HOUSE OF USHER
The first of Roger Corman’s
stately and refined Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. An affecting film, but I
prefer my Corman pictures down and dirty.
HOUSE OF USHER
(1960) was the most expensive film yet made by the legendary exploitation outfit
American International Pictures (its budget was $200,000!), run by James H.
Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff.
It was also the first AIP picture to be released by itself (i.e. not on a
double bill), and, according to its director Roger Corman, it single-handedly
established AIP as a viable entity. Furthermore, Corman was given an unheard-of
15 day shooting schedule, as opposed to the standard 10 he was usually granted,
and a cinemascope (2:35.1) aspect ratio.
Playing in “hard tops” as opposed to drive-in theaters, HOUSE OF USHER was
an enormous critical and financial success, and led to several more Corman
directed Poe adaptations--THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, PREMATURE BURIAL, TALES OF
TERROR, THE RAVEN, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and THE TOMB OF LIGEIA.
The mild-mannered Philip is set to marry Madeline Usher, who lives in a
forbidding castle with her older brother Roderick. Philip arrives to find the
surroundings looking ravaged and burnt out.
He meets Roderick, who’s immediately suspicious of Philip’s intentions.
Roderick believes the Ushers are tainted by an ancient curse that has spread
insanity through the succeeding generations; apparently the castle and its
surroundings were once green and inviting, but, due to the effects of the
apparent curse, are now withered and burnt-out. The castle itself seems
complicit in Roderick’s claims in the way it appears to be literally cracking
But then one night Philip overhears an argument and a struggle between
Madeline and Roderick issuing from the latter’s bedroom. Philip rushes in to
find Madeline lying prone on the floor--dead, it seems.
Philip is present at a hastily held funeral for his beloved, and her
subsequent interment in the basement of the castle (along with Madeline and
Roderick’s ancestors). But Philip grows suspicious about Roderick’s claims
regarding his ancestry...and the idea that Madeline is really dead. Could
Roderick have interred her alive?
This film showcases Roger Corman, the master of fly-by-night low budget
moviemaking, in restrained form. The proceedings are slow and talky, and set
amidst an atmosphere of stately museum-like sets and artwork. Virtually the
entire film was shot on sets rather than locations, which Corman claims was
intentional, the idea being to create an enclosed subconscious state--the living
house idea, BTW, was apparently added at the request of AIP co-chair Samuel
Arkoff, who demanded a “monster.”
This brings us to the screenplay by
Richard Matheson, which opens up Poe’s insular
tale to include a love story, and largely jettisons the supernatural elements.
Yet a hint of the poetry and strangeness of the original tale survives in
Matheson’s surprisingly thoughtful, contemplative script. That’s also true of
the lead performance by Vincent
Price, who’s at his commanding best playing a character that’s both a
monstrous villain and a tortured anti-hero.
The big shocks are saved for the end, which is easily
the film’s finest sequence, a delirious mélange of blood, fire and lurid
close-ups, all fully in line with the exploitation-happy Corman I know and love.
HOUSE OF USHER (a.k.a. THE
FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER)
American International Pictures
Director: Roger Corman
Producer: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson
(Based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe)
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Editing: Anthony Carras
Cast: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe