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The Fall of the House of Usher (Roger Corman) 1960

    The first of Roger Corman’s many adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, The Fall of the House of Usher is a classy, stately chiller. Modern horror films might offer a more visceral kick than Corman’s glorified (horrified?) costume dramas, but they rarely offer the surprisingly tasteful restraint or the solid acting that was typical of them. Although Corman seems to revel in his “King of the B’s” moniker, it seems somewhat less than accurate. Clearly this film, which had a budget of $200,000 (modest by even 1960’s standards), wrings a great deal of value out of that investment. Corman’s work in this period wasn’t cheap. It was frugal. His eye for talent and his willingness to later become a leading distributor of foreign films (e.g. Cries and Whispers and Amarcord) show that he was less the hack that he claimed to be than an artist.

    That eye for talent is clearly on display in The Fall of the House of Usher. The film’s script was the second written by novelist Richard Matheson. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find the work is relatively faithful in tone to Poe’s short story. The feeling of disgust that permeates the narrator’s view of the house is present here. The film shifts his motivation for being in the home a bit, perhaps to help add to the running time (which is already a brief eighty minutes), but it doesn’t do much to ruin the film’s effect. In fact, the love triangle that is set up manages to draw out the original story’s incestuous implications. There is very little to complain about considering the source material for the film was only a few scant pages long. The additions seem rather organically integrated into the film’s world.

    Whatever gripes the liberties that are taken by the plot might cause are more than made up for by the film’s other aspects. The look of the film is unsettling. Despite its Technicolor stock, the film manages to convey a serious sense of gloom. The presence of Vincent Price, quite effective as the sinister Roderick Usher, only adds to the pervasive bad mood that envelopes the film. It is somewhat unfortunate that there are few moments in the running time that manage to actually scare (as opposed to disturb), and I am not quite sure how the film would play to the majority of modern audiences. Still, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging entry in the literary horror landscape.



Jeremy Heilman