Written by: Dorothy Catt, Edgar Allan Poe (story),
Directed by: Ivan Barnett
Starring: Gwen Watford, Kay Tendeter, and Irving Steen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Now all that happened is but a memory, a memory so horrible and fantastic, yet so vivid and real that it will haunt me for the rest of my life."
This particular adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher is interesting as hell, and not just because it’s oddly obscure. More intriguing is its placement in horror’s evolutionary chain: eventually arriving as the 50s dawned, it was a product of the only time the genre could be considered on the outs, presumably because the world had seen enough actual horror following World War II (making its obscurity doubly baffling—how could a film be forgotten in such a relatively empty landscape?). It took a while for The Bomb to truly usher horror into the atomic age, so this era is a bizarre little aside, all things considered, with most efforts looking to either cling to Universal’s golden age (She-Wolf of London) or even goof on them (Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein).
Stylistically, Ivan Barnett’s Usher can’t be said to be a drastic departure from such films--it’s essentially an Old Dark House film of the highest order, with many of its formal cues borrowed from the Expressionists that helped to define 30s horror. However, it does feature a certain mood and grimness that subtly anticipate films a decade down the line, making it a sort of missing link between Universal, Hammer, and AIP.
Despite an amusing (but wooden) framing device involving a bunch of codgers recounting famous horror stories and reading straight from Poe’s text, Barnett’s take only uses the skeleton of the original story, which finds a young man, Jonathan (Irving Steen), visiting the mysterious and enigmatic Roderick Usher (Kay Tendeter), a noble lord holed up in a family estate. Unbeknownst to him (until his handy exposition butler spills the details), the estate was cursed by an ancestor, with the family mausoleum serving as a tomb of secrets. When unleashed, they drive Roderick to the brink of madness, a dark journey that also consumes his frail sister, Madeleine (Gwen Watford).
Barnett’s transcription of Poe is less than graceful at times: the framing device makes for a tonally awkward, anvil-subtle bookend, and it relies heavily on a literal and often static translation of the text to grease its wheels. But even these clunky hurdles often yield to some wonderfully evocative visual passages, from Jonathan’s approach to Usher’s bleak house (which naturally often finds itself shrouded in shadows and even an otherworldly tint at times) to Madeleine’s haunting introduction. The latter is especially striking, as the camera creeps through a pair of curtains and glides into her room as she plays a somber piano tune, a sequence that succinctly captures the ominous, melancholy air of Poe’s story. There’s little doubt that this girl—a sort of luminous counterpoint to all the dreariness that surrounds her—is doomed. Barnett’s framing practically entombs her when she first appears during this scene.
Her brother’s decision to explore the family mausoleum sends her hurtling towards her fate. Ever curious, she lurks in the shadows behind Roderick as he skulks through the nearby forest and out into the moor that holds the place. When he enters, the camera roves into the bowels and reveals a house of horrors not unlike Lugosi’s macabre torture dungeon in The Raven. Its imagery isn’t so much inspired by the original story as much as it’s guided by the ghoulish spirit of Poe’s work in general. The centerpiece includes the severed head of an Usher forbearer that somehow still feels alive despite its vacant stare. Even more lively is an almost androgynous hag whose wiry, violent movements are in sharp contrast to her blank, dead-eyed features; it’s a crude effect that resembles an ancestor to Leatherface's skin mask, and it’s freaky as hell, quite frankly.
Her presence shifts from a visceral representation of the Usher curse to a more ghostly, spiritual harbinger of doom once the film similarly glides into more supernatural territory. It’s at this point that Barnett returns to something resembling Poe’s original story, as Roderick becomes obsessed with the fate of his delicate, sickly sister, a turn that transforms the film into something of a ghost story, with the old hag conspicuously flitting about the frame while Usher grows increasingly paranoid. Barnett digs deep into his bag of techniques, reaching as far back as the silent era at times; in fact, The Fall of the House of Usher all but becomes a silent film for one stretch involving a pulsing, nerve fraying clock that works in concert with Roderick’s swelling madness (it’s quite possibly one of the best mini-adaptations of "The Tell-Tale Heart," really).
Much of film’s climax is a symphony of abstraction that has Roderick’s face dissolving into a collection of eerie images. The Usher mansion gives visual form to the family curse when Barnett highlights its sharp angles and labyrinthine construction, both of which threaten to envelop Roderick in their folds. Poe’s themes of madness and obsession are palpable here, and Tendeter’s forlorn Usher echoes Boris Karloff and anticipates Vincent Price all at once—his performance is certainly on that same sort of tortured, sympathetic madman continuum that dominated the genre for decades. Barnett’s dedication to the ambiguity found in Poe’s story is commendable, and the last fifteen minutes or so are so artfully haunting that you can forgive him for returning to the bookend in the gentlemen’s club, where the film’s narrator all but mugs for the camera and shoves that ambiguity in the audience’s faces.
Save for that brief misstep, The Fall of the House of Usher is a deft translation of Poe’s penchant for mixing the melancholy with the macabre. Tonally, it recalls Universal’s 1930s Poe adaptations, films that truly pushed the boundaries as the studio tip-toed out of the pre-code era. Like The Raven and The Black Cat, this take on Usher has a nasty streak that’s hard to deny. Later adaptations would of course be more colorful, and Hammer would eventually crystalize the British horror film with its house style, but Barnett (whose career was short-lived) crafted a weird little curiosity here.
Finding an audience proved to be difficult and perhaps still is: it apparently took Barnett three years to get it to theaters (thanks to a battle with the BBFC, who saddled it with an ultra-rare X-rating), where it eventually found a bit of success through various re-releases. Over sixty years later, it’s been lost to time for whatever reason. Again, I’m not sure why—it might feel like the type of movie that should be included with a dozen public domain collections (it's actually not available on DVD at all), but it actually stands apart from other genre films of the era. Whereas most horror efforts were still wrangling with monsters and cartoonish madmen, Barnett discovered the horrible potential of true madness resting in the heart and mind of man, something the genre wouldn’t properly come back around to for nearly a decade. Buy it!
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