Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Davis, de Havilland, Flynn, Cagney, Bogart ...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The House of Usher - A Real Masterpiece from the King of the B's!

This article is my contribution to the Roger Corman Blogathon sponsored by Nathanael of http://www.forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blostpot.com/ 
(*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!
Corman took with him cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller, both of whom worked on all of Corman’s Poe movies. The marvelous look of these movies, the wonderful sets, eerie lighting, particularly the dominant, atmospheric black, blues and greens with jarring splashes of wine red costuming for The House of Usher, are due to the talents of these men.

American Gothic (without the pitchfork) German style
Roderick Usher (Price) is a man beset by horrors. He and his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) are the last of the Usher line, an old family rotten with insanity and sordidly cruel lives, and Roderick is determined that the line end with them. He sees in himself and Madeline certain developing traits of the Ushers. Both brother and sister are plagued by a strange malady:

     “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.

Uncle Freddie
Philip refuses to leave, and Roderick gives him a tour of the castle, probably hoping that this alone will send Philip packing. The house was brought to its present location stone by stone from the old country, bringing its evil within the very walls. He points out paintings of the Usher ancestors, downright hair-raising, particularly with Roderick’s description of each one (Aunt Bertha, prostitute and poisoner -- Uncle Bob, pirate and murderer – you get the drift). The wonderful paintings were done by artist Burt Schoenberg, and frankly they are excellent works of impressionist art.

"Mom"

"I'm actually feeling a lot better"
Well, guess not...









Roderick insists that Madeline cannot marry or have children, and that she is dying. Despite Roderick’s constant croakings of doom, Philip doesn’t believe him. For a girl who is supposed to be a figure of fine glass and at death’s door, Fahey is much too buxom and healthy, a bit of miscasting on Corman’s part. She does walk around with a rather tired, worried look on her face, but most people look like that every day after work. Suddenly one night, we hear Madeline scream and die for some vague reason. Heartbroken, Philip goes with Roderick and the lone family servant (Harry Ellerbe) to the family crypt (no castle is complete without dead relatives in the basement), and place Madeline in her coffin. After the grieving men go upstairs, we hear a gasp from the coffin, then a bloodcurdling scream. I don’t know why they didn’t hear it. They weren’t that far away, and it was really loud.
Are you DEAF?!!  Look at my  nails!
Although it’s kind of hard to tell considering his usual demeanor, Roderick does act strangely, and Philip has a terrible dream of the Usher family. This dream sequence is beautifully done and scared me silly as a kid. Roderick eventually admits to Philip that Madeline suffers from cataleptic fits, and he knowingly buried her alive during one of these episodes to keep her from leaving to marry and propagate the Usher genes. His acute sense of hearing has made him suffer for many days because he could hear her screams and scratching on the inside lid of the coffin. He suffered?!!  (I personally think my brother loves me, but I’m a little reluctant now to let him plan my funeral.) Finding the coffin empty, Roderick informs Philip that Madeline has now inherited the family madness (Oh really? I think she earned it!). There are some very frightening scenes as we see glimpses of Madeline in her white burial dress, scuttling around doorways, leaving bloody drops from her mangled fingernails.
"Welcome to your dream...come and meet the folks..."


"Mom always liked you better!"
Finally, the now-insane Madeline corners her brother and with the strength of a mad woman, strangles him as a fallen candle lights the room on fire, and soon the ceiling crashes down on brother and sister. Philip escapes the castle, and looks back to see it blazing against the grim landscape and sinking into the swamp. The last line of Poe’s story appears on the screen:

     “…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
Corman always struck me as two men in one body. One personality excelled at scandalous, roughly filmed exploitation movies like The Wild Angels and G-a-s-s-s, as well as some of the best really terrible scifi movies like my personal favorite, Wasp Woman, featuring some of the cheesiest monsters in B movie history. The other Corman persona created the Poe Cycle, beautiful to look at, eerie, scary, and with a crafty dark humor that makes you snicker as you look at the screen through your fingers. Many Corman fans love both sides of the legendary producer/director. Others choose sides and have very definite preferences for one or the other. Personally, I am a Poe/Corman groupie

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...

28 comments:

  1. Fine review, Becky, of perhaps Corman's most influential pic--I suspect more people remember him for his Poe adaptations than anything else. With HOUSE, he certainly got an incredible bang for his buck. Most of that, as you mentioned, is due to the incredible talents of cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller--they make HOUSE look amazing. Haller borrow a "trick" from films like CITIZEN KANE by using lighting to make his set look larger (with shadows hiding what wasn't there). The closing scene is awesome and Matheson does a great job adapting the source material...but I admit I am fond of PIT AND THE PENDULUM. Another marvelous job, CB!

