#50: Roger Corman’s House of Usher
A media franchise is born
This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 4th, 2019
Initial release: 1960
Director: Roger Corman
In the late 1950s, American International Pictures needed a new shtick after a decade of low-budget B&W horror flicks. So they took a gamble on a big-budget thriller in color that turned out to be a turning point in the studio’s history.
At that time, it was en vogue to draw from Edgar Allen Poe for material for horror or thriller movies; several other studios were doing adaptations, but all are nearly forgotten now, as it was Roger Corman’s House of Usher that launched a franchise and kept AIP in business.
As the first of what would turn out to be eight (sometimes seven, sometimes nine, depending on who you ask) films in the Corman-Poe cycle, there was a lot riding on this film. Richard Matheson’s script isn’t entirely faithful to the events of the Poe story, but makes up for it in malevolent atmosphere. The main difference is the narrator actually has a name (Philip Winthrop) and rather than being friends with Roderick Usher, he’s visiting his fiance Madeline. Roderick spends most of the film trying to get Philip to leave, and ruminates on the Usher family’s cursed bloodline.
Vincent price is here as Roderick; as the sinister leading man of several horror films already, he was the obvious choice for such a gothic, macabre tale, and this would be the start of a long relationship with Corman as he would go on to star in several other Poe adaptations. Price is deliciously hammy and creepy in this film; he plays the overprotective, gloomy Roderick with borderline incestuous devotion to Madeline (and, indeed, I think the incestuous overtones might have been the intent.) While Mark Damon is no slouch as Philip, he’s no match for Price.
While it’s obvious that most of the film is done up on a sound stage — parts of which will be recognizable in later films — they didn’t skimp on the set dressing, giving the house a mouldy, lived-in feel that is sometimes absent in later films. The only really big problem I have with the set design is the overuse of overhead lighting. This is something that’s present in nearly all of Corman’s Poe films, and it really takes away from the atmosphere. Most of the lighting isn’t natural-feeling at all and it shows.
While much of the camera work is pretty basic, there are some more creative shots, such as a high-angled view of Philip and the butler (named Bristol in the film) in the entrance hallway, giving the scene an almost voyeuristic vibe, like we’re watching from a balcony. Indeed, this is followed through in a later scene, where Roderick tells Philip that due to his painfully heightened senses, he could hear literally everything that transpired downstairs. It’s a clever call-back to the earlier shot, while also serving as important foreshadowing.
It’s easy to see how Lovecraft, with his own family’s history of mental illness, was clearly inspired by Poe’s tale of cursed family. Granted, his stories had a far more explicitly racist bent, but the frequent theme of madness running in families hearken back to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and it’s a central point in the film. Really, it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Roderick bangs on the “cursed bloodline” drum so much, and he’s so convinced that he and Madeline are doomed to madness and death, that when he eventually enacts his plan to bury her alive, well no wonder she goes mad. There’s your problem right there.
While a lot of the soundtrack is the same simple gothic orchestral that pervades films like this, there are moments where the soundtrack develops a much more mysterious or even sinister vibe, evoking an almost survival horror feel. It’s a nice change-up.
That said, Corman is notorious for using whatever techniques he can to save money and it shows. An early scene has a Philip’s-eye view down a hallway; to save a few bucks on film, Corman took a still frame and held it for a few seconds. It would have worked if not for the frozen candle flame.
In spite of this and other flaws, a lot of them endemic to Corman’s films and the overall AIP production style, this is honestly a very fresh-feeling film that properly exudes the kind of malevolent, borderline Lovecraftian atmosphere. If only he could have kept up this momentum. Sure, Corman is known as the king of the B-movies, who churns out schlocky pulp films like clockwork. But many of his films are more intelligent than given credit for, and House of Usher is easily one of his strongest films from this particular era.