One of the films that, long ago, convinced my childhood self that, somehow, Vincent Price was Edgar Allen Poe. Or, in this case, Roderick Usher. Atmosphere was everything to Poe, and the same could be said for director Roger Corman. The house of Usher refers, of course, to the Usher family as well as the family mansion. If ever a haunted house could be a movie character, this one is it; this house even has its own action scenes.
Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) is Roderick’s sister, who, unknown to her lover, Philip (Mark Damon) is a wee bit cursed, with a slice of derangement. That sort of messes up any idea of happiness or normality. But that just means it’s a successful Poe adaptation.
By juxtaposing gothic elements, we first see Philip traverse a desolated landscape (the remnants of an actual wildfire) to get to the mansion; once inside, though, we’re treated to garish bunches of red decor. Like going through the stages of a nightmare.
It’s hard to tell what’s smoke and what’s fog outside the mansion–I guess that’s the point. “How dare you admit anyone to this house!” Roderick tells the caretaker, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Madeline manages to show up, briefly, just as Philip states his business. It happens that Roderick’s over-protectiveness derives from the belief that both he and Madeline are dying (suffering a “morbid acuteness of the senses”), and that, if she marries and has children, they will not be sane.
Madeline looks fine to me; it’s not explained why she’s there anyway, couldn’t she have stayed in Boston? Meanwhile, the house almost dumps a chandelier on Philip. Interestingly, Roderick is presented as something of an artist–he paints and composes. Later, Philip sneaks into her room, but Roderick basically kicks him out, telling her “Can’t you see that my love for you that makes me act as I do?” Fairly astute manipulative stuff. With the house disintegrating around them, it’s not exactly a place where anyone gets much sleep (Roderick can’t sleep without drugs).
Philip goes prowling around again. He comes upon Madeline, lying in a chapel, like a corpse. Bristol explains that she sleepwalks. In the morning he fetches gruel from the kitchen. “If the house dies, I shall die with it” notes Bristol. Just as everything’s getting rosy, she refuses to eat, to leave, and insists that she’s going to die. To help him ‘understand’ her situation she takes him down into a nasty-looking crypt.
Plenty of coffins; in fact her coffin too “it waits for me.” Thanks to the inherent seismic activity, a coffin tumbles out, displaying a spider-webby skeleton. “It is not I who wish to live in a cemetery” Philip tells the ever-present Roderick. So, it’s reveal time for Roderick: he says everything used to be beautiful thereabouts. But then “the land withered as before a plague” Why? Because all of the ancestors were criminals of all descriptions. “It is only a house” No, Philip. It’s evil because of the family’s “history of savage degradation.”
It’s sounding more like Roderick has his own particular evil intent towards Madeline. She professes her love for Philip, though. But, sure enough, soon enough, she appears to have died. Now she won’t have to wait to get into that coffin. Philip: “Is there no end to your horrors!” Roderick: “No.” We see her move a hand, though. Down to the crypt she’s sent, for a family reunion, so to speak.
Philip is set to leave next morning. In the kitchen, Bristol admits that Roderick was “highly overwrought.” More importantly, he says Madeline was subject to cataleptic fits–Philip zooms down to the crypt–no body in that coffin. Now Philip is ballistic. Roderick admits that she was buried alive, but then says that she really is dead. A bit confusing; so much so that Philip has a nightmare (within the overall nightmare).
This is shown as a ghastly array of all the ancestors’ ghosts: following, encircling, tormenting Philip. There’s bilious blue, red, green, and purple tints. Philip wields an enormous ax, but it turns into a skeletal arm. He ultimately sees Madeline, alive, in the coffin. But her scream wakes him up. He seeks out Roderick, who claims “Did you know I can hear every sound she makes?” So she’s not dead? Return trip to ye old crypt, with an ordinary ax. “She has the madness” notes Roderick. Yeah, but pretty gonzo for her to get out of the coffin, yet again.
A virtual city of secret passageways open up as Philip follows her trail of blood. Behind this door…she lurks, trying to strangle him. She does strangle Roderick. The house starts to burn from some logs spat out of the fireplace. Philip does escape. The remnants of the house literally sink into the tarn (pond). Nicely done.
One way to think about the premise is to see the supernatural and gothic trappings as a descriptive mask for what seems an incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline. What they’re up to doesn’t belong within acceptable or natural bounds, so it appears unreal, macabre, and sinister. That might explain why Philip had such a fine time with her in Boston, because she was away from an unnatural relationship with Roderick.
It must be a dilemma for filmmakers to adapt any of Poe’s tales into movies. For one thing, unless they’re bunched together in an anthology, there’s very little guts to work with. Poe was one of the briefest of authors, he even theorized that “sustained effort” was only possible for a writer to attain in short bursts; to produce the “single effect” or theme. (references from Poe’s essay on ‘The Poetic Principle’)
In other words, a filmmaker has to build a lot into a Poe story to keep the viewer’s interest. Corman did a fine job of that. When we break it down, there’s a lot of talking and shuffling between rooms. That’s about it. Part of the reason for Poe’s brevity might be that “single effect” was a state of mind, developed by his protagonist’s thoughts and monologues, and enhanced with description. Character implied emotion and mental state, not action. So, we have to have a movie with very little plot, not much character development, and almost no action.
The saving grace for the filmmaker is that all of the impressions and expressions can be developed visually by sets, especially interiors, and reverie, dream, nightmare, and hallucinations from a full spectrum of special effects. Corman has captured Poe’s intent. My only quibble with the mansion is that it’s much too tidy on the inside. This is about the best that can be done with Poe without disturbing the correct look and feel.
That poor rascal Farmermouse wasn’t going near that old place, although he squeeked so much that Bristol set out a nice bowl of gruel for him. Eight tarns. 8/10.