In 1960, inspired by the bloody, colorful horror coming out of England’s Hammer Films, low-budget exploitation film veteran Roger Corman approached his bosses at American International Pictures (AIP) with a proposal. As a good soldier, a director who had succeeded time and again under the strict limitations that defined filmmaking at AIP, with a string of moneymakers under his belt, Corman asked for more freedom, more money, and color film so that he could recreate, on American soil, the success of Hammer, whose trio of shockers The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) had sparked a global horror film revival.The big men at AIP, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, were hesitant. They maintained a vice-like grip on production budgets and shooting schedules, and their formula—low-budget black-and-white double features aimed at the teenage market—was proven. Corman himself had helped see to that. At the same time, however, Arkoff and Nicholson couldn’t ignore the success of “Hammer Horror,” and they did have to admit that Corman was perhaps the biggest reason AIP was making money.
Roger’s persistence eventually paid off. They gave him color film and the most extravagant shooting schedule AIP had ever granted a director: two weeks. For source material, Corman followed Hammer’s lead in looking toward the (public domain) works of the past. Hammer had plumbed Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and while both of those authors held considerable sway among American horror fans, thanks largely to fond memories of the old Universal horror films more than familiarity with the books themselves, Corman likely didn’t want to pit his own Dracula against Hammer’s. Instead, he turned to the godfather of American horror literature, Edgar Allan Poe.
Corman chose The Fall of the House of Usher (1893), considered by many to be the zenith of Poe’s writing, the point at which he most effectively combined and realized his sundry themes and obsessions—including madness and premature burial. It’s also one of Poe’s longer stories, making it easier to adapt for Corman and his screenwriter, Richard Matheson, whose list of genre novels, short stories, and screenplays is astounding and includes I Am Legend (1954), the book that inspired everything from Vincent Price’s Last Man on Earth (1964) to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) to Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man (1971). In the span of a few weeks, Corman and his team—including Matheson, cinematographer Floyd Crosby (whose work spans the gamut from High Noon to Attack of the Crab Monsters), and composer Les Baxter (an AIP go-to and more or less the inventor of the “exotica” genre); and small cast that includes Mark Damon and Vincent Price—put together a lush, creepy film that, while not packed with the gory shocks of Hammer still looked like a kindred spirit (Hammer was making movies on schedules and budgets just as tight as AIP) and tapped into the romantic gloom and existential dread at the heart of Edgar Allan Poe’s work.
Young Philip Winthrop, played by genre film regular Mark Damon (Black Sabbath, 1963), is a Boston gentleman paying a visit to his beloved Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), who has returned from Boston to her ancestral home in Nightmareville, USA, or some other similar New England locale. Philip’s plan to arrive at the creepy old manor and sweep Madeline off her feet into the welcome arms of marriage is stymied by Madeline’s elder brother, Roderick, played with subdued, delicious menace by Vincent Price. Roderick Usher is something of an eccentric, with hypersensitive eyesight and hearing, can only bear the touch of the softest materials, and plays the lute on a regular basis. So basically, he’s a 21st-century indy music guy. He also sports a head full of blond hair.
But the shocks don’t end with the locks. Roderick is convinced that his sister is cursed with that ol’ Usher madness, an affliction which has caused so many of their ancestors to undertake lucrative careers as swindlers, murderers, rapists, adulterers, slavers, and any number of other unsavory profitable pursuits. Roderick is committed to eradicating the evil curse of the Usher family by seeing that neither he nor his sister have children. He considers this the least he can do to atone for the suffering the Ushers have inflicted on the world. Philip thinks the guy is a lute-playing loon, especially when Roderick begins speaking of how the very house itself has absorbed the madness and become a living creature of pure evil. And yet, from time to time, the house does seem to exert a certain will, hurling about bits of flaming charcoal and letting drop the occasional big, gaudy chandelier as the stonework of the house cracks and threatens to collapse. When Madeline seems to die of heart failure, Philip discovers that Roderick’s determination to keep her cloistered in the house will take on sinister proportions.
