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Fall of the House of Usher, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 05 June 2001

The Fall Of The House Of Usher
MGM/UA Home Video
MPAA rating: NR
starring: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe
release year: 1960
film rating: Four-and-a-half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

In the late 1950s, low budget science fiction and horror movies began to slack off with the advent of Hammer films from England -- period settings, good acting, excellent sets and rich color set them apart from the black-and-white, contemporary American films. Furthermore, Roger Corman, practically a one-man studio, began to weary of the endless string of low-budgeters he was making for Allied Artists and, principally, American International.

When James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the heads of AIP, asked him for another horror or sci-fi double bill, Corman instead suggested one film costing as much as the two -- made in color and wide-screen (CinemaScope, even), and based on a story by America's best-known writer of horror, Edgar Allan Poe. Nicholson was intrigued, but Arkoff had to be talked into it. But talked into it he was.

Corman hired Richard Matheson, best known for 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' and a series of outstanding horror novels and short stories, to adapt Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." In the last couple of years, mostly due to starring in a couple of William Castle movies, Vincent Price had become the newest American horror star, and as he could easily express both sensitivity and villainy, seemed entirely appropriate as a Poe protagonist.

Some prints of the finished film were titled 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' like the story; others were 'House of Usher' (as on this DVD). Under either title, it was the largest-grossing movie AIP had released until that time; it changed the direction the company was heading, got new respect for Roger Corman, and started him on a series of Poe movies, most of which starred Price, almost all of which are very good.

After kind of just tossing out 'Tales of Terror,' MGM/UA Home Video has shifted directions a bit with 'House of Usher.' They still don't provide program notes (their utterly lame "Fun Facts" on the backs of the DVD cases are a truly sorry substitute), but they arranged for Roger Corman to provide commentary tracks for this and several other films. And bless their commercial little hearts -- Corman's commentary here is absolutely outstanding.

So is the print. 'House of Usher' hasn't looked this good since it played in theaters; it even looks better than the excellent laserdisc release of several years ago. The blacks are velvety and deep, the colors strong but well-balanced. I envy those with wide-screen TVs -- this should look especially good in that format.

Because 'Masque of the Red Death,' Corman's next-to-last Poe film, is so outstanding, the others in the series have tended to be underestimated, particularly 'House of Usher.' Yes, some changes have been made from the story to the film; in the movie, Philip (Mark Damon) has left Boston to visit Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) at her family's dark and brooding huge house, built near a tarn ("a small mountain lake," says my dictionary). In the story, it was Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), his old college friend, whom the visitor had come to see.

The change doesn't just add a romantic subplot, it establishes more tension at once -- Roderick doesn't want Philip to come, and his plans regarding Madeline arouse the younger man's anger and resentment. It's an excellent way of expanding the story's dimensions, and only the pedantic are likely to really object. The romance is present, but it isn't emphasized; the movie is not a love story.

Instead, it's about the hold the past has upon us, the shuddersome power of evil within -- or, more accurately, the fear of evil within. Roderick is convinced that the dark, terrible past of the Ushers -- almost all of them seem to have been criminals, insane or both -- will be visited upon him and Madeline. But the real problem is that Madeline suffers from catalepsy; she can fall into a trance almost indistinguishable from death....

Even though it's in these rich colors with contemporary actors, the movie conveys a surprising degree of the flavor of Poe, largely through Price's ripe performance. He's not quite over the top here, as he was in the immediate successor, 'Pit and the Pendulum;' instead, he embodies the terror and arrogance of Roderick Usher precisely and expressively. He bleached his hair a pale blonde for the role and shaved off his trademark mustache; as a result, his first appearance is a real surprise. Though this doesn't have the depth of his best Poe/Corman performances (in 'Red Death' and 'Tomb of Ligeia'), Price is excellent here.

Even though the DVD preserves a very good movie in excellent form, the real highlight of this disc is Roger Corman's relaxed, informative commentary. Few people's smiles come through in their voices more than Roger Corman's, and he's clearly smiling a lot as he talks us through the making of the film, his ideas about it, how he balances shocks and romance, the pacing, the editing, the performances. And Corman in his 70s is still sharp-witted: just as he's saying he carefully chose never to do a particular kind of shot in 'House of Usher,' exactly that kind of shot comes along. He laughs, corrects himself, and turns his error into a virtue. It's simply one of the best commentary tracks of this nature ever recorded, a film school in a box. (His minor errors, such as declaring that star Myrna Fahey went on to a career in other movies -- 'House of Usher' was her last movie, in fact -- are easily forgivable when compared to what Corman is right about.)

Technically, the film is a model of low-budget production. Floyd Crosby's CinemaScope photography, though somewhat overlit in the style of the day, is excellent, making Daniel Haller's sets look even larger than they are. The sound is standard, effective but not outstanding.

Although some aspects of the movie are dated, although as a horror movie it never was all that scary, 'House of Usher' is still a dark gem of a thriller, and well worth purchasing. And like all of these MGM "Midnite Movies," the price is very low, very fair.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital mono
aspect ratio(s):
2.35:1 widescreen (enhanced for 16X9)
special features: commentary track by Roger Corman and the original trailer
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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