The versatile producer Roger Corman developed a parallel career as a film director back in the 1950s, and he became particularly adept during the decade at producing black and white pictures on extremely low budgets designed by production companies such as AIP and his own company Filmgroup, to provide economical, teen appeal B-movie double features that could be sold to drive-in theatres and cinema chains as a package. Corman’s professional background as a qualified engineer seems to have furnished him with precisely the appropriate skill set to allow him to be able to accomplish such a task, and to visualise, plan and execute his works quickly and efficiently. The director became well-known for his ability to complete a film often in a matter of just days, his fastest work supposedly occurring on “The Little Shop of Horrors”, which is said to have been shot in two days and one night on studio time left over from Corman’s previous film, “A Bucket of Blood”. However, Corman also nurtured artistic ambitions that would lead him to venture beyond the limited fare being offered at the time by AIP’s roster of drag racing flicks, teen beach party movies and atomic monster on the rampage scream-o-thons: the director had long been interested in the possibility of shooting an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s eerie short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” and he eventually approached American International Pictures with an business model that showed how its practises could be adapted to make the idea work while still producing the picture on a comparatively low budget.
Although he claims to have been unaware of the work of the British company Hammer Productions during this period, AIP must have been cognisant of the enormous success of Hammer’s recent ground-breaking revivification of the Gothic Horror genre after the international release of its productions of “The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), “Dracula” (1958) and “The Mummy” (1959) – full-colour revivals of the pantheon of monsters first widely popularised in the 1930s by Universal Studios. Corman proposed the idea to AIP’s James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff of similarly adapting the Poe classic in full Eastman Colour, combining the budgets they usually divided between two of their black-and-white double bill features to pay for one, slightly more expensive colour extravaganza instead (a financing plan Hammer would also attempt to utilise unsuccessfully later in the ‘60s, when the expense of running its Bray Studios complex began to tell during the mid-decade economic downturn).
Arkoff was apparently less than persuaded at first that the verbose literary work of Poe would ever exert much of a box office draw on the interests of the younger generation, but eventually agreed to let Corman have a go at it on a budget ($270,000) that was three times that which was usually spent on the making of two of their black-and-white budget-priced movies. This came with the proviso that the film would also be shot using the widescreen Cinemascope ratio, a format AIP believed they’d be able to make into one of the adaptation’s main selling points, and a decision which was to characterise the look of the resulting cycle of Poe films and set them apart from most of Hammer’s colour Gothic product.
Poe’s twenty-page 1839 story, like much of his work, is a strange, ambiguous, floridly written tale that deals with dark psychological undercurrents and subconscious obsessions that seem to anticipate the discoveries of Sigmund Freud by almost fifty years, whilst embodying them in a typically overwrought, 19th century series of gothic tropes. Although there had been various attempts at adapting a few of the writer’s works for the screen long before Corman’s 1960 release, most of them dispensed with all but the attention-grabbing titles of the original stories, as Poe largely dealt in his work not with external threats emanating from supernatural elementals or from ominous monsters, but with the inescapable mental horrors that lie buried in the deepest vaults of the human mind; it is the threat of madness and of everlasting psychological torment which provide the materials that create the insidious unease and abiding terrors which characterise the crepuscular verse and prose works of this odd American literary genius.
The first of Roger Corman’s Poe pictures not only lavished Poe’s oblique tale with lush colour cinematography and widescreen splendour, but the screenplay adaptation he commissioned from “I am Legend” horror, fantasy and sci-fi author Richard Matheson managed to incorporate and delineate, in some recognisable version at least, the associated themes and ideas addressed by the original short story itself. This led originally to yet another point of contention arising between Corman and Arkoff, since the AIP head was quick to point out during a visit to the set that this was a horror movie that appeared to have no monster, prompting Corman to venture that: ‘the house IS the monster!’ While benefiting enormously from the unaccustomed visual opulence cinematographer Floyd Crosby was able to bring to Daniel Haller’s elaborate production design for the fifteen day shoot, Corman’s hurriedly-shot interpretation of Matheson’s script is also successful in selling this cornerstone idea that the ancient ancestral house of Usher might in fact literally be the embodiment of a centuries’ old evil that lends itself to the perpetuation of corruption and mental disease in the present, while at the same time grafting modern Freudian subtexts onto the psyches of the characters inhabiting this old building by colourfully expanding on hinted suggestions taken from Poe’s sepulchral classic of the macabre.
