B-movie Mayhem...(The Fall of) the House of Usher, first in the Corman/Poe cycle
The Fall of the House of Usher, also known as House of Usher, was the first of the Corman-Poe cycle of the 1960s…that is, the first of a series of films based (usually very loosely) on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, where produced by American International Pictures and directed by the King of B-movies himself, Roger Corman.
According to Wikipedia, "The original idea, usually credited to Corman and Lou Rusoff, was to take Poe's story The Fall of the House of Usher, which had both a high name-recognition value and the merit of being in the public domain, and thus royalty-free, and expand it into a feature film. Corman convinced the studio to give him a larger budget than the typical AIP film so he could film the movie in widescreen and color, and use it to create lavish sets as well. The success of House of Usher led AIP to finance further films based on Poe's stories. The sets and special effects were often reused in subsequent movies (for example, the burning roof of the Usher mansion reappears in most of the other films as stock footage), making the series quite cost-effective.”
The Fall of the House of Usher starred Vincent Price, as did almost all of the other films of the Corman-Poe cycle, even the “honourable mentions” (which are considered by some to be a part of the cycle, but aren’t necessarily based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and are therefore not “official”). The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, American genre novel and screenwriter, who also wrote episodes of the Twilight Zone TV series, and whose many titles you will recognize either as films you’ve seen or books you’ve read, including: The Shrinking Man, Hell House, I Am Legend (short story), A Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come, Steel (Real Steel), Somewhere in Time, and many more.
The rest of the cast includes Mark Damon as Philip Winthrop, Myrna Fahey as Madeline Usher, and the butler, Bristol played by Harry Ellerbe.
The storyline, as recounted by Wikipedia: "Philip Winthrop travels to the House of Usher, a desolate mansion surrounded by a murky swamp, to see his fiancée Madeline Usher. Madeline's brother Roderick opposes Philip's intentions, telling the young man that the Usher family is afflicted by a cursed bloodline which has driven all their ancestors to madness and even affected the mansion itself, causing the surrounding countryside to become desolate. Roderick foresees the family evils being propagated into future generations with a marriage to Madeline and vehemently discourages the union. Philip becomes increasingly desperate to take Madeline away; desperate to get away from her brother, she agrees to leave with him.During a heated argument with her brother, Madeline suddenly falls into catalepsy, a condition in which its sufferers appear dead; her brother (who knows that she is still alive) convinces Winthrop that she is dead and rushes to have her entombed in the family crypt beneath the house. As Philip is preparing to leave following the entombment, the butler, Bristo, lets slip that Madeline suffered from catalepsy.
Philip rips open Madeline's coffin and finds it empty. He desperately searches for her in the winding passages of the crypt, but eventually collapses. Madeline revives inside her sealed coffin, goes insane from being buried alive and breaks free. She confronts her brother and attacks him, throttling him to death. Suddenly the house, already aflame due to fallen coals from the fire, begins to collapse, and the two Ushers and Bristol are consumed by the falling house, ending the Usher bloodline. Philip alone escapes and watches the burning house sink into the swampy land surrounding it. The film ends with the final words of Poe's story: "... and the deep and dank tarn closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'House of Usher’"."
As I mentioned, this is the first, and I think, one of the best of the Corman-Poe cycle. It’s the first time an audience was exposed to the lavish technicolour mansion sets adorned with rich velvets, heavy drapes, colourful candelabras, ornate furnishings and rather exquisite period costuming. And it need not be said, but I will anyway — Vincent Price is his hypnotically magnetic self, both mad and sympathetic in character.
Some odds and ends of trivia I’ve learned about the film: the old barn which is used as some of the mansion-burning footage at the end of the film, and subsequently as stock footage in many of the other Corman-Poe cycle films, was located in Orange County and slated to be demolished, so Corman was able to strike a deal that allowed him to burn it and film it one night.
The set that Mark Damon rides through at the beginning of the film was the site of a fire in the Hollywood hills, rendering it the perfect stark landscape Corman needed—he had heard of the fire on the radio and shot the footage with Damon and his crew the next day.
The Fall of the House of Usher marked a major career change for Corman—it was his first higher budget colour movie in CinemaScope that he made for American International Pictures, rather than the usual ultra low budget black & white films that were released as double features.
And though I know that many people argue that these films are too good to be considered B-movies...so, why do I include the Corman-Poe cycle in my B-movie "ravings"? To me, a B-movie isn't necessarily "bad"...perhaps some will feel that these films have not aged well, and now they qualify as B-movies, but to me, it is a particular feel of fun that mixes in with the genre of the film, in this case, horror...a feeling that makes you want to see it at the Drive-In, or an old Grindhouse Cinema that makes a B-movie what it is. Even a modern big budget film can qualify as a B-movie, in my opinion, so when I say "B-movie" keep in mind that this is a very broad interpretation, meant to let in a wide variety of movies that all have that one thing in common--that feeling of nostalgic fun that can also be associated with guilty pleasure.
And now, here's the trailer!
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