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  2. "Corman’s Poe period (well, Picasso had a blue period and Van Gogh had a dark period!)" I like this!

    The Poe films are gorgeously photographed and among his best. He was good with a budget but then again he paid little or nothing. Of course, he did give a lot of talented folks opportunities to work. Another great job, Becky!

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  3. Becks,
    I had no idea that the House of Usher resembled my own from the front porch to the walls! Seeing your screen grabs is enough for me to be intrigued but after reading your review I'm convinced that I have to see this one.

    Your trivia on Poe/Corman then your own insight on the film was really interesting.

    I've been wondering what Poe would think about RC's interpretations so your "Edgar would have been justified in slapping Corman with a glove and calling him out for a duel at dawn! put a smile on my face. Interesting info about the set designer as well. It had to be the best job in the world with RC's sense of humor.
    Beautifully done as always Becks.
    Page

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  4. This is a great review, Becky. You have the perfect knack for giving us background history, plot summary, and humorous commentary in equal measure. I think your summation of Price is dead-on; no actor ever looked quite so comfortable presiding over crypts and haunted mansions and dead bodies. I haven't seen this film, but I'm thinking that the whole "morbid acuteness of the senses" could make a horror film all on its own, depending on what you did with it.

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  5. Thanks for your kind words, guys.

    Rick, the camera and set work made all the difference in making these movies special. And I agree about P&P -- I love that one!

    24, I'm glad you liked my comparison of Corman to great artistes! LOL!

    Page, thanks for the compliments. You really should see this one. It's well worth it. And Pit and the Pendulum too! And...well, just get all of the Poe movies!

    Rachel, you make me blush -- but it's so nice to hear such a lovely critique of my writing. You are so right about the senses thing -- you could do so much with that in another story.

    Don't you hate it when you forget to put in something significant. I was going to mention Poe's morbid fear of being buried alive, shown clearly in this story as well as many others.

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  6. Hello Becky!

    Sorry that I'm so late in commenting...I was whisked away to a Father's Day celebration before you posted your article! I just got back!

    Your's was the very last article that was posted during this blogathon. I have to say, you have ended this blogathon with a bang! This was an incredibly enjoyable review of an incredibly enjoyable film! Your comments about Price being the king of the macabre are so true! Nobody could eat the scenery like he could!

    I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon! You have been one of my kindest supporters, always willing to toss in a helpful comment during my reviews! I'm so glad that you were able to participate!


    Also, don't forget to vote on the topic for the next blogathon by voting at the poll on the front page of my blog. Additionally, don't forget to vote for the Readers' Choice Award on Monday!

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  7. She does walk around with a rather tired, worried look on her face, but most people look like that every day after work.

    And it doesn't help that many people used to think of Fahey as "the poor man's Elizabeth Taylor"...

    The last time I watched House of Usher, I didn't enjoy it as much as I once did because it seems like for the first hour of the movie it's pretty much an endless back-and-forth between Price ("You must leave this house!") and Damon ("I won't leave this house!") and it drags horribly. In the film's defense, people say the same thing about Pit and the Pendulum--but Pit has that great payoff that's coming at the end, so I'm less fidgety in my seat.

    But the one thing that I love about Usher is Price's performance, particularly the way he's able to make ol' Rod a kind of a mousy and timid personage...not easy to do with Vincent's height and commanding presence (okay, some would call it hamminess...po-tay-to, po-tah-to). And every time I watch the movie and see those $10 a day special effects (Corman used that fire in a gazillion movies afterward) I wish I had been able to work alongside the man.

    Oh, and The Wasp Woman is one of my favorites of Rog's films. Scared the snot out of me as a kid!

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  8. Superb review of HOUSE OF USHER, Becky, with a deft balance of humor, suspense, and fascinating facts and insights! Boy, I wish I could do as much with a tight purse as Roger Corman could! :-) I loved your caption for the still of Price and Fahey: "American Gothic (without the pitchfork) German style."

    Madeline's outward healthiness initially had me thinking that she wasn't sick, but that instead, her unhinged bro Roderick was pulling some kind of psychological trick or poison or something on Madeline to make her THINK she was sick and/or unbalanced. LOL over "(Oh really? I think she earned it!)." As always, Becks, your post was a delight to read!

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  9. Nate, thanks so much for your compliment! And thanks

    Ivan, I didn't know Myrna Fahey was referred to as the poor man's Elizabeth Taylor. I can see that. I know what you mean about the first hour of both House and P&P, but you know, I never minded it. With House, I love the paintings and just enjoy Price with all the back and forth. With Pit, I spend most of that time wondering how the men could stand those collars, and thinking how pompous John Kerr acts! WASP WOMAN! What is it about that movie? I love it! Corman would have been fascinating to be around...