Nevertheless, the film does still conform to some degree to a certain set of horror movie conventions current at the time, leading this first highly successful entry in what quickly became an on-going cycle of adaptations (mostly directed by Corman utilising the same skilled team of production staff), inevitably coming to play like something of a schizophrenic compromise between Poe’s ornately embroidered evocation of simmering dread and haunted afflictions, and the marquee demands of romantic escapism then considered a necessity of popular mainstream U.S. cinema. However, Corman’s Freudian proclivities manage to subvert much of the movie’s more awkwardly placed forays into dreamy matinee idol romance, as embodied by the presences of teen movie favourite of the day Mark Damon and his pretty co-star Myrna Fahey (appositely described by critic Jonathan Rigby in one of the disc’s featurettes as a junior league Tony Curtis and Elizabeth Taylor), by subtly hinting at all manner of malignant psychology lurking beneath the glossy surface of young love, placed there by Corman specifically for those, like the French New Wave critics of Cahiers Du Cinema, who were willing to go hunting for them.
One of the most telling obstacles Corman encountered during the filming of the movie came about as a result of the fact that the extended, letterboxed Cinemascope ratio he was obliged to shoot in only emphasises the unavoidable truth that the story is in fact merely a sparsely populated chamber piece, consisting of only four characters in totality. In fact, the movie version actually constitutes an expansion on the number of active players in the original story: besides Poe’s unnamed narrator and his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, the other characters mentioned in the Poe tale -- Usher’s ailing sister Madeline, the physician employed to diagnose her cataleptical illness, and a non-descript man servant -- are only mentioned in passing while playing no real role in the subsequent proceedings, until Madeline’s illness becomes central to the payoff at the end.
In Matheson’s screenplay though, Madeline is the motivating spur for much of the conflict in the plot, and a greying Butler called Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) who has served the family of Usher for sixty-years, is on hand to provide necessary exposition whenever it becomes necessary. Corman made sure the camera moves around often enough during scenes of dialogue to ensure that the film never comes to look too stagnant or stagey, and he was meticulous in designing his shot compositions in a manner that makes use of the many striking antique furnishings provided by the art department to give Haller’s vast baronial sets much of their character, lending depth and dynamism to what could have otherwise seemed to have been an endless, empty and dull looking collection of static sequences consisting of small numbers of people in period costume conversing in large drawing rooms and echoing halls.
Here, the narrator of the original tale is transformed into a young, romantic suitor called Philip Winthrope, with swept-up brylcreemed hair that makes him look more like a product of the 1950s than the 1850s. He’s first seen arriving at the hulking grey Usher manor house on horseback, having travelled from his home in Boston, New England hoping to claim the hand of Roderick Usher’s sister Madeline, whom he’d met previously while she was studying in the city. She has since returned to her ancestral home and has not been heard of since, so Winthrope comes to propose to her and to take her away from the clammy, unhealthy influence of her reclusive aesthete brother Roderick. In the Poe story the narrator has no claim or particular interest in Madeline at all, but the film makes her the centre of a perverse etiolated triangle of conflicted desires with vaguely incestuous undertones. Corman was the beneficiary of a money-saving stroke of luck during the filming of the opening scene of the movie in which Winthrope traverses the bleak landscape that leads up to the Usher residence, described by Poe as being one of pestilence, atrophy and decay: an area of the Hollywood Hills in the Griffith Park region of the Santa Monica Mountains was frequently prone to devastating wildfires, and one occurred soon before Corman was due to start shooting the movie, inadvertently providing him with an ideal exterior landscape of suitably blackened and gnarled devastation to film in. Combined with a vivid colour matte glass painting of the house and its mist-shrouded environs sketched in long shot, as well as plenty of creeping dry ice pervading the atmospheric set of the ruined, cobwebbed, crumbling exterior of the Usher household, a suitably Gothic ambiance is obtained from the very start of the picture -- although these brief location shots are the only non-studio material in the entire movie apart from some later snatched film taken of the collapsing rafters of a burning barn which was shot in Orange County after a tip off that the structure in question was due to be razed; these brief shots were subsequently re-used in just about every other Poe film in the Corman cycle.
