House of Usher (1960)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/21/09 14:44:27

"Corman & Price's first Poe property."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

After the past week I could probably set some sort of site record by having reviews of four different versions of "The Fall of the House of Usher", if I really wanted to - this, a pair of 1928 silents, and a modern version that hit video with little fanfare a couple years ago. For now, though, let's stick with this film directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, the first of their seven collaborations on Edgar Allen Poe stories, and one of their best.

Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the titular house seeking his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who recently left Boston without a word. The butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) tells him that the mistress is not well, but Phillip pushes his way in to confront the man of the house, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price). Roderick tries his best to push Phillip away, saying that Madeline suffers from a family malady - though perhaps that is not the Usher legacy which should concern them!

House of Usher created a template that at least half of the later entries in the Poe "series" would follow - outsider comes to a mansion inhabited primarily by Price's character and a servant, is initially rebuffed by Price, and has his or her persistence rewarded by insanity and inevitable destruction, along with certain other recurring motifs. Perhaps for Halloween, I'll pick up a copy of Poe's stories to see whether this comes from him or whether Corman found a formula that worked and exploited it for as long as it sold tickets. Of course, screenwriter Richard Matheson's expansion of the story to feature-length didn't create these tropes - they are familiar elements of gothic horror stories going back decades if not centuries.

The question, then, is execution, and Corman and company do pretty well. It's a bit rough at times - for instance, at one point the audience this writer sat in laughed at something that looked like an error, something that would have been an "aha!" moment if the movie were firing on all cylinders. Aside from that, though, it's mostly fairly smooth sailing: Corman builds things up quickly, but things don't get frantic until the end. He gets shocks without a whole lot of blood and guts, and brings things to a nice climax.

The cast turns in good work, too: This is a prototype Vincent Price role, with Price carrying off a frail, aristocratic air while also being legitimately threatening. Mark Damon is a fine complement to him as Winthrop, quite physical and determined, making a virtue of his comparative simple-mindedness. Myrna Fahey hits the right note as Madeline, making her fragile but also implying that she could be otherwise under different circumstances. And character actor Harry Ellerbe makes the most of his part as the loyal Bristol, connecting with both Price and Damon and, as a result, the audience.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's more famous stories, so the audience likely has a good idea how it ends. The getting there is quite enjoyable, though, creepy but also just plain fun to watch.

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