(*Alert -- It’s just about impossible to write about The House of Usher without spoilers*)
I would love to seat Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe together at a dinner party. The grim and tragic Poe is certainly not known for a great sense of humor, and Corman’s respect for literature usually takes a back seat to the chance to use any story as he sees fit to make good box office. Many of Corman’s Poe Cycle films take enormous liberties with Poe’s work, often add campy humor, and some practically ignore everything but the title. That doesn’t make me love them any less, but then I didn’t slave over the originals like Poe. Yet, I think both men would agree that The House of Usher (1960) may be the closest to real Poe of all Corman’s films. (The movie was also released as The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe's original title.) I have always considered it the best of the Corman Poe films, and it definitely ranked high with the National Film Registry -- in 2006, the Registry chose The House of Usher as 1 of 25 films of significance to be preserved by the Library of Congress.
|Home sweet home!|
The House of Usher was the first of Corman’s series based on Poe. Corman was asked by American International Pictures to make 2 black and white cheapies to be released as a double bill. He countered with his desire to make one bigger budget movie using color and Cinemascope. This movie was The House of Usher. Now, Corman’s idea of a bigger budget was probably $500 dollars instead of $250, but boy could he do a lot with a tight purse! Corman was famous for using whatever was available and practically free – he filmed a burning barn that had been slated to be burned down anyway, and that footage was so good he used it in several other films. For his scene of the bleak, lifeless landscape around the Usher castle, Corman heard of a wildfire that had burned out nearby land. He took his camera crew to the site the very next day, and filmed the ashen area. I wish I could make my budget stretch so creatively.
|White-blonde hair, no moustache, love the dressing gown!|
|American Gothic (without the pitchfork) German style|
“Madeline and I are like figures of fine glass. The slightest touch and we may shatter.
Both of us suffer from a morbid acuteness of the senses.”
Somehow, Madeline had managed to visit London and have some fun, although how she did it with those problems is a mystery, and she even became engaged to dashing Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). When Philip makes an unannounced visit to the Usher castle, he finds a crumbling monstrosity with a fissure opening up in the stones, built on top of a swamp to boot (doesn’t sound up to code, does it?). He finds Roderick to be a less-than-welcoming, chillingly morbid man who insists that his sister Madeline is too ill to be disturbed.
|"I'm actually feeling a lot better"|
|Well, guess not...|
|Are you DEAF?!! Look at my nails!|
|"Welcome to your dream...come and meet the folks..."|
|"Mom always liked you better!"|
“…and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently
over the fragments of the House of Usher.”
Corman’s Poe period (well, Picasso had a blue period and Van Gogh had a dark period!) was also Vincent Price’s heyday as a movie star. Price was already an accomplished actor, having ventured into the horror genre, particularly with a favorite of mine, The House of Wax (1953), followed by the always entertaining movies of William Castle, such as The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill. With Corman, Price found the niche that made him the undisputed master of the macabre. His very presence lent a valuable dignity to Corman’s films. Price was tall and imposing, handsome, with his marvelous voice and expressive face, and most of all his unique talent for blending true fright with sly humor and just the right touch of hammy acting. For instance, at one point in this ghastly story, Roderick turns to the butler and says with a little wave “See to the crypt, will you?” – (he might have been saying “Pick up a six-pack at the store, will you?” in the same manner).
|Price, Corman, and an unidentified man who may be Schoenberg|
Fun Fact: Three in One!
*The Haunted Palace is a Corman movie that has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe except the title.
*Poe wrote a poem titled The Haunted Palace, and infers in The House of Usher that Roderick is the author.
*The famous last stanza of the same poem appears on screen at the end of another Corman/Poe movie,
The Masque of the Red Death:
“…And travelers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh – but smile no more.”
(Wow, shivery good stuff!)
Crafty Corman! Maybe at that dinner party, Edgar would have been justified in slapping Corman with a glove and calling him out for a duel at dawn!
|The man himself...|