“His heart is a suspended lute; As soon as you touch it, it resonates.”
The Fall of the House of Usher established several milestones in the horror genre. It’s the beginning of Roger Corman and Vincent Price being taken with greater seriousness than anyone had ever invested in them before. People in the industry knew Corman could be depended on to do a job and do it competently. Find fault with the man and his body of work where you will, but what Corman was able to do is nothing short of a cinematic miracle at times, given budgets far smaller than average and shooting schedules that would make even the sturdiest director weep. Despite the limitations, Corman managed to make movies. Not great movies most of the time, but entertaining ones that delivered the goods. He also developed a wonderful eye for new talent, which is why the list of his assistants and actors includes the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Peter Fonda, Jonathan Demme, and Peter Bogdanovich.
By 1960, he had grown weary of cheap black-and-white quickies and wanted to do something more complex and ambitious. When AIP relented and gave him the (still meager) resources he was requesting, Corman proved that he wasn’t just a reliable workman director; when given the chance, he was also a reliable artistic director. The House of Usher brought newfound respect (at least among those who didn’t knee-jerk dismiss horror outright) to AIP and Roger Corman, who needed a dose of respectability after directing films like The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Journey to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent.
Likewise, Vincent Price was a horror movie stalwart, but few people took him seriously as an actor, even though he earned the respect of nearly everyone with whom he worked as a gentleman and an artist. His role in the noir classic Laura (1944) was proof of his dramatic ability. But for all his skill in that and other roles throughout the decades, short-term memory meant he was known primarily as the hammy millionaire dancing around with his impossibly complex skeleton marionettes in House on Haunted Hill. Corman believed there was more to Price, though, and cast him as the brooding, possibly insane Roderick Usher. Price delivers a moving performance as the melancholy steward of the Usher curse. Roderick is not a hand-wringing, easy-to-hate villain. It’s obvious that, mad or not, he sincerely believes that the purpose of his life is to end the Usher curse, and Price’s agonized performance makes him less of a villain than he is a fallen hero. Though some of the things he does are appalling, Price invests in the character an air of intelligence and sensitivity that makes him difficult to despise even when he’s going about the business of entombing people while they’re still alive.
Richard Matheson’s script is heavy on dialog (as all the subsequent AIP Poe films would be), which means in order to keep moving forward the film has to be equally heavy on atmosphere and feature strong performances. The opening shot—the only exterior location in the film—is of Philip riding through a dead, mist-choked forest. Corman had heard about a fire in the Hollywood Hills and sent a film crew up there to shoot the scene. The result is an oppressive eeriness, the hero is dwarfed amid this haunting landscape of skeletal trees, fog, and lifeless earth with the menacing gray-black hulk of the house looming above it all. Corman maintains this oppressive sense of decay, of something lurking just beyond the shadows, throughout the film. He creates such a mood piece, such a visual banquet, that one scarcely notices that there’s little action and a lot of talking.
Corman’s philosophy for the Poe films was that they shouldn’t necessarily reflect the familiar or the real. Poe was a psychological writer, so any films based on his work should inhabit a different world from the one we see everyday. Thus the limited number of exteriors and locations (which also helped keep the budget down). Apart from the initial scene, the entirety of The House of Usher takes place within the house. The scope (AIP’s first) photography creates an odd sensation of wide-open claustrophobia, if that makes any sense. Corman remarked in an interview that he didn’t think it was worth shooting in scope for a film set indoors. Well, it worked out for the best. The house becomes a sprawling beast, immense and overshadowing, threatening to swallow the humans lost in its decaying opulence. Crosby’s cinematography revels in the beautiful production design by Daniel Haller, who followed Hammer’s lead and draped every inch of the set with gorgeous, vibrantly colored props. Everything has an aged, lived-in appearance, which not only makes things more believable but also works thematically with the notion that this is a house and a family whose existence, sanity, and very foundations are fraying.
