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From the Vaults: 'House of Usher' (1960)

August 16, 2010 |  2:35 am

Usherposer People with funeral fetishes, I have got the movie for you, and it is Roger Corman's "House of Usher." (Yes, I am beaming affectionately at you, my dear goth friends.) The first in a rash of Corman films taken from titles by Edgar Allan Poe, "Usher" is one of the most faithful that I have seen and also, alas, just about the least fun. But if you have a thing for funerals, it's great! And for the rest of us, there's Vincent Price in a blond wig.

The plot makes a bit free with Poe's story, although it's nothing like the deranged embellishments of, say, "The Raven," in which Vincent Price and Boris Karloff cast spells on each other over dinner while Peter Lorre flaps around in a man-sized raven suit. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," an unnamed friend comes to visit Roderick Usher in his big creepy old family mansion; Roderick's sister Madeline swans around being sickly and eventually gets buried alive. That's pretty much the plot here, except that the friend has been named Philip Winthrop and he arrives as Madeline's fiance. It's a short story (my copy runs 19 pages) so there's a lot of standing around.

But hey, we're standing around with Vincent Price, and he's got a blond wig on! Check him out after the jump: He looks like Captain Von Trapp. Price plays Roderick Usher, who is not at all happy to see Winthrop (Mark Damon) on his doorstep. The "Winthrop, you must leave!" starts right off the bat. But apparently Winthrop met Madeline (Myrna Fahey) back in Boston and got engaged to her and is determined to visit her at home, even though all she does is put on nightgowns and swan around being sickly. Winthrop mostly interacts with the hostile Roderick and with the butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), who is useful for providing expository details such as the family inclination toward catalepsy.


UsherpriceI can't really fault Corman or the cast for the movie's stiffness and slowness. Fond as I am of Mr. Poe,  that's just how he likes things: The 19 pages of "Usher" feel excruciatingly long, because they're pretty much all atmosphere and no action. I think that's what the movie is shooting for, and the movie does hinge on the story's main idea, which is Madeline's death.


Poe loved nothing more than a dead or dying woman, and Corman's movie obediently fetishizes Madeline's demise. It's all the characters talk about, and Madeline keeps falling into deathlike swoons and being carried into bedrooms and chapels (I'm telling you, this movie is for fetishists and English majors who are writing papers about Poe) before she actually dies. And once she does, she spends a lot of time being fussed over in her coffin. Plus she gets a good chunk of time in the family crypt, pre-death, pointing out all her dead relatives and her place among them, in a scene probably intended to be reminiscent of the "And there I died" bit from "Vertigo." If coffins are your bag, you'll just be in heaven. (I kept thinking about Catherine Deneuve's client in "Belle de Jour" who wants her to come over and lie in a coffin so he can weep over her.)

Me, I'd also recommend this movie for fans of Corman, Price and/or Poe, but advise keeping some knitting handy, or some other task you can do in front of the TV while everyone is swooning and talking about the Usher curse and shouting "Winthrop, you must leave!" Watch the first 10 minutes, then knit for an hour or so; if there's something on the stove, you can go check on it without hitting pause.

Ushermadeline But do check back in about 10 minutes before the end, when Winthrop has a nightmare. I really liked the dream sequence (Corman does another good one in "Masque of the Red Death," but this one is more evocative and chilling), and the few minutes after it ends are outstanding. Just as the best part of Poe's story is the very end, "Usher" really hits its stride in its climax. Roderick whispering about hearing his sister's nails on the inside of her coffin lid; the trail of ketchup-style 1960 blood leading out of the crypt; Fahey's shrieks as Madeline (left) hurls herself vengefully upon Roderick. The lack of goofy "Raven"-style irony gives these scenes a particular frisson. For what they are, they work really well.

Still, I have to recommend "The Pit and the Pendulum" over this one. Vincent Price and my beloved Barbara Steele, thank you very much, plus a plot borrowed more from "Usher" than from the story it's actually named after. It's a lot more fun than "House of Usher." But hey, Price's hair alone is worth the price of admission here.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

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