“The House of Usher” (1960) is one of Roger Corman’s series of films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. Starring Vincent Price, it centres around the family of Usher, a brother and sister living in a rundown old house over a ‘tarn’ or mountain lake. A visitor comes to the house, who in the film is the fiancé of Madeline Usher, sister of Roderick Usher. The short story starts the same way, but the narrator is not acquainted with Madeline, and instead is an old friend of Roderick. Weird events ensue, ending with the death of both brother and sister and the hero fleeing the house alone.
It might not be an entirely popular opinion, but I am not a huge fan of Poe. I read his stories for the admittedly interesting plot ideas and try to overlook the overly flowery and often histrionic manner of writing. His writing is unnecessarily wordy, for example describing a fog as a ‘gaseous exhalation’ – this might do well in a poem but in a story seems odd. He was very good at building an atmosphere, however. The opening lines of this story do paint an eery picture of the approach to the house. Dead vegetation and trees are described, and then the dead and dank tarn, and finally the dilapidated house with the crack through it, as if waiting to join the death of the surrounding area. The film follows this closely, giving an excellent depiction of the lifeless and sinister terrain.
In the story Madeline is barely present. She is seen wandering about the house, and her brother tells the narrator that she is dying. Later he says she is dead and they put her in the cellar, while awaiting burial in a nearby church. The biggest change the film makes is that Roderick and the narrator have not previously met – in the film version he knows Madeline and they are engaged to be married. I’m in two minds about whether this is a worthwhile change or not. It seems a ‘Hollywood’ solution, to have a love interest injected into a story where there was none. There are some logic flaws, in that we are left wondering why Madeline went to Boston, and why she accepted the narrator’s proposal if she was then going to go home and accept that she was under some kind of family curse. It seems to me that Madeline did not treat the hero very well in this version. On the other hand, if you read the story you will see that there is very little meat on this idea.
The narrator is a friend of Roderick, and yet he tells the reader that Roderick is a hypochondriac, and very hypersensitive. He also says his so-called friend lacks moral fibre. The story is more about Roderick’s fantasies of being under a curse, and his questionable actions towards his sister. You have to wonder how friendly the friends actually are – could it be that Roderick literally has no one else to ask? There is not enough story to turn this into a film without some departures from the source material. The relationship with Madeline turns the narrator’s relationship with Roderick antagonistic. They vie against each other with Madeline forming some sort of prize. They blame each other for her (apparent) death. It does add conflict to the story which was not there in the source material (except, perhaps, internally)
There is so much symbolism in the story, and I often feel films struggle to do this kind of aspect. The crack through the house, while shown in the film, is not really used, as the film has the house catch fire at the end. But the crack in the house is a crack in the family, and with the death of the final Ushers the house splits like an egg along this apparently insignificant crack, sinking into the dead water and joining with the dead surroundings. The whole area is some sort of underworld, waiting to receive the final Ushers before retreating from the living world. The fire of the film is more visual and probably easier to do. But it means a loss of the significance of the house’s descent into the water.
Vincent Price is excellent as Roderick Usher. He deliberately changed his appearance for this film, dying his hair blonde, losing weight and staying out of the sun, in order to portray the wasting elegance of Roderick that is described in the story. He is very good at delivering lines that are often hard to interpret, but full of sinister intent. This keeps the hero guessing, wondering what is going on and whether Roderick is crazy. Roderick shares quite early on that he has an issue with hypersensitivity (whether physical or mental is impossible to say), and Price is very good at showing this, for example in a scene where the hero shouts at him and he flinches back in pain. He shows the eccentricity of Roderick in other ways – wearing silk because he can’t bear anything that is not soft against his skin, painting very strange pictures, plucking away on a stringed instrument apparently at random, though this is supposed to be a composition. The story has the character improvising on a guitar, though it accepts that Roderick is playing music. Both in the story and film the narrator is quite convinced Roderick is mad. The story narrator is gentler about it, stating that Roderick’s ideas seem like fantasies. The film protagonist comes straight out and tells him he’s mad.
Madeline in the story appears to share her brother’s problems. We have to question that in the film – we are told she has been in Boston and that is where she met the narrator. This seems to cast doubt on Roderick’s story that she is ill and is not able to leave. There is a question in both story and film that the relationship between Roderick and Madeline is incestuous. I don’t think either version definitively answers that question, though both suggest it. In the film, particularly, it could be interpreted that Madeline is perfectly well, that whatever ‘illness’ she has is invented by her brother, who has convinced her with stories of their evil ancestors that she must also be evil and doomed to die, solely in order to keep her away from her fiancé, to have her for himself. The film certainly suggests that her ‘death’ was caused by Roderick, as he was in her room and the narrator heard them arguing. The story merely has that Roderick suddenly informs the narrator she is dead.
The reader/audience has been told, in both versions, that Madeline has issues with catatonia. This sets up the final reveal – Madeline is not dead, and has been buried (not underground, her coffin is placed in the vault or cellar of the house), alive. Roderick has said all along that his hypersensitivity includes acute hearing. He confesses at the climax that he could hear her breathing, screaming, clawing at the coffin. He just didn’t do anything about it. Why not? The story doesn’t really explain. He seems to have felt some fear of taking action, but the reader does not know why. In the film he has already established he will do anything to stop Madeline leaving, so we must assume that includes burying her alive. There is karma, when Madeline, escaping from her coffin, is now experiencing the insanity that Roderick was always warning her against. The house burns, and she kills her brother, dying along with him in the flames, while the hero runs for his life. Finally, the house splits along the crack, and is swallowed by the water. The story’s description of this moment is a little more obscure. Madeline launches herself at Roderick, and they both fall dead. It doesn’t actually say she kills him. Maybe he has a heart attack from fear? Who knows.
Whatever you think of the story, the setting and atmosphere has become something of a staple of Gothic horror. The crumbling old house, the mysterious inhabitants, dark and shady dealings and so on, can be seen in many a horror movie (“Crimson Peak” being a particularly obvious recent example.) The film, the first of several Poe-inspired films directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, is certainly entertaining, if only for Price’s always solid performance. Despite its changes from the original story, the movie is overall a good adaptation as it does keep to the spirit of Poe, if not the letter. I would recommend it, and the other Corman/Price ‘Poe Cycle’ films.