House of Usher (1960) – 31 Days of Horror: Oct 16

by Jovial Jay

A classic Edgar Allan Poe film brought to the screen by Roger Corman is the feature presentation for this evening during the Haunted House marathon!

The 1960 film House of User is based on the 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher. The trailer wants to make sure you know this is a literary adaptation, and not some cheap horror flick.

Before Viewing

It appears to be a period drama about a man and a woman who are in love. Vincent Price plays a creepy guy, naturally, who seems scared. “The house itself is evil now,” he states. The young woman finds a coffin in the cellar with her name on it, and worries that she’ll soon be dead. The man becomes incensed at Vincent Price, screaming about the woman, but Price says she has already died. A hand comes out of a coffin bound with chains and the bloody woman wanders the house looking for someone. She attacks Price as the house burns and collapses around them. Did we just witness the entire film explained in the trailer? The trailer also invents a new word to describe Vincent Price’s, as it describes him as the “screen’s foremost delineator of the Draculean!” Like Herculean…but with Dracula!

Presented below is the Trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

After Viewing

House of Usher is a creepy Gothic horror film that sets more emphasis on mood than actual scares. Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) rides through a desolate wilderness towards the House of Usher. He has travelled from Boston to find his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey). The butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), says she is under orders not to be disturbed by her brother. Philip insists he meet the brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price).

Roderick informs Philip that Madeline cannot leave. She is very sick and needs to remain in the decrepit house with her brother, who knows how to take care of her. Roderick explains that the lineage of the Usher family is tainted and must not be allowed to continue. Philip becomes insistent that she leave and the two make plans to leave in the morning. However that evening in an argument with her brother she dies and the three men lay her to rest in the family crypt in the basement.

The next day, while Philip is making plans to leave, Bristol let’s slip that among the maladies of the Usher’s is catalepsy, which causes the person to fall into a deep sleep, often imitating death. Philip realizes that Roderick has buried Madeline alive, but by the time he finds the coffin, Madeline has clawed her way out. Driven to madness by the experience, she attacks her brother, setting fire to the carpet and curtains in the process. The house, already collapsing, goes up in flames as Philip gets out just in time. The ancient building sinks quickly into the tarn, extinguishing the Usher family for good.

The history of the Ushers is a history of savage degradations. First in England, and then in New England. And always in this house. The pall of evil which fills it is no illusion. For hundreds of years, foul thoughts and foul deeds have been committed within its walls. The house itself is evil now.” – Roderick Usher

I have always said that Gothic horror films are an acquired taste. They do not usually have the same bite as a slasher film, and tend to be lighter on the ghostly elements than a standard horror film. House of Usher still has a number of frights, but they come more from the lengths Roderick will go to snuff out the family lineage.

Roderick is ill, there’s no doubt about that. And whether or not the viewer believes that the evil of the Usher family actually infects the house, and tarnishes the legacy of the family, can be up for debate. But his single-minded drive to destroy his sister, and any happiness she might have, is chilling. It’s also interesting to see the parallel between his continued descent into madness and the slow collapse of the physical House of Usher. The two are intrinsically linked and as one goes, so does the other.

The one complaint I have on this film, which may be an issue with Poe’s original story, is the length of time it takes for Roderick to explain the issues with madeline to Philip. Of course, if he came out immediately with the information, Philip would have thought him mad, and perhaps spirited Madeline away before her catalepsy turned up. It was obviously a different time, and the respect for one’s family to have control over the lives of a woman differed drastically.

This film is important for a number of reasons. One is that the story, by Edgar Allan Poe, is one of his better known works, listed with The Raven and Murders in the Rue Morgue for establishing his macabre tone. It’s also the first Roger Corman film which he shot in color, usually choosing to make two black and white films for the same budget. The film has received much critical acclaim for its production value, and the faithfulness of the adaptation. Corman would go on to make seven other films adapting Poe’s work, including The Raven (with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff).

Assorted Musings

  • Directed by Roger Corman (famous for many B-films, including the original Little Shop of Horrors, photographed by Floyd Crosby (father of musician David Crosby, and written by Richard Matheson whose work includes The Omega Man, and several Twilight Zone episodes.
  • Mark Damon went on to Produce a number of films including 1987’s The Lost Boys!
  • Philip is asked to remove his boots because they are too loud to Roderick’s sensitive ears. In all scenes after that first arrival, he wears his boots again. Maybe just to be a jerk to Roderick for keeping his fiancée hostage.

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