When the scares come, they’re quick and melodramatic. A startling entrance, a sudden death, the collapsing of a railing, Vincent Price appearing at the top of the stairs or in a doorway. The film draws its frightfulness not from shock, but the pervading sense of doom that infects every corner of the house. Whether there is some evil force lurking within its walls, or whether that evil force is simply Roderick’s madness (or substandard contracting), is inconsequential.You can feel that something is out there. That isn’t to say, however, that the film is not without shocks. Madeline’s entombment is particularly harrowing, as is the finale in which she and her brother struggle with the madness that engulfs them as the entire house catches fire. Les Baxter’s unnerving score further enhances the mood with a creepy blend of orchestral bombast, haunting soft spots, and occasional use of “the tortured howls of the damned.”
Exactly what is going on in the house is never fully explained. We’re certainly led to think that Roderick might be right, that there is some malevolent supernatural force at work. But we’re just as likely to believe that he’s insane. Kindly at times, intelligent and caring, but thoroughly loony to the point of committing unspeakable atrocities against himself and his sister to keep the Usher name from venturing forth to commit even greater atrocities against mankind. One thing that made Corman’s Poe films different from Hammer is that, while Hammer had the policy that no matter what devilry took place in the film, good had to obviously triumph over evil by the end credits, Corman’s films—not saddled with the delicate sensitivities of the British Board of Film Censors and also containing far less sex and blood than the average Hammer horror film, anyway—were never so forgiving to the forces of good. Often the “winner” is unclear, if indeed there is any winner at all. Evil or madness was just as likely to conquer all as was good; perhaps even more likely.
“To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave”
With the mood doing much of the lifting, the rest of the weight of a dialog-heavy film falls on the cast. Working with a small cast enabled Corman to move fast and cheap. Aside from a dream sequence in which some Usher ancestors menace Philip, there are only four people in the film: Philip, Roderick, Madeline, and the butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). Since Damon is the hero, he’s more boring than Price and confined mostly to exclaiming “Good God, man! You can’t be serious!” and “Good God, man! Are you mad?” before he finally gets to stagger around a burning set for a bit. He’s as serviceable a hero as any Gothic horror film hero who isn’t played by Peter Cushing. Myrna Fahey’s Madeline spends much of her time doing what the women in these films so often do, which is hugging the hero and collapsing on the bed. Her big scene doesn’t come until the very end when the Usher madness begins to run rampant through the house, and when given the chance to go all out, she’s terrifying.
The remaining supporting character is Bristol, a man who seems saner than Roderick but also believes in the Usher curse. His more tempered belief in the madness, and in the sentient evil of the house, creates a more sympathetic dimension to Roderick. All of the characters deliver Matheson’s eloquent, perhaps overwrought at times, purple prose, and everyone takes yet another page from the book of Hammer by checking any sense of tongue-in-cheek camp at the door. Price, in particular, has some “creature of unspeakable horror” dialogue that might have undone the whole film if it had been delivered with any hint of irony or anything but the greatest sense of sincerity and gravity. No matter how outrageous the claims may be, no matter how melodramatic the language, Price makes you believe it. It’s easy to see how, if indeed the supernatural force is just a figment of his twisted imagination, he could convince his sister and butler to believe in it as fervently as he does.
House of Usher was a hit, and critics (again, at least those not predisposed to dismiss horror out-of-hand). It’s a grand accomplishment, full of imagination, wit, and sinister ambiance. It certainly convinced AIP to invest more time and money (relatively speaking) in Roger Corman, enabling him to make several more Gothic horror films drawn from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. All of Corman’s Poe films are good, and a few are brilliant, representing a high point of American Gothic horror and showing how elegant and sumptuous a film can look even with a meager budget and blink-of-an-eye shooting schedule. House of Usher is a treat. It creaks and creeps with menace and is crawling with angst and doom. It is a poetic, delicately crafted masterpiece of the macabre that fuels itself with atmosphere and an inspired performance from Vincent Price. Reality fades away completely as the movie pulls you in the way the plot pulls the characters into the downward spiral of insanity.