Legendary Scare-master Vincent Price serves up a diabolical nightmare dripping with “brooding evil and sinister suspense” (Film Daily)! Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s chilling tale about a family driven to savage bloodlust by a power beyond their wildest fears, this terrifying story of “murder, madness and necrophilia” (Cue) proves that there’s no place like home… for horror! Convinced that his family’s blood is tainted by generations of evil, Roderick Usher (Price) is hell-bent on destroying his sister Madeline’s wedding. But when Madeline’s fiancée arrives at the haunted castle to claim his lovely bride, he soon discovers that, for this family, their house is more than just a home… it’s their TOMB!
eyelights: Vincent Price. its disquieting quality. its comparatively punched-up third act. Les Baxter’s score.
eyesores: its languid pace. its low-budget quality.
“If the house dies, I shall die with it.”
There have been countless movies based on Edgar Allan Poe’s works over the years. But ‘House of Usher’ is historically significant: not only was it a huge box office success, injecting much-needed vitality in American International Pictures, but the 1960 motion picture is a turning point in director Roger Corman and star Vincent Price’s careers.
American International Pictures were on the brink of poverty, producing cheapies for a market that was on the decline. Roger Corman had been hammering out multiple low-budget movies a year for AIP double features for years. And Vincent Price was finding himself largely in demand for low-budget horror features; his credibility was at stake.
‘House of Usher’ was a game changer.
After its release, AIP, Roger Corman and Vincent Price became intrinsically linked in a series of Edgar Allan Poe motion pictures. Then AIP branched out into other fare, making a few classics along the way. Corman developed his craft and became one of the world’s most successful filmmakers. Vincent Price became known as a horror icon.
The picture, which is based on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, tells of Philip’s visit to Madeline Usher at her family home. There he finds that his once-gay fiancée is now febrile and under constant watch by her brother Roderick, who claims that she is stricken with a family curse. During his stay, Philip discovers how deep it runs.
The Ushers have quite a creepy family history.
Though ‘House of Usher’ benefited from a higher budget than AIP and Roger Corman were accustomed, it remains a cheapie, both empowered and hobbled by Corman’s notorious frugality. It’s a picture with a very limited scope, set in one location and shot on an unconvincing set; it looks and feels artificial, sort of make-do – which it obviously was.
A perfect example of this is the matte painting that stands in for the mansion, which neither looks real nor blends in well with Philip and the horse he rides on. The house’s discrepancy is made even more severe at the end when it’s superimposed over the jutting flames of a burning barn; at no point can we believe this house is truly aflame.
But where ‘Usher’ succeeds is in its tone, which is slightly eerie: as Philip trots towards the Usher house, he must pass a smoky, barren land, only to be treated with suspicion upon his arrival. Something is clearly amiss, and Vincent Price’s Roderick punctuates this notion by being controlling and yet seemingly disconnected from reality.
It leaves the audience disquieted.
The picture takes its sweet time building up the tension, however. This may both be a product of the era that it was made in and Corman’s desire to stretch the material to feature film length, but there are plenty of moments that could have been trimmed. Still, it all makes up for it in spades with its blistering and deliriously psychotic finale.
Thankfully, the performances are memorable, starting with Vincent Price, whose bleached hair and bare face give him a sickly, if not otherwordly, quality – and Price infects Rod with the required frailty, wincing at all sensorial offenses. Meanwhile, Myrna Fahey transforms Madeline, starting with meak and then becoming perfectly crazed.
But it’s all very theatrical, with none of the actors acting naturally; these are indeed performances. And it’s not helped by the production, which aged Harry Ellerbe’s Bristol with clearly evident make-up and grey dye, or the fact that Corman’s camera is veritably still – it looks like watching a stage play being performed and filmed.
I got a few good laughs out of the many ways in which the house sought to drive Philip away, an eerie concept that was staged in a slightly campy fashion. I also found the way that Roderick casually plucked at his lute as evening entertainment hilarious; it almost seemed as though he was purposely playing poorly to drive Philip away.
Ha! It was probably unintentional.
Though Richard Matheson’s adaptation makes a few changes to Poe’s original short story (including the romance), he still retains its ominous quality, with a growing madness overtaking it and enveloping Philip before consuming itself completely. Had it been produced today it could have been one truly chill-inducing motion picture.
As it stands, ‘House of Usher’ is a decent picture, but it’s not as deeply affecting as it could have been. It mostly stands out because of the skill with which it was made – especially given its severe constraints, like being shot in a mere 15 days! But it’s historically significant and you can rarely go wrong with Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent Price.
Together, they’re a real treat.
Date of viewing: January 19, 2017