Dashing young city boy Phillip Winthrop (played by prolific producer Mark Damon) journeys to the Gothic mansion of his betrothed Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), to find himself turned away by her white haired brother Roderick (Vincent Price). Both afflicted by an overwhelming heightening of the senses, the strange man insists that he and his sister are dying and that Winthrop must leave them, for the good of himself as much as them. He sticks around, dismissing the increasingly predominant bad omens as mumbo jumbo, but as the days roll on Roderick’s pleas intensify, warning Winthrop of the evils hidden within The House of Usher which appears to be crumbling around them.
Running barely 80 minutes, genre master Roger Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) navigate Edgar Allen Poe’s story with economy but never at the expense of playful, visual panache, presented handsomely here in Arrow’s high definition transfer. Fully exploring the widescreen format, the staging is frequently elegant, every bit as painterly and theatrical as it is filmic. With a lean cast of four, the whole ensemble often share the screen in long takes, allowing the film to rest and breathe and for the peculiar ambience of the picture to sink in. In other scenes, the camera follows characters in long tracking shots as they move through the decaying mansion, becoming particularly frantic in the final reel when a premature burial and a tremendous fire jolt the players into action.
The mansion – no doubt one in a long line of recycled Gothic horror sets – is the metaphorical image of the notorious Usher family: with its long line of evil members, rendered in Roderick’s genuinely disturbing paintings (actually the work of artist Burt Shonberg), the brother and sister’s sanity is fractured as they believe that they too will be driven mad and succumb to evil temptations – the house meanwhile struggles to stand as it sinks gradually into the cavernous Usher crypt beneath. Such literary details are elegantly transmitted in Poe’s prose but here they are less potent, simply for the fact that Corman’s film functions differently, foregrounding an unnerving, campy performance from Vincent Price and leaving less to the audience’s imagination.
One lavish colour horror film for the price of two of his usual black and white B pictures, the film ushered in an important chapter in the career of Corman who would go on to make a further seven Edgar Allen Poe adaptations staring the inimitable Vincent Price. Nestling in comfortably between the surreal and the silly, tickling the ribs as it tingles your spine, this cycle of films defines a great deal of what we know as pre-1970’s horror; thunder cracks, old stone castles and surprise skeletons abound. If you’re after a bit more substance, head for the short story.
Fall of the House of Usher is out now from Arrow Films and Video as part of the Vincent Price in Six Gothic Tales box set
Words> Andrew Wilson