    Dorian, I couldn't help but think of American Gothic with that picture! Madeline WAS supposed to be really sick, but they should have used a washed-out blonde like Madge Evans in White Zombie -- now there's a sick-looking little broad! Thanks so much for your compliments.

    You know, I don't think anybody picked up on the title of the article. I thought it was funny (to quote Ivan "Hello? Is this on?"), so it's a good thing I don't write for a standup comedian! LOL!

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  10. Nate, part of my comment to you just disappeared into cyber-limbo. I was just going on to say I appreciated your comment, and thank you again for the fun of participating in your blogathon, with such a great topic.

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  11. Such a great review!

    I love this film, not least because of ol' Vinnie's hair. Those screen captures of the family portraits just killed me -- it's so campy, but by the time you see them in the context of the film, you're sucked in. I always think "Wow, even the portraitist was demented!"

    Fahey doesn't have the Gothic "tuberculosis look" that Poe often invoked, but I do think it works well in the context of the movie, because you know Roderick is completely whacko for thinking she's dying when she's so obviously healthy and vivacious.

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  12. The House is the monster! Or, as a wise robot once said: "Based on? Meaning they were both in English." And thus a franchise is born. Fantastic review, love how you cross-pollinate the Poem into the film. I tried to do with that with a Curtis Harrington flick awhile back, Night Tide, based on Poe's Annabelle Lee and failed pretty miserably.

    If you have access to Netflix, there's a great Vincent Price vehicle called "Shock" that, forgive me, signaled the end of his second banana phase. Highly recommended.

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  13. Actually that was supposed to say "ushered" in his second career as top banana. Again: fail.

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  14. Corman was a big Ingmar Bergman fan (he said MASQUE was inspired by THE SEVENTH SEAL), and it would seem as if most of his best movies were somewhat inspired or influenced by Bergman, now that I think of it. Just a theory, I guess.

    Well...great read!

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  15. Stacia, I agree -- Usher is campy, but also really scary! I think that's why I love it so much. And, to my surprise, I liked Vincent with the white-blonde hair -- he looked great!

    Kelso, I'm glad you liked the "cross-pollination" of the poem (great phrase, by the way!) I have seen Shock, and really liked it. It does show the first shadow of Price's real forte, the horror genre.

    Thomas, I didn't know Corman was influenced by Bergman -- strange that the King of the Bs was also a fan of such profoundly philosophical movies. It's a great theory!

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  16. Yeah, I thought he said, in an interview, that Seventh Seal was his favorite film, and the main inspiration for MASQUE. I don't remember where I saw that though.

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  17. Fantastic review! Very entertaining read!

    I really should see some of these famed Corman/Price films. They sound most enjoyable.

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  18. Thank you, Jack -- I'm glad you liked it! You really should see these -- Of course, I recommend House of Usher, and definitely The Pit and the Pendulum, Tomb of Ligeia and Masque of the Red Death.

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  19. great stuff...I checked last nite and could not find this blog!!

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  20. Thanks so much, Doc! Did you mean you couldn't find the article? At one point last night, I did see a glaring error (well at least it glared at ME), and I took it to edit and made a quick fix, then re-posted. You may have tried to see it right at that time.

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  21. I really liked the way you described some of the sets and the colors of the clothing. Would the movie look the same today using HD and digital cameras? I don't think so. The poor quality of the film medium of those days makes the movie that much more engulfing and albeit terrifying. Good blog.

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  22. I'm so glad you stopped by, Greg. You are so right. That day's film medium did give an atmosphere of dread, just as black and white was able to create such beauty of shadow and light. I'm so glad you liked my article!

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  23. great review. thank you. floyd crosby shot high noon and some of the beach party movies also. he is the father of david crosby.

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  24. I enjoyed reading this post. I remember the eerie portraits of Roderick's family in the movie. Great review Becky!

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  25. Thanks, Pat! I'm glad you stopped by! Yes, those portraits are a nightmare!

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  26. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  27. I love Myrna Fahey. Price is my favorite actor. Corman is my favorite director. House of Usher, with four actors is my favorite film. Sorry my bad english. I'm a brasilian man.

    Cheers!

    Roderick Verden

    beldadedaminhavida.blogspot.com

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  28. I'm so glad you enjoyed my article, Roderick. How interesting that you share your first name with the master of the Usher clan! I am thrilled to have someone from Brazil visit my blog. I hope you come again.

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