Today's post features special guest commentary from Cinapse's Liam O'Donnell
. He and both do this "watch a shit-ton of horror in October and write about it" thing, and so we've decided to team up on a few films this month. His column his entitled "Journal of Fear," and you should totally read it
. He also does a podcast called Cinepunx
with Joshua Alvarez, and it's super-fun. Go listen. On to the film ...
The Fall of the House of Usher
is exactly the kind of gothic melodrama I usually attempt to avoid in my horror film watching, and yet it somehow manages to engage effectively in the third act of the film. In a rather ill advised attempt to add some emotional pathos to what is a rather detached tail. the film version of TFOHOU
adds a love angle into the classic Poe tale, though otherwise it follows rather closely. The garish “period” dress and ridiculous score do nothing recreate the moody gothic anxiety that Poe's tale of morose fascination and mental illness calls up. The only thing that carries the film through its first few acts is the brilliant and always interesting Vincent Price.
That is not to claim the Vincent Price guarantees quality, far from it. However, in many roles which fall far beyond his abilities, Price manages to bring a certain creepy engaged manner that interests me despite myself. Price here is playing his more affected, dandy persona, but he is playing it well and it fits the Usher character perfectly. The film ends up on a seriously creepy note, but this is not due to any innovation of the film makers. It is more that the idea of a woman, buried alive, hands destroyed from digging herself out of her own coffin, rampaging in madness is just inherently disturbing. Even when played with such theatrical abandon as to bridge upon farce, the idea unsettles me. The bloodied coffin top alone gives me pause.
Yet, despite the strength of this third act, this film is yet another reminder as to why I do not get modern/classic horror, especially film representations of gothic pieces. This is a bit broad of a statement with some obvious exceptions, however post-modern horror (after Night of the Living Dead generally) just gets under my skin so much more. It is partly the artistry of it, which is lacking. There is inevitably a schlock, as if yelling or dramatic music will move the audience more, this fails with me. Yet it may also be what we are afraid of. TFOTHOU
is a film that seems to play, to a large extent, off of a fear of fate. Usher is moved by a terrible destiny, one that he cannot help but literally make real himself. I have no fear of this, so that even if this film were done well by today's standards, could I even care?
Vincent Price's first Poe collaboration with director Roger Corman, House of Usher
, is the most said -- and thus, the least interesting. For those such as myself who've watched them out of any sort of chronological order, it's kind of a shock to come from something like Tales of Terror
or The Pit and the Pendulum
to discover that, initially, Price and Corman were producing something more akin to Hammer horror than the usual AIP shockers to which we're accustomed. Granted, the third act is absolutely bananas -- Madeline returning from the grave, the house burning and then sinking into the swamp -- but the prior hour is stiflingly dull. It's like watching a Merchant and Ivory costume drama: everything's expository dialogue spoken by people in high collars.
The sad part is that, for as little as you want to watch it, House of Usher
looks amazing. The thing about all of Roger Corman's AIP pictures, and particularly his Poe pictures with Price, is that they're all a joy to simply look at. The Blu-ray of House of Usher absolutely pops visually, and while you might be otherwise be disinterested, be it due to plodding pace, poor plot, or hammy acting, you do get vibrant scenery with which to bathe your eyes. If you're familiar with Poe's story, then I heartily suggest you skip straight to the last thirty minutes or so, wherein Usher and Winthrop put Madeline in the crypt, then Winthrop goes mad trying to save her once he realizes she's been entombed alive. It's worth seeing, because it does a wonderful job of whetting one's appetite for what will come next -- namely, far-better combinations of Corman, Price, and Poe.
Ok Nick, let me confess, this is the ONLY of these VP and Corman team-ups I have seen, and if you had asked where I thought this film came from, I would have pointed straight at Hammer. This has Hammer horror written all over it, from the ridiculous music cues to the over the top outfits. Not that I hate Hammer films, a few are very effective and even some of the least scary are still charming. There is also the idea of a Poe film itself, a kind of gothic, atmospheric horror that seems very suited to the Hammer aesthetic. Yet I am curious about a few things: how does this stack up to the other three? Do they feel more like Roger Corman joints? Do you think they needed sometime to get into their groove with these Poe films? Finally, why is the third act so interesting compared to the rest of the movie? I am not sure if it is a strength of the Poe story itself, or something Corman was able to pull of finally.
