Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Fall of the House of Usher

My husband sighs.
"Do you not agree with his approach?" I ask.
"No, he should have a weapon.  And some body armor.  And a gun."
"So he should have a Glock, a riot shield, and a bulletproof vest?"
"He should really have a bear suit.  That's what he needs.  Do you know about those?"
"Not really."
"People go out and get mauled by bears in them and they're fine.  Did he just step on a skeleton?"

No, he did not just step on a skeleton.  But he was wandering around by himself in a ridiculously creepy house during the middle of the night without a weapon. We all know this is a bad move.  Especially when you're in the house of Usher, and it's about to fall.  Literally.

I watched this as a child, but I only remembered two moments from it, so watching it last night was like a totally new experience for me.  I won't tell you what I remember because that would spoil the fun for you.  And let it be know that while I hate modern horror movies and refuse to watch them, old ones are game for me because they were made at a time when directors and screenwriters still had a moral compass, and when the viewing public didn't have the stomach for the gore and violence we see today.

The Basics:
Released in 1960, The Fall of the House of Usher, also promoted as House of Usher, was one of a string of horror movies in which Vincent Price starred as a bone-chilling villain.  The main cast is small, only four people, and Price is the only recognizable name among them.  Mark Damon (no relation to Matt), Myrna Fahey, and Harry Ellerbe are all new to me.  In a way I think that adds to the effect of the film, because when you don't recognize an actor you are better able to be absorbed in the story they are acting out. 

The Plot:
Young Philip Winthrop (Damon) has come to the house of Usher to see his intended, Miss Madeline Usher (Fahey).  He finds himself in a desolate wasteland: black, dead, and deserted.  In the dankness sits the house: vast, gloomy, sinister, and decrepit.  Philip is not welcome at the house of Usher; when he stubbornly insists on being admitted, he is met with strange requests and a hauntingly bizarre situation.  The formerly vibrant Madeline is ill, confined to her bed, and her brother Roderick (Price) maintains that Philip must leave without seeing her, that he must leave forever and forget Madeline.  

When Philip repeatedly refuses to comply, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the dark, dangerous world of the Ushers.  He is made privy to secrets he won't believe and prophesies he won't accept.  It is just he, the butler (Ellerbe), the two remaining Ushers....and the house.  I'll not go into more detail than that, because I think these really are more fun when you haven't heard everything before hand. 
Here is a sample for your perusal.

Highs and Lows:
Like in any good horror movie, the characters in this film do things and behave in ways that are appallingly short-sighted and stupid to the audience.  Why would you, for instance, wander around an impressively creepy house by yourself, without a weapon, during the middle of the night?  When you have decided to escape with your beloved and make a mad, hopeful dash toward the future, why do you go separate ways to pack your bags?  When the evidence of your unwilling host's evil madness and deceit is before your eyes, why do you not look up and see it?  Why do you fall into his trap?  If a chandelier fell from the ceiling and almost landed on you, would you say "I don't know" in response to "what happened?"  

But these are just little things, for overall the lows aren't too bad.  I mean, the aren't too low, and the highs are pretty impressive.
  • The house is creepy.  This is set in the 1800s, and the styling lends itself very well to creepiness.  
  • The music is sufficiently horrible.  I don't mean that the quality or composition of it is horrible, but that it makes you feel horrible.  You should only watch this movie if you want to feel horrible.  
  • This is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name, so the script is pretty fantastic in places.  
  • It was not made in Technicolor, but in just plain color, so it lacks the brightness and punch you see in other films.  This is perfect.
  • Vincent Price was being himself here; he'll give you the willies.  You would never guess that he was from Missouri.  
  • The climax made both my husband and myself brace ourselves and cringe.
-Sidenote- I know many children are desensitized to blood and gore these days, but just the same I wouldn't recommend this for anyone younger than 12 or 13 because of some frightening images. 

Pick a dreary night, preferably a stormy one, and scare it up with this movie.  The trick is to suspend disbelief and let the film carry you along.  Don't be too analytical, don't be underawed by the unadvanced camera techniques and lack of computer effects, just let yourself be freaked out.  I think this is an admirable adaptation of Poe, and therefore I would recommend it to anyone but the very young. 
And, note, if you yell loudly enough at Philip to take the ax with him, he might just do it ;)  


Anonymous said...

Excellent critic. Interest is peaked!

jillybean said...

completely the OLD horror movies, hate the new ones! This is one of the best.

Bob the Chef said...

And, just to burst your bubble a tad, and We all know how much I love doing it, consider what Price's character says when he compares the sound of the knock on the door to the sound of a saw grating through something (exact quotation doesn't matter). Well, are we to assume that he had possessed normal hearing long ago? Because, you know, I have this strange feeling that if you've always had this affliction, then shit, you could never make the comparison because the knock on the door would be that much worse than the sound of a saw grating through sheet metal. Right? He could never be able to communicate that experience to someone in terms of experiences they're familiar with because all of their experiences of the senses are of a different magnitude and dare I say quality. That should have hinted out poor bastard to give our Usher the sly eye and slow back away, maybe with a few silver candle holders in tow.

Drama queens. All of you. "Letting yourself be freaked out" by silly nonsense like this is like letting yourself become voluntarily stupid by believing that, say, black is white, that a penis is a variety of headcheese, or that Freud was profound. Really, any irrational nonsense works here. I think it makes sense to encourage critical thought about what kinds of experiences we want to open ourselves to. Why? Well, to begin with, more often than not, we don't end up knowing ourselves as some like to claim, but instead find ourselves more confused. Sort of like what happens with rape victims who develop Stockholm syndrome. Or teh ghey. We have a name for taking an absurdity seriously. It's called "madness". Perhaps you've heard of it. Ultimately, it doesn't matter because, well, it's hard to be freaked out when you're busy laughing at the layered absurdity of the movie. I also think laughing at someone else's feelings is fun. This is why, if I ever met Poe, I would probably compare the throbbing heart in Raven to my...well, you know what, upon glancing a woolly sheep in the height of rancid heat.

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