Arguably, the best films of Roger Corman’s career were his adaptations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe he made with AIP. They had some of the highest on-screen production values of the films he directed, and had some of the finest actors he ever worked with – especially this film’s stand out star, Vincent Price.
The film hews, generally, fairly close to the plot of Poe’s story – a man (unnamed in the story, Phillip – played by Mark Damon in the film) comes to the house of an old friend – his childhood friend Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) in the novel, and his fiancée (and Roderick’s sister) Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) in the film. He finds the house in disarray, with Roderick stricken by a condition that makes him hyper-sensitive to sensory input, and Madeline suffering with a weak constitution. Roderick has convinced himself that there is a curse upon the family and will be brought to an end soon, while the protagonist attempts to persuade him otherwise. The story ends (this isn’t much of a spoiler – as the film and Poe short story end the same way, and the Poe story is older than the first operation computer), with both of the Usher siblings dead, and the house having collapsed into the swamp.
What makes the story work so well, as is the case with many of Poe’s stories, is a powerful sense of psychological tone and atmosphere. The titular house of the story the story has a profound sense of decay and oppression, with the ground around the house being just as corrupted and decayed. Consequently, as a film it depends strongly on its set and costume design, and the film delivers. The set designs strongly convey the sense of oppression that is weighing down on the psyches of Roderick and Madeline, and in turn, the performances do a strong job of showing how frayed Roderick’s mind has become, and how Madeline’s mind is becoming.
Where Corman’s streamlined and lean filmmaking comes into the picture is with the incredibly small cast. As with much of Corman’s Poe adaptations, there are a small number of characters, in a rural and confined area, in this case a total of 4 characters in the film. The film’s script, written by Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame) has fleshed out the four fairly well, making their motivations very clear, and giving them their own eccentricities.
I really enjoyed this film, and really need to get around to adding it to my film collection.
The Fall of the House of Usher is available from Amazon.com. The link is to the MGM Midnite Movies collection release. It was also released as part of the Scream Factory Vincent Price boxed set, but that is out of print and goes for steep prices at the moment.