This studio-bound approach was a calculated part of Corman’s Freudian philosophy for the picture, which was grounded in the notion that everything that appears on-screen should exude the aura of having been created as part of an artificially constructed space which reflects the minds of the occupants more than it does reality, a conceit which is ably embodied in what critic David Cairns calls the film’s ‘stifling interior study of madness’ and which is made manifest in the thinking behind the baroque collage of historical set dressings which adorn every Usher house interior set presented to the viewer’s eye: Norman era hung tapestries, armorial wall-mounted trophies and gothic straight-backed chairs replete with medieval carving vie with gaudy Georgian china ornaments, dark Jacobean wainscoting and heavy Victorian era drapes and portraiture to remind us always of the fact that the house is supposed to be even older by many centuries than the community which first came here from England to settle this landscape, and that it was brought to its new home cumulatively, brick by brick, where its vaulted ceilings and ancient eaves were re-constructed anew. Foul thoughts and foul deeds have been committed within those evil walls by generation after generation of Usher ancestors we are told, and their combined moral turpitude lingers on in the tainted brickwork as a creeping sentience that will bring ruin and madness to the current inheritors of a diseased legacy, never allowing them to leave for fear of spreading its cursed malignancy even further abroad.
At the very heart of this belief, and haunted by its ramifications as a result of being caught up in an unceasing mental turmoil because of the past misdeeds of countless miscreant forebears, is Roderick Usher, as portrayed by Vincent Price. Already one of American cinema’s foremost leading actors, who had been associated with the horror genre throughout the 1950s ever since his appearance in the André de Toth 3-D film “House of Wax” in 1953, this was a role that really allowed Price to bring all his cultured urbanity and theatrical gravitas to the table. Matheson’s scrip preserves enough of the spirit of Poe’s purple prose in Roderick Usher’s monologues to allow Price plenty of opportunity to emote to his heart’s content if he so wished, but Price delivers a hauntingly restrained performance as the urbane inheritor of the Usher family’s ‘peculiarities of temperament.’ The actor involved himself in every aspect of Roderick Usher’s screen realisation, overruling Matheson’s portrait of a brooding dark-haired presence with a fork beard in favour of an interpretation that stays truer to the description of the character essayed in the original short story, where Poe writes of Usher possessing ‘a cadaverousness of complexion’, ‘[a] ghastly pallor of the skin’, and ‘silken gossamer hair’. Price even had his hair dyed platinum blonde in order to make himself appear albino and pale, weak and overly sensitive to his surroundings. Usher suffers from a morbid acuteness of the senses that makes almost all experience of a lived life intolerable to him: his hearing is so sensitive that he can even hear the rats scratching in the stone walls of the house; food of any pronounced flavour is intolerable to his taste buds; even music of any melodic character is liable to overstimulate his senses -- meaning that his own compositions on the lute have to be discordant dirges, idly plucked from a soft, meandering scatter of enfeebled notes, his nervous condition being such that he can only permit himself this narrow range of tones with which to compose in! Usher actually longs for the silence of the grave. And such is his mortal fear of the living evil of his ancestors, supposedly preserved in the very structure of the house which imprisons him, that he must also insist that his younger sister Madeline can never be allowed to leave either.