Insofar as the rest of the Corman / Price team-ups, I think this is my least favorite. I'd actually not seen this one before, leaping into the Pit and the Pendulum
, Masque of the Red Death
, and others first. It's probably telling that, while this is included in the first Vincent Price collection that Shout Factory put out, I've never seen it in the Walmart five-dollar DVD bin at Halloween like I have with the others. Those other films are far more Corman films -- more blood, more ridiculousness, and Price getting to do far more of that emoting he does near the end. That's why I think the end is so effective -- it's the part of the film that takes the Poe story and exaggerates it to slightly over-the-top proportions. Seeing how much that stands out in regards to the rest of the film, I can't help but picture Corman seeing a screening of it somewhere and nodding his head, saying, “That's where we go next.” Knowing that, does it make you want to seek out the possible more Corman-flavored pictures that would come later?
Yes, it certainly does. I am still amazed that Corman could turn out a picture that feels so, honestly, subdued compared to much of his other work. I do not wish to speak ill of the master, just surprised that so little of this film feels like him. Corman doing Poe is perhaps the sort of match up that just might work, even if this film felt a bit restrained. I had assumed prior to you filling me in on the other films that I might find a similar kind of movie with those others. Poe does not write the kind of story that leads to the sort of deep terror that I want from horror often. Yet, with the right kind of over the top, Poe inspired, exaggeration I could see those stories becoming interesting fare. The stories lend themselves to adding a bit of exploitation like spice. Corman is, if anything, a filmmaker of big expression. He makes movies that may not always work, but are always huge and ambitious. It is one of the things I admire about him. Does he lend that same expansive, intense quality to those stories? I am familiar with The Pit and The Pendulum
but I have never read the Masque of the Red Death
. How does his influence move those stories forward or expand them out? Am I being unfair to Poe when a film like The Fall of the House of Usher
doesn't surprise me? I expect Poes work to be, stuffy maybe? Certainly lacking in tension. I often find myself simply not caring about the internal worlds and deep anxieties of his characters. Should I be giving Poe-inspired horror films another shot?
Well, your points are absolutely spot-on. This film in particular is almost too reverent in terms of its adherence to Poe's original work. The true problem is that Poe didn't write novels: he wrote short stories, and when you take a 5-10 page story and stretch it into an hour and a half long film, it's going to need some padding and rejiggering. In the case of House of Usher, Corman stuck pretty much to the original plot, which means an awful lot of sitting around and talking. When he gets to the later films, he takes the root concept and expands upon it, such as the Pit and the Pendulum
, which has the actual plot of the story confined to a few moments, and augmented with an awful lot more in terms of torture devices. However, he also takes three stories and presents them almost verbatim, in the instance of Tales of Terror
, and they work out almost perfectly as short-form pieces. Poe is rather stuffy, and the problem with the gothic in its purest form is that you're already essentially working with something that is a formulaic parody of genre conventions in and of itself, so to play it straight -- well, that way lies madness.
Well, despite some of the difficulty of this film, I am glad I caught it for two reasons. One is simply to find out from you that Corman Poe films are actually something worth watching. Corman and Price should likely have formed a convincing enough duo that I was on board, but alas I fear Poe set to the big screen and have stayed clear. The second reason is simply to catch another Vincent Price film. I love Price, but oddly I love this emotional dandy character of his even more than his more popular menacing creep. The menacing creep is often more dignified and perhaps lies closer to what I suspect Price might actually have been like, but this simply over wrought pathetic creature just always gets me, and I am glad to have caught it. In the end though, while I am stoked to see Corman take on more Poe material, will I ever truly love Gothic horror? I feel like this particular genre misses me, not simply because I am not as familiar with the conventions of which it parodies, though I am sure that is part of it. I simply know modern horror far more than I do classic stuff, sure. I just also worry when I read Poe though that he is bringing alive a real anxiety for people, something internal and unsettled. Poe seems afraid of interiors in a way that can only for me exist before we understood mental illness. Now, I fear a thing I DO have a name for, and perhaps I fear the cure that much more. What say you, was this worth your time? Should other take a chance on this particular Poe adventure?
I'm glad I finally saw this, if for no other reason to see the well from which so much excellent material sprung. Will I watch it again? Likely not, and I'd really suggest that folks see this just to get an idea of what didn't work, as well as what would eventually become the hallmarks of the Corman / Price / Poe triumvirate. It's always worth knowing what came before, if for no other reason than to have some sense of perspective. That said, it's not one worth owning, and I'd much rather see something outside the whole Poe series such as Dr. Phibes or House of Wax than ever tackle the snoozefest that is the first hour of this picture. It's a very good example of how hard it is to effectively translate gothic literature to the screen, but I suppose that “how not to do something” isn't really an effective marketing device. For quality gothic on-screen fun, there's little to really recommend -- The Others
did it so well, it's hard to think of anything else, really. I'm glad I watched it, and would recommend others do the same, but if you're not a fan of Turn of the Screw
, you're probably not going to get much out of it.