Saturday, 14 September 2013

MOVIE: The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960)

The Fall Of The House Of Usher aka House Of Usher

US 1960, 80m, American International Pictures/Alta Vista

Blu-Ray: Arrow Films (UK) - Cert 15

Seeking the hand in marriage of his lost love Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the isolated ancestral home of the Usher family. After getting past the house servant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), Philip is given short shrift by Madeline's brother Roderick (Vincent Price), who warns him that he must leave the house immediately. When Philip refuses to do so, even after Roderick tries to explain at least in part the Usher family curse, things are further complicated when Madeline appears and sees her beloved. Meanwhile, the house appears to be crumbling away...

A turning point for Roger Corman, American International Pictures (AIP) and Vincent Price. Whilst it wasn't Price's first horror appearance by any means, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (originally just House Of Usher in the UK) and the Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that followed arguably set the template for the remainder of his career. He's at the top of his game here. Missing his familiar moustache and with his hair died white-blonde, he looks like a man slowly fading away, and he plays Roderick as both sympathetic and loathable.

Myrna Fahey is an able Madeline, able to elicit some genuine chills when it becomes apparent that she may not be as she initially seems, whilst Mark Damon is dashing as the erstwhile hero of the piece. Harry Ellerbe gives sterling support, like an American stand-in for Hammer's Michael Ripper.

Richard Matheson's script pulls off the remarkable feat of turning Edgar Allen Poe's short story into a feature without it feeling padded. It's dialogue heavy but riveting, especially impressive when you consider that the whole film centres around four characters.

The cinematography of Floyd Crosby (father of David, fact fans) and the art direction of Daniel Haller cannot be underestimated in their contribution, not only to this film but the ones which followed in the series. The generally muted colours, emphasising browns, reds and greens would give the series a very distinctive look which has been emulated, if never quite matched. 

The Fall Of The House Of Usher is a watershed of a kind, kick starting a whole style of American gothic cinema, and is as important in that respect as The Curse Of Frankenstein is to the British gothic tradition. It would move AIP's emphasis away from the black-and-white double features which had been their early bread and butter, and marked a clear progression in Corman's work, starting a critical appreciation which would only continue to grow.

The films became more elaborate as the series progressed, but this is the one that set the template. It still looks impressive, and it's quite astonishing that it was shot in 15 days on a small budget. Claustrophobic, at times visually surreal and genuinely eerie. A benchmark film of the genre.

Blu-Ray Notes: One word - ASTONISHING. Arrow Films' HD edition looks and sounds great, the previously mentioned cinematography and art direction are really done justice. The image has been cleaned up respectfully, and any restorative trickery has not been overdone. The original mono soundtrack is rendered with great clarity, and all of its subtleties have been retained. Les Baxter's score sounds superb.

Extras are: Commentary from Roger Corman (from the previous US MGM DVD), Interview with Joe Dante, featurette with Jonathan Rigby discussing the making of the film and a video essay by David Cairns. A limited edition steelbook version reproduces the original UK poster.


Original Theatrical Trailer (the trailer probably hasn't aged as well as the actual film...)

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