As his beautiful young wife Madeline dies slowly of some dreaded ailment, fevered artist Roderick Usher asks his old friend Allan to keep him company in these morbid times. Shortly after Allan arrives, Madeline dies – or does she? As Roderick himself succumbs to the melancholy, noises from Madeleine’s tomb cry out – Death is not the end! Working from several of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories, French avant-garde visionary Jean Epstein crafted one of the most highly acclaimed and internationally renowned film adaptations of Poe. Co-directed with surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and starring Abel Gance’s wife as the undead Madeleine, this 1928 classic is a true feast for the eyes and proof positive that the German Expressionists did not have a corner on the Gothic horror market. Newly mastered from a 35mm preservation positive, with a soundtrack by acclaimed music historian Rolande de Cande adapted from medieval music.
eyelights: the lovely photography. the eerie mood. the creative effects. the impressive locations.
eyesores: its unclear finale.
Edgar Allan Poe’s classic gothic horror short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been adapted for the big and small screen a number of times since it was first published in 1839. The most well-known one, of course, is Roger Corman’s 1960 ‘House of Usher’, starring Vincent Price.
But the first (and by far the most aesthetically unique one) is Jean Epstein’s ‘La chute de la maison Usher’. Released in 1928, the scarcely feature-length silent film has an interesting origin: it was co-scripted by Epstein and none other than future surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel himself.
While it was released a year before Buñuel’s landmark directorial debut ‘Un chien andalou’, ‘La chute…’ had less input than one might expected from the Spanish film icon due to a falling out with Epstein over the source material; Buñuel felt that the picture wasn’t true enough to Poe’s original.
In fact, ‘La chute…’ isn’t merely inspired by “The Fall of the House of Usher”: it also incorporates material from another Poe short, “The Oval Portrait”, amongst other things. The resulting motion picture is a smorgasbord of dreamy black and white surrealist imagery and ominous tones.
The vaguely David Lynch-esque quality of the Usher house’s large windowless hall with its endless drapes, the portrait of Madeline that Rod is painting (which is blurry, as though the actress was reflected in a mirror), and even Madeline’s overlapped or slo-mo movements were all visual treats.
And there’s this très cool scene in which Rod and his two cohorts carried Madeline’s casket across a lake, through a forest, and into the crypt, which found candles flanking either side of the group, like large columns. The effect was poorly-rendered (it was 1928, after all!), but it’s still remarkable.
Also of note are the performances, which were (of course) silent. I was amazed by just how much the actors conveyed with mere gestures – much like Epstein could with his imagery. Though it was all hyperbolic, which can sometimes be mildly annoying, there’s evident craft involved here.
They were also assisted in moving the story along by sporadic French intertitles – which, in this DVD edition by Image Entertainment, were read in English by a man with a peculiar accent. Image also added eeriness to the proceedings via an excellent musical score selected by Roland de Candé.
Ultimately, though it’s an old silent film, ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ still manages to build tension and wonder. I’m not always a great fan of avant-garde cinema, but I truly feel that this motion picture finds the right balance between surrealistic imagery and a more traditional narrative.
I think that Poe would have been pleased.
Date of viewing: February 2, 2017