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Another evening with not much on telly... Another DVD to watch...
I am a big fan of old horror films and have a special fondness for the kings of horror - Cushing, Lee, Lugosi, Karloff and Vincent Price. My DVDs include The Vincent Price Collection and The Roger Corman Collection - both of which feature three Vincent Price movies. Last night, we decided to watch one of the Corman/Price set - The Fall of the House of Usher. It is a well-known movie, but not one I have seen before. It was released in 1960, runs for only 76 minutes and is rated a 12. The only extra on this disc is a theatrical trailer.
House of Usher is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, which I haven't read, but from watching this film, I feel they really had to stretch it to make even a 76-minute movie from it. While there are some good aspects to it, overall it is rather tedious, dull, too drawn out and incredibly slow-paced.
There are only four actors in the film (ignoring the hippy-trippy dream sequence typical of a Corman film) - Philip Winthrop (played by Mark Damon), Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) and their butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). The story begins when Philip arrives at the House of Usher to see his fiancée Madeline. The butler shows him in, but things seem strange from the start as he is informed his beloved is ill in bed and he is asked to remove his footwear. When he is introduced to Madeline's brother Roderick, things become even weirder. Roderick explains he has an illness which makes his hearing particularly sensitive and warns Philip to leave the house and never see his fiancée again.
Madeline appears and embraces her lover and Philip vows to stay over to see how she is. As the evening progresses, it appears the house is structurally damaged, as things fall down and one large wall of the building appears to have a huge ominous crack in it.
It turns out the Usher family have a history of various crimes and illnesses, which Roderick goes on to warn Philip about, but it doesn't deter him from wanting to marry Madeline. So he stays at the house and becomes embroiled in their bizarre world. I can't really explain much more, so as not to spoil your enjoyment if you watch it - but really, I wouldn't bother, unless you want insomnia cured anyway.
I am quite obsessive when watching films and usually pause a DVD even if I'm just nipping to the loo or putting the kettle on. This time, I didn't bother, seeing those couple of minutes away as a welcome break from tedium. Sure enough, I got back to find nothing had happened in my absence. After the initial "Ooh this is weird, I wonder what's going on?" you just end up with "Not a lot really."
I usually enjoy a Vincent Price film simply because he is in it, but even he couldn't save House of Usher. For starters, I didn't like how he looks in this film, as he has stupid blonde hair and no trademark moustache. His wonderful voice is still the same and he happily purrs through his lines like a wannabe King Lear, but he seems particularly arch throughout and at least several lines are delivered by his right eyebrow.
The other three actors kind of pass you by. Mark Damon is handsome in a kind of 1950s matinee idol way, though he has more grease on his hair than Travolta as Danny and you would expect him to be dancing in West Side Story rather than turning up on this film. Myrna Fahey is pretty, but her acting is hardly stretched. She does a nice line in 'bland' and her 'insane' is passable, but otherwise, she's just there to look cute in a nightie. Meanwhile, Harry Ellerbe is a typical butler really, 'yes sir' every few minutes and a selection of looks to convey a vague warning of something not quite right around these parts. If this was a Hammer Horror, the role would have been played by Michael Ripper and he'd have made much more of an impact.
Of course, there are a few good things about the film. The sets are beautiful and plushly dressed with plenty of red velour and antique furniture. (I love Roderick's chair with the little figures either side.) The huge rooms in the main house contrast beautifully with the dark, almost colourless crypt, which gives a nice spooky atmosphere and some of the effects are well realised too. It feels like it had some money spent on it in these respects.
The last few scenes of the film are stunning - and what the fast forward button was invented for! If there is any real horror in this film, it is in these scenes and although possibly rather a predictable ending, it is still worth seeing. The same cannot be said for the film in its entirety though and after sitting through 76 minutes of it, I did find myself wondering how many other, better ways there could have been to spend that time...
If my review hasn't put you off, you can buy the DVD. The Fall of the House of Usher is available as a single disc for £3.99 from Amazon UK or as part of The Roger Corman Collection DVD boxset (with The Masque of the Red Death and The Pit and the Pendulum) for £10.99.
Vincent Price brings a theatrical flourish to his role in The Fall of the House of Usher. He plays Roderick Usher, a brooding nobleman haunted by the dry rot of madness in his family tree. This being an Edgar Allen Poe story, there's a history of family madness and melancholia, a premature burial and a sense of doom hanging over the gloomy, crumbling mansion. Roger Corman sold stingy AIP pictures on the concept by claiming "The house is the monster"--or so goes the oft-told story. True or not, Corman (with the help of his brilliant art director Daniel Haller and legendary cinematographer Floyd Crosby) creates an exaggerated sense of isolation and claustrophobia with the sunless forest and funereal fog that holds the house and its inhabitants prisoner in a land of the dead. It doesn't quite look real (some of the effects are downright phoney, notably the apocalyptic climax), and none of the costars can hold a candle to Price's elegant, haunted performance (often speaking in no more than a stage whisper), but it's a triumph of expressionism on a budget. Shot in rich, vivid colour and CinemaScope, from a literate script by genre master Richard Matheson, this is stylish Gothic horror in a melancholy key. It was such a success that Corman reunited his core group of collaborators for the follow-up The Pit and the Pendulum the very next year. Thus Corman's "Poe Cycle" was born. --Sean Axmaker