Friday, 5 October 2012

Eyes flew open, pulled back – [The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)]


Dir. Roger Corman
Film #4, for Thursday 4th October, of Halloween 31 for 31

Allas, I have only gotten through a few of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories in the short space of my life, but I can still attest to the fact that fear and horror, in his eyes, was a lingering spectre that drifts like mist into a person’s mind and draws away their breath. Adapted from one of his most well known stories, made into numerous films (from avant garde director Jean Epstein to a version by the late, great Ken Russell literally filmed in his garage), a would be suitor (Philip Winthrop) travels to the manor of the Usher family in hope to see his would-be fiancée Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), only to encounter an ominous environment. Pushing him to leave immediately, her brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) is a man on the tip of disintegration, believing his family to be doomed, as the centuries year old home is literally falling to pieces and the land around it is a bare carcass of poisoned ground. The rest of the 80 or so minute film is lurid, sinister melodrama, Roger Corman enforcing that as well as being a seminal producer whose influence is vast in American cinema, he could direct as well.

The word ‘Technicolour’ immediately stands out from the film, the darkness of Poe depicted in a way so unexpected from the images you would normally picture in your portraying it through colours so bright they become as on edge as Price himself. The paintings his character creates, beautiful but frenzied collages of colour, are a perfect mirror of the film around them, even before a flat-out sequence of psychological breakdown depicted with Vaseline smeared camera lenses and full bleeding coloured lights. The classic score from Les Baxter, achingly romantic in style, contributes to this unsettled jitteriness, as the madness builds and the at-first stately and tense film suddenly starts galloping into gruesome lunacy.

That it feels like a chamber piece as well, the rest of the small cast (including Harry Ellerbe as the servant Bristol) matching the tone as well as Price in his quiet but blatant unravelling performance, helps amplify its story. I will not spoil anything – compared to the DVD box itself on both sides – but despite the falling interest in these types of horror films near the end of the 1960s, The Fall of the House of Usher is still ghoulish and twisted even now, the overwhelming colours and tone, matching the symptoms of sensory saturation the Ushers suffer from, adding to the perverse nature of the story. It may be a lot more blatant in its presentation of what Poe would write in his stories, but the sense of the horror and madness, as vivid and upfront in his literature, is still there and done with great respect.


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