Thus, the Matheson and Corman treatment of the story introduces a patriarchal battle over the ailing body of Madeline as one of its central themes, which is given more pronounced emphasis in the film than it is in the Poe original. In the Poe story, Usher and Madeline were twins, each suffering their individual afflictions as a result of an accursed inheritance. Here Roderick Usher is a great deal older than Madeline and acts as her patriarchal keeper by taking on the roles of both father and brother -- standing between, and explicitly opposing the possibility of a romantic attachment with Winthrope because of the danger it poses to his perverse hopes of extinguishing the Usher bloodline for good. Madeline having children or engaging in any of the healthy romantic pursuits of young lovers is out of the question, and the film becomes primarily centred around Winthrope’s doomed efforts at opposing the twisted, oppressive malignancy of ages embodied by a house that seems to be making every effort to expel him, whether by hot sparks emitted from a flaming fire grate in Roderick’s bedroom, a falling chandelier in the great hall, a tumbling coffin in the family crypt or a collapsing upstairs balcony balustrade.
Roderick likens himself and his sister to elements of the antique furnishings of the house itself quite frequently, reinforcing the implicit idea that the residence embodies their own increasingly deranged psyches as well as the tainted bloodline of the Usher ancestry: ‘Madeline and I are like figures of fine glass: the slightest touch and we shatter,’ he intones solemnly at one point in a room that is stuffed with fragile antique ornaments. And indeed the house itself does threaten to collapse as tremors of increasing strength shake its foundations and a crack in the side of the main tower gets wider and wider. Usher’s funerary tones are only made to seem more appropriate still in these surroundings, since the layout of Roderick’s room echoes that of the family chapel that’s also on the premises – and this is the place to which Madeline unconsciously sleepwalks each night, as if in somnolent anticipation of the end her brother secretly wishes for her, and which is rehearsed in the cataleptic swoons to which she habitually succumbs: ‘two pale drops of fire, guttering in the vast, consuming darkness -- my sister and myself’, Usher insists, his own scarlet robe duplicating the red waxed candles that cast what little light is permitted inside the gloomy halls of the Usher residence.
Winthrope attempts to dispel this pall of gloom, which Usher’s austere attitude imposes on the intended union between himself and Madeline, with forced positivity, throwing open casements at every opportunity and cheerfully trying to get Madeline to eat the thin hot gruel that is the only breakfast her mysterious illness will allow her to consume in the mornings – yet he does all this with a patronising manner that infantilises her just as resolutely as Roderick’s stifling attempts to control her sexuality oppress her. But even the romantic scene which occurs between Winthrope and Madeline in Madeline’s rooms, attended by Les Baxter’s sentimental theme for strings, is undermined when it is revealed that Roderick has been watching their assignation from the shadows the whole time and interrupts it before it can progress too far! The incestuous undercurrents here are obvious, and the ruinous mental decline of Roderick and his sister, and its metaphorical echoing in the layout, furnishing and structure of the house itself, results in the building’s eventual disintegration occurring in tandem with the siblings’ increasing slippage into a joint form of madness, mostly precipitated by Winthrope’s well-meaning but naive intervention.
