Thursday, October 28, 2010

Film Review: Fall of the House of Usher

"Fall of the House of Usher" *** (out of ****)

I'm going to make a literary confession. I've never really been much of an Edgar Allan Poe fan. Oh, I know how some of you may react to that. I'm worthless, uncultured, pathetic. Too ignorant to understand Poe's genius. Be that as it may, for some reason I've always thought of Poe moreso as a poet. And I've always had trouble with poetry. So, as one can imagine I've always had problems trying to interpret Poe's writings. Despite all of that, I must admit, I do love "Tell Tale Heart" (does that redeem me in any way?).

I mention all of this because, as some readers may known, "Fall of the House of Usher" (1960) is adapted from an Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. This film in fact, which was directed by Roger Corman, began what is known as the "Poe series", a collection of films which Corman directed based on Poe stories.

It seems I only review Corman's work around Halloween. I have to stop doing that. Corman deserves the attention of filmbuffs, believe it or not. I'm a half-hearted admirer of his, not so much for his films per se, but rather I admire what he represents and his spirit.

Corman was a highly prolific independent filmmaker. His films, in my opinion, did not help establish cinema as an artform. His films have become cult classics though. They are known for being made on a modest budget (Corman has secured a reputation for knowing how to squeeze every cent out of a dollar), having a certain amount of camp, and usually starring Vincent Price. But this may all sound as if I'm insulting Corman. Not at all. I was happy last year when Corman was given an Honorary Oscar. I should have reviewed one of his films as a sort of tribute.

As I said, it seems I only review Corman's films around Halloween. I have written about two other films in his "Poe series"; "The Pit & the Pendulum" (1961) and "Masque of the Red Death" (1964). Both of which I gave a moderate recommendation to. Other Poe films include "The Raven" (1963) and "Tales of Terror" (1962) but those are much more campy comedies.

"Fall of the House of Usher", like most of Corman's films, actually has a nice look to it. Good production design, decent cinematography, somewhat effective musical score (sometimes it tries too hard to be creepy, as when we hear a soundtrack of voices crying out in pain) and ok acting. Surprisingly what the film lacks is a proper atmosphere. This is one of those "the house is alive" movies. The house becomes a character in the story. After having reviewed "The Changeling" (1980) it is hard to recommend this film. "The Changeling", "The Haunted" (1963) and "The Shining" (1980) all did such an effective job giving the house a personality. There was much more beyond the exterior of the house. Corman doesn't add such dimension to his haunted house.

Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) has come to the house of Usher in hopes of finding his fiancee, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). The two had an affair in Boston and agreed to be married. However Madeline has return to her New England home occupied by her brother, Roderick (Price) and his butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Philip is not welcomed into the home, even when he announces who he is and his intentions. He is told it is for the best he leave. You see, the house of Usher is a place of death. Both Roderick and Madeline are very ill and sure they will die any die now. Philip is sure both the house and Roderick seem to have a strong influence over her. If only he could convince her to leave but Roderick won't hear of it.

There are some effective scenes. I like a sequence when Roderick tries to explain the family's history to Philip, showing him painting on the wall of various members and revealing their troubled backgrounds. The sequence also allows for Price to get in a truly delicious campy performance. Another sequence, perhaps a bit more creepy, is a dream sequence as Philip tries to rescue Madeline. It has a tendency to borderline on campy once again, but, if you are in the right mood the scene can achieve its desired goal.

Still part of me believes the film never really makes us believe the house is truly evil. We never sense danger lurking around every corner. There aren't enough "things that go thump in the night". A majority of the film lacks the proper atmosphere. It isn't until the end of the film, the last act, that Corman starts to make things interesting and turn up the heat.

The performances do what are required of them but are still kind of, sort of, disappointing. Corman and the script don't demand enough from the actors. They seem capable enough. I suspect they did what they were told but the viewer doesn't sense the house is starting to take control of these people. Damon in particular seems so one dimensional.

Vincent Price usually gives the most memorable performance in any film he is in. I love to watch Price act in a movie but for all the wrong reasons. In these horror films, which he is undoubtedly best known for, he sometimes goes completely over the top. He lays it all on the line and can be quite campy. And I find it entertaining to watch. It is not Oscar caliber acting by a long shot but serves its purpose. Strangely Price is much more restrained here. He has the one good scene which I described but by and large Price appears to have taken this role a bit more serious.

Now, I have to point out while some readers may only know Price for these horror films like "House on Haunted Hill" (1959), "The Fly" (1958) and "House of Wax" (1953) all of which are worth watching. Price didn't start out that way. He wanted to be a serious actor. And he appeared in some very good movies. Watch him in Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944) or "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). For pete sake's the man was even in "The Ten Commandments" (1956). He honestly could act. Tell me he doesn't get a strong reaction out of you in "Bernadette".

The film was written by Richard Matheson who had worked with Corman before writing a few other Poe adaptations. But Matheson is quite the diverse writer. Besides these Corman films he also wrote "Somewhere in Time" (1980) and "What Dreams May Come" (1999)!

Of course there was nothing new about adapting Poe stories to the screen. The first Poe adaptation dates back to 1908 with the short film "Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery". I'm not even going to pretend I've seen that movie, I haven't. The earliest Poe adaptation I've seen is D.W. Griffith's "The Avenging Conscience" (1914). I thought about pairing these two movies together, but, decided against it because I really don't like that particular Griffith film, even though it does serve some historical curiosity purpose.

"Fall of the House of Usher" is not going to scare anyone. None of Corman's Poe films are scary. You don't see these films really for scares. You watch them in the hopes of seeing Corman's craft on display and admiring the film's atmosphere. "Fall of the House of Usher" does a remotely adequate job of entertaining us. I prefer "The Pit & the Pendulum" though.