Synopsis: Upon entering his fiancée’s family mansion, a man discovers a savage family curse and fears that his future brother-in-law has entombed his bride-to-be prematurely.
Stars: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey, Harry Ellerbe
Director: Roger Corman
Running Length: 79 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As a scary movie fan and critic, I have to admit to you that while I’ve covered many ghoulish galleries in the hellish haunted basements of the horror genre, there is a rather blatant blind spot that I’ve ignored for too long. The fact that it’s taken me so long to come to terms with it is not so much owning up to my own failure as it is to just accepting how far behind I am and the enormity of ground I have to cover to catch up. What’s more, there’s no reason I should have let it get this bad, this out of control, this widespread. I should have dealt with it as a teen or consulted with friends as a young adult. Surely, I could have sought assistance as I struck out on my own?
Here we are in 2020 and I’m just now beginning to deal with this problem. I am sorrowfully, shamefully, inexcusably, late to the party on Vincent Price movies. Oh, I’ve seen Price in his later pictures where he played pivotal roles as inspiration and so much more for Tim Burton’s early features and the snazzy first remake of House of Wax (in even snazzier 3D!) but it’s the films he became famous off of that have eluded me until recently. These were the classic macabre flicks he made with legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman and, to get even more specific, the films they made based off the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Though Price has made a number of notable horror films throughout his career (some of them campy, some of them excellent) the Corman/Price/Poe treasures are the entries that seemed to come up the most in conversation.
That’s how it happened that I made my visit to the House of Usher, Corman’s 1960 collaboration with Price, the first of a number of films the duo would make together and by far their most successful financially and artistically. Adapted by science fiction novelist Richard Matheson (JAWS 3-D) and released by independent production company American International Pictures who up until then had only produced black and white cheapies, House of Usher was a big color Cinemascope gamble that paid off in a lasting way. It set off a wave of Poe adaptations, effectively changed the course of Price’s career, and gave some street cred to Corman who would also release the original Little Shop of Horrors that same year.
Tweaking Poe’s original dark tale slightly, Matheson injects some romanticism into the picture by filtering the events through the eyes of Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) as he arrives at the decaying titular homestead seeking his fiancé, Madeline (Myrna Fahey) who hasn’t returned to Boston after a recent visit. Before he has the chance to see her, he meets her brother Roderick (Price, Michael Jackson: Thriller) who urges Philip to leave and forget about the woman he loves and Roderick appears to be protecting from a family sickness about to consume her. A timid long-time family butler (Harry Ellerbe) provides little corroborating information or assistance, leaving Philip to fight for Madeline’s life on his own against her dangerous sibling…or has he been the one that needed protection from the moment he walked in the door?
For a movie with by and large four-people in the cast, it’s amazing how engaging it all is. Numerous scenes are just two people talking, often the sign of amateur screenwriting, but Matheson’s take on Poe is quite thrilling and grabs you from the start. Ditto the production design which is pretty spectacular considering the budget limitations and that the whole thing was shot in a little over two weeks. Nothing looks like it’s going to fall apart if you sneezed nor do the costumes give off a chintzy vibe. It’s all beamed in pulsating colors that merge well within the visuals, especially in a creepy dream sequence which helps explain the inky past of the Usher clan.
Performances are also highly entertaining for all the right reasons. Price is so dramatically melodramatic, a perfect fit with his overly sensitive character that doesn’t like loud noises, or extremes of any kind for that matter. It may not be saying an awful lot (for the award, not the actor), but his work earned Damon a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer and he’s a committed leading man who possesses the looks and the layers to make you want to cheer him on but still hate him a little bit for having such great hair. The lovely Fahey is a mysterious beauty when we first meet her, standing in sharp contrast to her frightening transformation near the end.
Yes, back to the scares. This one has them and not just in the extended finale that is downright spooky. Several passages in this relatively short film will raise the hairs on your neck, often just hearing Price describe the actions of one of his ancestors. When it comes to giving you major goosebumps, nothing much beats Fahey’s piercing scream, which is heard several times and what many scream queens clearly modeled their loud lungs after. For a film that’s a solid 60 years old and has had a number of versions before and since, Corman’s House of Usher clearly was built with material strong enough to last the test of time because it still works today and is a justified classic in the genre.