Curiously, despite his nervous disposition, Usher’s luridly daubed portraits of his ancestors (a deranged-looking mob of thieves, pimps, harlots, swindlers, assassins, drug addicts, smugglers and mass murderers) make for an extravagantly coloured gallery of characters, in possession of an array of hideously exaggerated features sketched with an impressionistic, psychedelic rainbow style. They were the work of Burt Shonberg, an artistic ‘prospector of consciousness’ in Hollywood’s trendy post Beatnik, pre-hippy café culture of the early-sixties, whose work was perfectly attuned to the hallucinogenic qualities Corman injects into the final act of the film. “The Fall of the House of Usher” arrived before Mario Bava began working with lurid but artistically arranged colour gels and so Corman portrays the nightmare subconscious of his characters much more concretely than the Italian master would in films such as “Kill Baby, Kill!” and “The Whip and the Body”, where the entire stories seems to inhabit the dreamy twilight world of the unconscious. Instead, as Roderick uses one of Madeline’s attacks of catalepsy to fool Winthrope into believing her dead, and then chains her up inside a coffin in a vaulted feudal keep, the first of the famous hallucinatory dream sequences which were to become a signature of the Poe series occurs. Corman shot the sequence as a piece of pure cinema and therefore without sound; it echoes the age of silent cinema with its under-cranked action and the blue tints and theatrical make-up employed on the actors bringing to life the scenes depicting the Usher ancestors returning to strut their stuff in Winthrope’s tortured nightmares. The film’s previously rather stately pace is subsequently infused with an injection of insane energy when Madeline returns from the grave, now possessing the super-human strength of those ancestors before her who had previously ‘fallen into madness’, clawing her way with bloody fingers from her entombment and attacking both the males who had attempted in various ways to tame and control her, while a torrid thunder-and-lightning storm bathes the scene in swathes of flickering blue light that echo the nightmarish qualities of the aforementioned dream sequence, suggesting the final collapse of the boundary between the two states of dream and reality. Winthrope manages to escape and stumbles from the house of Usher as it is destroyed in a fiery conflagration, its burnt remains sinking into the inky depths of an adjacent tawn.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is not the best of Roger Corman’s colourful adaptations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe but it set the house style and provided Vincent Price with a role that suited his air of sophisticated old world theatricality perfectly. This, the movie’s worldwide Blu-ray debut, courtesy of the UK’s Arrow Video label, presents a very pleasing HD transfer from the original film elements provided by MGM, with strong blacks, vivid colours and generally accurate reconstruction of grain levels. The 2.0 mono PCM audio is good and clear and the disc includes optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. Happily, there are also some great extras here as well, which put this release on a level with the recent Hammer Blu-ray releases from Optimum. The original commentary track by Roger Corman, recorded for the MGM DVD some years ago, is included again and is a pleasant easy going listen, with the director explaining the production background to the movie in his usual relaxed, charming manner and also explaining the thinking behind his use of the moving camera and his framing of particular shots. “Legend to Legend” is a 27 minute talk with Joe Dante, who began his career working for Corman on cutting trailers and re-editing imported Russian science fiction movies, progressing to his first directorial job in the late-seventies with the Corman produced “Jaws” cash-in “Piranha”. Here he talks about the making of “House of Usher” (as it was known in the U.S.) and his own involvement with Corman, whose advice on shooting quickly and efficiently when working on a low budget would prove invaluable to countless young up-and-coming directors including Dante, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron.
Jonathan Rigby, a regular participant in the Making Of documentaries for the recent Hammer Blu-ray releases, is just as fascinating and interesting to listen to in this engrossing 30 minute talk that covers everything from the history of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations on film to the production and reception of Corman’s first colour widescreen classic. This is a well-researched and beautifully delivered mini lecture, in a style that readers of Rigby’s recent book ‘Studies in Terror’ will be more than familiar with. David Cairns supplies an unusual 10 minute video essay on the themes of the movie and the connections between Poe’s short story and the Corman adaptation, which is something different from the usual approach to such material, but works well as a complement to the other two talks on the film’s background included alongside it. A 12 minute archive interview with Vincent Price shot for French television in Malibu in 1986 completes the main attractions of the special features section of the disc, but we also get the original trailer and a reversible sleeve for the standard edition that includes newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys. The collector’s booklet features a new piece of writing by Tim Lucus, editor of Video Watchdog, and an extract from Vincent Price’s now out-of-print autobiography, with archive stills and posters.
This is yet another excellent release from Arrow Video, which also comes in a limited edition Steelbook version for the collector.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!