A late night phone call, the kind that can change your life…
When Jill Michaelson learns that her former friend, Maddy Usher is dead, excruciating memories of being abandoned by Maddy and her twin Rick are conjured up. But Jill realizes that attending the funeral may be her only opportunity for closure.
Arriving at the Usher House, Jill encounters her former lover Rick, who is now afflicted by the same illness that took his sister. Jill is drawn by the seductiveness of the immense mansion and the aristocratic family, but most of all, the man himself. Undeterred by the family caretaker’s menacing warnings, Jill’s feelings for Rick and her curiosity about the house grow deeper, leading her toward a dangerous, irreversible end.
eyelights: its creative adaptation. its setting.
eyesores: its performances. its editing. its storytelling.
“Your mind is playing tricks on you again.”
Edgar Allan Poe and madness. Though I have yet to read all of his works, the two are intrinsically linked in my mind; every Poe-related thing that I’ve read in school or saw on the silver screen revolves around mental frailty.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is an interesting horror hybrid because it mixes madness with the supernatural, leaving its audience punch-drunk; madness seems to be at play, but our narrator proves that there’s much more there.
Though it’s been adapted for the silver screen at least a half dozen times through the years, maybe more, no motion picture truly captures the terror of the House of Usher (Roger Corman’s 1960 film probably comes the closest).
Mind you, it’s not easy translating the psychological to a visual medium.
Hayley Cloake’s 2006 adaptation takes a fine crack at it, but focuses strictly on the psychological, losing the supernatural angle that made the original so potent. It also transfers the setting to present day, modernizing the story.
In this version, Jill is called upon by her ex, Rick Usher, a popular author who broke up with her three years ago under mysterious circumstances, to come for his twin sister’s funeral. Having been close to Madeline, Jill accepts.
Once at the House of Usher, she discovers that Rick has secluded himself in the family mansion, afflicted by an illness that has plagued and felled the Ushers for generations; he requires regular shots of experimental drugs to live.
Rick asks her to stay the night, then the weekend, then the week, claiming that he needs her in his final moments, convinced he’s dying. But Jill is at odds with Ms. Thatcher, Rick’s nurse, who insists that she doesn’t belong.
Left alone to wander the property while Rick writes, Jill gradually uncovers the truth about Rick’s condition, the Usher family curse and Madeline’s death – and she begins to believe that she’s seen Maddy wandering on the property.
Or was that all in her mind?
Frankly, where Poe is concerned, I’m not much of a purist. I can’t really explain why. While others might be, it remains that it didn’t bother me one bit that ‘The House of Usher’ was a very loose adaptation of the source material.
In fact, I found it interesting that our narrator was now a female lead. I also enjoyed the presence of the uptight Ms. Thatcher. I even liked that Rick was a reclusive novelist. And I really dug that the casket was now an isolation tank.
But ‘The House of Usher’ is plagued by a greater number of issues than even its namesake.
For starters, there are the performances, which are uneven all around: Izabella Miko is basically a budget Elisha Cuthbert, Austin Nichols is physically and emotionally stiff and Beth Grant overplays the ominous Ms. Thatcher.
Then there’s the storytelling. The editing is just weird: the picture begins with a series of small cuts back and forth between the present and mere minutes ago; it’s not at all incoherent, but it’s a little bit inarticulate. And that’s for starters.
The rest of the picture is told in a more typical fashion, but there are so so many scenes that just fade out abruptly. Weird. And many of them seem to come out of nowhere and don’t necessarily tie together or make any real sense.
A perfect example is this hilarious moment when Jill is taking a bath and plunges under the water, only to find arms reaching for her. Freaked out, she resurfaces to find Ms. Thatcher waiting in the doorway, far from the bathtub.
So whose arms were they? Was she just imagining them? And why would Thatcher intrude on her private time only to stand there watching? If she had a message to deliver there were much more appropriate ways to do so…
It’s all very peculiar.
Or plainly inept.
Another scene that comes to mind is when Rick shoots up with his medicine one morning, goes to Jill’s room, sits down on a loveseat just as she wakes up, and tells her to “C’m’ere’. Naturally, she gets up unquestioningly and straddles him.
What? What kind of hypnotic power does he suddenly have over her? And why is he able to take his medicine by himself, whereas he always needed help before? It’s just so weird, out of character; it felt like a gratuitous sex scene.
(Which, let’s face it, it probably was.)
The ending makes even less sense: though she’d been über-protective until then, Thatcher tries to overdose Rick, injects an abortive compound in Jill’s abdomen and then throws herself out of the second-floor window and promptly dies.
Meanwhile, Rick found enough strength to go to the isolation tank to regenerate.
The most hilarious aspect of the picture, though, must be Rick’s writing: frequently toiling away at his typewriter, we are privy to his thoughts as he’s putting them into words – and it’s risibly pretentious and nonsensical.
The only advantage to this part of the picture is that it provides us with some perspective on Rick’s headspace, in the same way that Jill’s tribute to Maddy at the funeral provided us with some background history on the three of them.
But even those shortcuts aren’t enough to explain the characters’ motivations, which are just a jumbled mess. Why does Rick abruptly get up and leave while making out with Jill? Why would she stand his consistently hot/cold behaviour?
Who the !@#$ knows.
And that‘s the key problem with ‘The House of Usher’: It’s not that it’s only vaguely similar to the original (in fact, the changes are actually intriguing), it’s that it doesn’t really make sense when you even remotely consider it.
There’s no excuse for it. Though the film was made on minuscule budget, at the very least the writing should have been sharper; a more coherent script might at least have overcome the inherent limitations of having no production money.
Or maybe not.
To quote Edgar Allan Poe himself (though out of context), “There are combinations of very simple natural objects, which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth”.
Such is movie magic.
Date of viewing: January 21, 2017