Friday, 6 September 2013

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

      As I’ve mentioned previously on here (in my review of Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY) Hammer Films really did do something wonderful for gothic cinema when they breathed new life into the horror film genre in the late 1950s. They didn’t just change the face of horror, they encouraged others to carry on changing it, adding their own peculiar quirks and styles. Soon film-makers from all over the world were trying to get in on an act that had proved so fabulously lucrative that for the exploitation market to ignore it would have been foolhardy at the very least.

It can only have been the prospect of vast amounts of money that convinced Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson of AIP to fund Roger Corman’s lavish colour version of Edgar Allan Poe’s FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. That, and of course, Roger being a very, very good salesman. Now, 53 years later, all we can say is thank goodness he was a very good film-maker as well, something that could hardly have been suggested by previous movies like THE WASP WOMAN & IT CONQUERED THE WORLD. And now we have Arrow’s quite stunning Blu-ray restoration to show just how gorgeous a film FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is.
In a rotting manor house live the dying Madeleine Usher (Myrna Fahey) and her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) a man who suffers from a unique exquisiteness of the senses, such that loud noises and bright colours are ‘agony’. One wonders, then, why he tends to wander around in a scarlet dressing gown all day. At least he doesn’t play too many high notes on his lute.
Into this atmosphere of death and decay comes Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) sporting the brylcreemed ducktail hairstyle of the sixties (1960s rather than 1860s). His ride through a blackened forest at the beginning is superbly atmospheric, and a prime example of Corman taking advantage of whatever might be to hand (in this case, a recent nearby forest fire). Mark wants to marry Myrna, but Vincent is unhappy about it to say the least. He tells Mark that the Usher bloodline is cursed and that extending it will only prolong the agony. It all ends with bloodstained, post-cataleptic Madeleine clawing her way out of the tomb and strangling her brother while the whole house goes up in flames (actually a nearby barn due for demolition - well done again, Roger). 
FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is a cracking film for many reasons. Floyd Crosby’s photography and Daniel Haller’s production design give the movie a look that is different from, but no less lush than, the Hammer films of the time. With the exception of Price, the acting isn’t especially memorable, although it’s only by the end that you realise there are only four people in this. As well as hiring a good crew, Corman also performed a masterstroke in getting a proper writer (Richard Matheson) to put together a screenplay which made the actual Poe story its third act - something Matheson would do again for the following year’s PIT AND THE PENDULUM. As well as doing all of this, Corman acquits himself well as a director, his most startling addition to the world of the 1960s gothic being the weird dream sequence. I don’t doubt this was probably done out of necessity to help fill up the running time, but nevertheless it’s a superbly scary little vignette and you can tell Corman’s heart was totally in that bit too.
Arrow’s Blu-ray treatment of Roger Corman’s first Poe movie is just lovely. The fine detail of the lush furnishings (and even Mark Damon’s hair, if you’re so inclined) can now be more greatly appreciated, and the richness of the colours make the television screen glow.
There are a number of extras. First off is a Roger Corman commentary track that’s been ported over from the previous region 1 DVD release (although I don’t think it’s been previously available in the UK). There’s a lovely featurette in which Joe Dante talks about his relationship with Corman, and how little kids in the 1960s didn’t seem to mind sitting through endless scenes of people in frock coats and hoop skirts to get to the horror bits. Jonathan Rigby talks for over half an hour - and very well indeed, too - about the Corman cycle of Poe films and USHER in particular. Mr Rigby obviously knows a great deal about the subject and it’s always a pleasure to listen to him.
Fragments of the House of Usher is an interestingly-narrated piece by critic and film-maker David Cairns that compares Corman’s film to the original Poe story, and there’s an archival French interview with Vincent Price, fresh from making THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, that’s a pleasure to watch.
As usual, Arrow have gone the extra mile with packaging materials (the steelbook is a thing of beauty). The so-called standard packaging has a new cover by Graham Humphreys, a man whose artwork could never be described as standard. There’s also a booklet with new writing on the movie by Tim Lucas, adding up to a quite unmissable set that’s deserving of the attention of anyone with an interest in gothic cinema.

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