PCA Retro Review: The House of Usher (1960)

PCA reminds you that the world’s best films are not necessarily in the new release section at Blockbuster.

The House of Usher (1960) – When bringing Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher to the screen, director Roger Corman and writer Richard Matheson made absolutely no attempt at sticking to the original story and for dramatic reasons, changed the relationships between all of their characters to turn it into a tragic love story.  Instead, Corman and Matheson highlighted the themes of the source material, including hypochondria, paranoia, mental illness and madness.  In the process they created a major landmark in Roger Corman’s massive body of work, revived the career of classic horror actor Vincent Price, and launched Roger Corman’s famous Poe franchise for AiP.

Vincent Price, as Roderick Usher, tries to scare off Mark Damon by showing him the family art gallery. Would you really want to marry into this family?

When young and handsome Phillip  Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the eerie House of Usher to take the beautiful Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), whom he met that summer in Boston, as his wife, he meets her paranoid and overbearing older brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) who refuses to allow Phillip to take his sister back to Boston.  Despite Roderick’s warnings to Phillip that the Usher bloodline has been cursed with madness, criminality, and debauchery, Phillip refuses to leave and plots to steal Madeline away.  Is Roderick just being another over protective brother, or is he trying to do Phillip a favor by getting in the way of the two young lovers?  Whatever his true intentions, something just isn’t right in the House of Usher, leading to a terrifying and fiery climax filled with madness and death.

Roger Corman and Vincent Price taking a smoke break on the set of "House of Usher's" sequel "The Pit and the Pendulum." Corman would revive Price's ailing career throughout the 1960's as star of his Poe horror films

Known as the “King of the B’s” and famous for creating fairly decent films on a minimal budget, The House of Usherwas something entirely different for Roger Corman.  Attempting to build on Hammer’s success in Europe, Corman took the budget of two of his usual films and poured it into The House of Usher to create a much more expensive looking film.  As a result, The House of Usherhas a dark and beautiful Gothic feel to it, with lavishly furnished sets and elaborate period costumes.  Where he saved money was by hiring a cast of only four actors, with the exception of a few non-speaking extras in a dream sequence, with his only real name actor being Vincent Price.  The risk of making a larger budget film paid off for Corman.  The House of Usherwas a success, and AiP asked for additional Poe  based films starring Vincent Price creating North America’s most successful horror franchise of the mid-1960’s. 

Even when his films are cheap and campy, there is no denying that Roger Corman is a masterful and capable director, but in The House of UsherCorman shows his true genius as an artist.  Instead of staying true to the original script, Corman instead attempted to recreate the world of Edgar Allen Poe by concentrating on mood and environment.  From the eerie swamps to the creepy blue hued dream sequence to the Gothic appearance of the house itself, Corman’s film becomes everything associated with Poe.  Furthermore, Corman creates a building tension between the battle of wills between Vincent Price and Mark Damon, leading to the frightening climax.

Reduced to doing William Castle films prior to "The House of Usher," Vincent Price proved that he still had what it took to be a horror icon in the role of Roderick usher

At his first of what would be many low points of his career, Vincent Price had been reduced to appearing in gimmicky William Castle productions prior to hooking up with Roger Corman.  Although beloved by today’s cult film audience, films like House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler were below the standards of Price’s genius.  Price was looking for a vehicle of the same caliber of his studio days, and was also attracted to the classical source material of The House of Usher.  In the role of Roderick Usher Vincent Price gives one of the finer performances of his career.  Although the film’s melodrama has him still acting slightly “over the top,” as the tortured and frightened recluse, Price was able to create a far more three dimensional character then many of the parts he had been getting at that point of his career, and was able to exercise some true acting ability.  The role would not only become one of Vincent Price’s best known, but would put him back on top of the heap of horror actors.  Corman and Price became a classic duo.  Corman respected and understood Vincent Price and knew exactly what to do with him, and developed film projects that fit Price and his acting style.  Meanwhile, Price was thankful for the high caliber of work that Corman produced for him, and appreciated being taken seriously.  Corman and Price would collaborate together on another eight films between 1960 and 1964.

Beautiful Myra Fahey shocks the audience with her final scenes at the climax of "The House of Usher"

Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey are sufficient in the roles of Phillip and Madeline, and keep with the melodramatic tone, offering a sort of light to the darkness of the film, which adds to the tragedy of the film when that light if snuffed out by madness. Mark Damon keeps the film moving, and it is through his performance that The House of Usherhas any real body to it.  He provides most of the action where as Vincent Price just steps in to give foreboding warnings and threats to the younger actor.  Fahey, on the other hand, seems to do little but look pretty through the majority of the film, but shows her true talent for the bizarre and terryfying at the climax of the film with only her eyes, her shrieks and plenty of pyshical acting, taking the audience of guard and paralyzing them with fear.  Fahey’s final scenes are the final payoff to the film.

A visual and creative triumph, The House of Usherwas not only a major career milestone for Roger Corman and Vincent Price, but it was also one of the best looking American horror films of the 1960’s and helped popularize the works of Edgar Allen Poe to future generations of horror fans. The House of Usherremains to be a masterpiece of horror that will still capture the imaginations of horror aficionados today.

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