Thursday, October 8, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: House of Usher - Perfectly Poe

American International Pictures and Vincent Price brought to the screen many of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic horror tales. The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death are prime examples. My favorite of all is House of Usher. Although like the other Poe movies, it blithely takes great liberties with the original story, it has everything a moviegoer could want – hereditary insanity, evil relatives, old diseased house and premature burial. The House of Usher – home sweet home!

Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) is a man beset with horrors. His senses are extremely acute, to the point of pain at loud sounds, bright lights or even seasoned food. He lives in a world of quiet, with music of odd discordant tunes of his own composition. He eats only gruel (shades of Oliver Twist), and keeps only the most necessary candles lit for dim light. He also believes that death will and should come soon for him and his sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Vincent Price dons a different look for the role of Roderick. He has light blonde hair and pale face, his long lean frame dressed in embroidered dressing gowns and slippers.

Madeline does not appear to share Roderick’s infirmities. In fact, as played by Fahey, she looks entirely too buxom and robust to be very believable as a sickly woman who is wasting away, a slight flaw in casting of the film. Madeline somehow manages to have a season in London where she finds a livelier existence. Upon her return home, however, her mental and physical health begin to decline.

In rides a disturbance to the Usher household, Madaline’s fiancée from London, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). Philip is understandably horrified as he rides through a desolate countryside and through a murky swamp that surrounds the crumbling castle. He is told by the Usher servant that the house is cracking down the middle, a good symbol of the family’s breakdown of life and sanity. Even after hearing Roderick’s croakings of doom, Philip refuses to believe that Madeline is slowly dying.

Roderick gives Philip a tour of the house’s sinister art, eerie impressionistic paintings of Usher ancestors, evil people all. He reveals that the house was brought brick by brick from England and rebuilt, bringing with it all the evil engendered by the Usher family. That night Philip has a frightening dream about the gruesome stories of Usher ancestors, a very well done sequence that makes the hair stand up on your arms. Unlike any normal man who would run for the hills after experiencing the Usher hospitality, Philip stays, determined to get Madeline away from this house of doom. From that point on, the story takes a horrifying turn that is both gruesome and ghoulish.

Poe had a true fear of being buried alive, and many of his stories reflect it. House of Usher is one of the creepiest interpretations of that fear. In the end, in Poe’s original story, the house finally splits in two and sinks into the swamp on which it sits. The movie portrays it a little differently, but still stays true to the chilling passage from Poe’s story – “…and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”


  1. Becky, glad you picked one of the Corman-Poe films for our Halloween event! With apologies to Roger Corman and Vincent Price, I think the success of these films owed a lot to cinematographer Floyd Crosby, set designer Daniel Haller, and writer Richard Matheson. Crosby spent most of his career out of the limelight, but his use of color in the Poe adaptations has earned him belated praise (his masterpiece is the vibrant MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). Haller was known for using lighting to make small sets look huge. In USHER, he would light two parts of a set, giving the viewer the impression of an expansive ornate room when the darkened area were actaully empty. As for Matheson, he wrote terrific novels (I AM LEGEND), some of the best TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, and some fine films (DUEL). He was a master at expanding Poe's stories into feature-length films. I'm glad you chose USHER for your atmospheric post since it was the first, but I might like THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM even better. Nice post!

  2. I am fan of Vincent Price and have always enjoyed(not sure that's the best word) Edgar Allan Poe's stories. That's for the review, these movies used to be shown when Saturday afternoon was filled with monster/horror movies

  3. Becky,
    Nobody can do Edgar Allan Poe like Vincent Price!
    Awesome review!

  4. Becks,
    Because my father thought that the Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe was appropriate reading material for a nine year old, I have a deep affection for all of Poe's works. I've never watched a film inspired by one of them, because no image made by human hands could match the horrifying mental pictures created by my childhood imagination. I have to say that you have gotten close with this post; if I ever decide to break my rule, I believe that I will start with The House of Usher.

  5. Great write-up, Becky! I love Vincent Price and mostly everything he does. Is that Myrna Fahey in that still? It's wonderfully creepy!

  6. Yes, Sark, that is Myrna Fahey. It was the only picture I was able to find of her, perfect for the article, but I could not find one other picture of her at the time of the movie.

  7. Becky, this was an excellent post! Poe + Price = Priceless! I loved the pictures you shared, too. The one with Usher showing off the art work with the vacant eyes is really creepy. Like Rick, I too, am fond of "The Pit and the Pendulum." It is very tense watching the pendulum swinging. On a lighter note, I also enjoyed how AIP would sometimes promote their horror entries in the Beach Party movies.

  8. Nice post, Becky. I have read all of Poe's works, short stories, poetry, and even his novellas. He is credited with having written the first mystery story with a detective. Yep, even before Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. It is a good movie. No one does Poe like Vincent Price. He is a master as an actor in roles like these. I think Poe would have liked this film!