29 October 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe.

Shout! Factory has delivered some wonderful treats on Blu-ray in time for the Halloween season: Psycho II, Prince of Darkness, and a six-movie set of Vincent Price classics, The Vincent Price Collection. The set includes four entries from the Edgar Allan Poe/Roger Corman/AIP series (actually, The Haunted Palace comes from an H. P. Lovecraft story, but AIP slapped the title of an obscure Poe poem onto it to make it another entry in the cycle) as two later films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Witchfinder General, which I consider the best film in Mr. Price’s prodigious filmography.

But where to start watching? Chronologically, of course. That tends to be my answer for ordering anything. Shout! Factory has the films somewhat out of order, probably to best fit the six movies across four discs, and so the first film in the set is the second of the AIP/Corman/Poe series, Pit and the Pendulum. But you can’t fool me, I know The Fall of the House of Usher comes first, so into the Blu-ray tray it goes!

The Fall of the House of Usher (first released as House of Usher, but the print on the Blu-ray uses the longer title so I’ll go with that) represents a major moment for U.S. horror, as well as for director Roger Corman, production company American International Pictures, and star Vincent Price. None of these entities were strangers to macabre cinema, but Usher brought on a new era of popularity and high production values for all of them. The AIP series essentially became the stateside version of Britain’s burgeoning Hammer horrors: colorful, Gothic, lurid. It broke from the 1950s modern, SF-based approach to horror, and would remain the dominant style of horror movies until the next shift in fear occurred with Night of the Living Dead at the close of the decade.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” stands at the apex of Poe’s canon. It’s also the most suitable of his stories for film adaptation. In an interview, Vincent Price noted that Poe’s work makes for fantastic third acts of movies, but do not contain enough action to cover a whole film. In general, I think feature films are closer to art of the short story than to the art of the novel, but Poe wrote with such concision—his famous “unity of effect”—that his short stories require plenty of fattening up to work as full-length movies. Or, as is sometimes the case (such as The Black Cat, both the ‘34 and ‘41 versions), require his story getting jettisoned entirely in favor of a different story that only makes slight references to the original.

But the film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” adheres close to the original and manages to fill eighty-two minutes of screen time without enormous additions. The chronicle of the end of Roderick Usher and his house, both in the sense of a family line and an actual structure, plays out the same: a visitor to the House of Usher witnesses the decline and madness of its final male member, Roderick Usher, concluding with the famous premature burial of Roderick’s sister Madeline, who doesn’t take kindly to getting buried alive—and like the whole family, she’s bonkers.

Richard Matheson’s screenplay changes the unnamed visitor into Madeline’s fiancĂ©, Philip Winthorp (Mark Damon), who has come from Boston to retrieve her. But Roderick Usher (Price) tells him to go home, insisting that he and Madeline (Myrna Fahey) and dying and they should die, because the Usher family has a history of horrible degeneracy. Winthrop stays around, resisting Roderick’s quiet raving and plotting a way to get his beloved away. Roderick comes up with a way to keep Madeline at home, and as with Poe’s story, things just don’t go that well. Life is hard when you’re crazy.

The script contains surprisingly little else than what I’ve outlined: most of the middle of the film has Roderick continually barring Winthrop from leaving with Madeline, and Winthrop trying to discover the reason for Roderick’s obstinacy. There are only four characters in the cast, the fourth being long-time family servant (Harry Ellerbe, who has a striking resemblance to Hammer character actor Michael Ripper), so events have only the narrowest of options.

But it works. It shouldn’t, it should bore the hell out viewers. But it works like dynamite, and for that we can thank a combination of Price’s performance, Richard Matheson’s literate script, and the stunning visuals from photographer Floyd Crosby (who shot High Noon and fathered David Crosby) and set designer Daniel Haller, both of whom would continue work on the other films in the series.
Let’s talk Vincent Price, since he brought us all here with the Blu-ray set to begin with. Price was long considered, sneeringly, an actor of limited range and ability. He played boogeymen with ironic tones, and was essentially just a ham. Much the same criticism that Bela Lugosi faced, only without the criticism of his Hungarian accent.

But since his death in 1993, the cult adoration of Vincent Price has continued to grow. Appreciation for the excellent, nuanced performances he gave in Witchfinder General and The Last Man on Earth caused a re-evaluation of his career—and yes, he emerges a fine actor indeed. He could be ham when he wanted to, but almost always we needed him to be a ham then as well.

In House of Usher, Price is at his most subdued, although not his most subtle. Roderick Usher has a whisper-quiet madness. He speaks in even, measured tones because of his intense sensitivity to loud noises. (The movie seems to forget about this impairment near the end, or perhaps Roderick lost the problem when he tipped over into full lunacy.) The way this plays with the Gothic trappings is wonderful to witness: it's like haunting black velvet. When Roderick has sudden explosions of anger, they truly leap out at the audience.

Price sports a different look than what we usually expect from him: clean-shaved and with blonde hair. Because of Price's career in horror films, it's easy to forget what a truly handsome figure he was, and why Hollywood originally wanted him as leading man,

Price overwhelms poor heroic lead Mark Damon (who would later do a slew of Italian Westerns as the requisite American “star”), cast in the handsome young man part that we all easily ignore in these films. Jack Nicholson would emerge in some of these parts in later AIP horrors, and obviously managed much better at the material—although not significantly better. There’s only so much you can do with archetype, and that goes all the way back to watching poor David Manners flounder around in Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat up against Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The fantastic visuals of the series, which peaked with The Masque of the Red Death (which benefited from shooting in the U.K.) are already in place. It’s astonishing how sumptuous the sets look considering the tight budget. The movie cost more than most AIP projects, but it was still a meagre amount, and it goes a long way. Of special note are the matte paintings of the house exterior and the huge cracks going up the center of the house toward the sort of ugly gray sky that Poe described so well.

In the tradition of the Universal classics, The Fall of the House of Usher concludes in a fiery mass, and it makes for quite the spectacle. According the Corman’s commentary track, much of the footage came from burning down an old barn. (He paid for permission to do it, although I can completely envision Corman finding a barn in some field and burning it down without anybody’s permission.) This burning footage would turn up again and again and again in these AIP picture. I watched The Raven right after this, and there indeed was that same crashing barn. Ah, Roger Corman.

I’m never sure how much credit Corman deserves as director on these movies. Most of the films he helmed before and since feel listless and plastic, as if Corman cared more about making the budget than making a good film. However, he knew how to pick fantastic collaborators, and perhaps the lusciousness of the sets and script, and the chance to do something different, inspired him here and through the rest of the series. Ultimately, I think Corman was a better producer than director. 

Anyway, The Fall of House of Usher is great and you should totally watch it and I’m out of here because I'm gonna go watch The Pit and the Pendulum.