as novels like I am Legend, Incredible Shrinking Man, and Stir of Echoes. Here, Matheson expands the premise of the short story without ever abandoning its tone and melancholy mood. The film begins with young Philip Winthrop (played by Mark Damon) traveling the barren woods around the Usher estate on horseback. He is seeking Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), a young woman he had known in Boston who apparently left him and her life for the confines of her ancestral home. Knocking on the front door, he is greeted by the Ushers elderly butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). He is let in and asked to take his boots off, a strange request but Winthrop complies. He is reunited with Madeline, whom he intends to marry, but their passion is countered at every turn by Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), her brooding brother who is convinced that the Usher line is cursed and that he and his sister are dying. Eventually, Philip decides to take Madeline with him against Rodericks wishes. An argument occurs between Madeline and Roderick and she apparently dies by unknown causes. Heartbroken, Philip attends Madelines funeral with Roderick. Philip is unaware that Madeline is still alive but in a cataleptic state. Roderick is aware of this, however he decides to bury her alive anyway. Because of an “affliction of the hearing,” Roderick can hear even the faintest sounds, and he is driven mad by Madelines desperate struggle within her coffin. She is also driven mad, and when she escapes, she seeks vengeance upon Roderick, as The House of Usher collapses in a fiery inferno, leaving Philip the sole survivor.
What really sets this film apart is neither the ornate furniture nor the sinister artwork (by Burt Schoenberg) hanging on the walls nor the atmospheric tonethough all are goodbut the acting of Vincent Price. With his hair dyed blonde, Price gives an excellent performance as the oversensitive and paranoid Roderick Usher. He plays a villain that the audience can actually sympathize with even while they disapprove of his heinous actions. Price convincingly portrays the afflicted man as weary and in pain. He winces as he admits to Philip that “sounds of any exaggerated degree cut into my brain like knives”. And when he implores Philip to leave, one gets the sense that Roderick truly believes he has Philip and Madelines best interests at heart. Perhaps Prices finest moment, however, comes in Madelines funeral scene. As she lies in her coffin, her hands begin twitching. Prices face is, to pardon a pun, priceless as he whirls to check whether Philip has seen the movement (he hasnt) and then craftily closes the coffin lid to seal Madelines fate. Its one of the actors great “evil” moments in film.
The House of Usher was a relative success both critically and commercially when it was released, and it led to many more Poe adaptations starring Price in the subsequent years. (The second film of the seriesThe Pit and the Pendulumis also available in MGMs “Midnite Movies” DVD series.) It does seem a little dated today, especially in the climax with some rather unconvincing shots of the Usher home collapsing in a fire. However, given that the film is now over four decades old, its surprising how well it has held up. The movie is very entertaining and spooky in an old-fashioned way, and Prices performance is still terrific. I can remember films like House of Usher quite well when they were on local TV years ago, and its nice to see that they are still entertaining today.