Synopsis: In this wicked series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, ruthless siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher have built Fortunato Pharmaceuticals into an empire of wealth, privilege, and power. But past secrets come to light when the heirs to the Usher dynasty start dying at the hands of a mysterious woman from their youth.
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Mary McDonnell, Carl Lumbly, Mark Hamill, Michael Trucco, T’Nia Miller, Paola Nuñez, Henry Thomas, Kyleigh Curran, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, Sauriyan Sapkota, Zach Gilford, Willa Fitzgerald, Katie Parker, Malcolm Goodwin, Crystal Balint, Aya Furukawa, Daniel Jun, Matt Biedel, Ruth Codd, Annabeth Gish, Igby Rigney, Robert Longstreet
Directors: Mike Flanagan & Michael Fimognari
Running Length: 8 episodes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: Between 2016 and 2019, there wasn’t anything that writer/editor/producer/director Mike Flanagan touched that didn’t turn to golden screams. Starting with the low-budget home invasion thriller Hush, which premiered on Netflix and justifiably became a word-of-mouth hit, and Ouija: Origin of Evil, the far superior 2016 sequel to a very dull original outing from another director, Flanagan came out of the gate swinging. Even the much-delayed Before I Wake was, when it was finally seen, a more sophisticated scare machine than previews let on. Adapting Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game for Netflix was not just another bloody brave notch in the belt for Flanagan but a significant step forward for stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.
You can say 2018 was the breakout year; that’s when The Haunting of Hill House premiered its ten episodes on Netflix and firmly established Flanagan (who directed every chapter) as a master of mixing horror with emotionally resonant characters. It’s one of the best television series in decades, executed beautifully from both a technical and performance angle. 2019’s Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, strangely wasn’t a huge commercial hit, but Flanagan’s wise approach to the material will make it a film that is ‘rediscovered’ in a few years as one of the unfairly overlooked modern horror classics.
Then we get to 2020, and that’s when things get shaky. Through his long-term deal with the service, Netflix pushed Flanagan to make a stand-alone sequel to The Haunting of Hill House, and that’s how The Haunting of Bly Manor came to be. Based on The Turn of the Screw, this wasn’t wholly overseen by Flanagan, and it showed. Uneven and missing the heart that has sold the best of Flanagan’s work to date, it only came alive in spurts. Some of that magic was regained with 2021’s Midnight Mass, a devastatingly good supernatural series that Flanagan had complete control over. While reviews were solid for 2022’s The Midnight Club, a cliffhanger ending was left dangling when Netflix surprisingly canceled it after one season.
Now we have Flangan’s last officially commissioned work for Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher, and it’s a project that has gone through some difficult times during production. Original star Frank Langella was fired after three months when an internal investigation found misconduct and Greenwood (Endless Love) replaced him. The eight-episode series is again not entirely directed by Flanagan, with longtime collaborator Michael Fimognari taking on half of the work. The result is an often-frustrating watch that tests patience early on with Flanagan’s most outlandish eccentricities, only coming into focus in the final few episodes when the story’s true heart is revealed.
Far more than just a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan and his writers have weaved several of Poe’s works and characters (and some factual pieces on the author himself) into the fabric of the show. Each episode carries a title from a Poe tale and is a riff on that story as it relates to the fate of one of the children of Roderick Usher, a powerful pharmaceutical magnate facing his final reckoning. Recounting his life to longtime legal adversary C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly, Pacific Heights), ghosts from the past come to visit, often popping up to terrify Roderick (and the viewer) and jog his memory.
The first episode lays the foundation, introducing most characters, including the adult Roderick, his twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell, Grand Canyon), and Roderick’s children from multiple women. T’Nia Miller, Sauriyan Sapkota, Henry Thomas (Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, and Kate Siegel (Hypnotic) make up the diverse Usher progeny, and we’ll soon learn they all have their kinks, hang-ups, good days, and bad days. The bad days are coming for all when a mysterious woman (Carla Gugino, Gunpowder Milkshake) begins showing up with death’s shadow trailing behind her, and the children begin to die in gruesomely garish ways. There’s another figure (no spoilers here!) who shows up occasionally to spook Roderick, which seems incongruous at first but begins to make sense as the show nears its conclusion.
The Fall of the House of Usher starts to crackle as it moves into its final three chapters, and I wished that installments 2/3 and 4/5 could have been combined into a tidier two episodes because by the time you get to 6, 7, and 8 you see how much time was wasted on frivolous showmanship that goes nowhere. There is egregious padding to stretch time, scenes exist that say nothing about any of the characters or further the plot, and some of the more extreme material introduced makes the Usher children seem like simple perverts rather than brats running wild with kinky abandon. Plus, we know they will all meet their end, so the foregone conclusion has us waiting around, Final Destination-syle, for their big send-off.
Once we get to those final three hours, though, sparks start to fly, and it’s no coincidence that’s when Gugino’s part gets beefed up significantly. It’s time for Hollywood to step back and realize what a goldmine Gugino is if used correctly. She’s exquisite in The Fall of the House of Usher and easily the best reason to watch. Her navigation of a tricky character arc in the last episode is a wonder to watch, and she does it all while strengthening her scene partners. Frequent jumps to the past to a younger Roderick (Zach Gilford, The Last Stand) and Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald, The Goldfinch) also make you stop in your tracks, especially in the final episode when missing puzzle pieces are produced and snap into place.
For his work so far, I know Flanagan is a filmmaker who will be around for a while, but we need to give him more space to do what truly moves him. At this stage, I’m not convinced these limited series are his bread and butter. In the past few shows, I haven’t felt his full attention, and The Fall of the House of Usher wraps up feeling like the obligation to a higher entity that it certifiably was. Despite the intensely good performance from Gugino and several supporting characters that will occasionally pop (trust me when I say to keep your eye on Ruth Codd as Roderick’s latest wife…just when you think the character has nothing to do…whoa), this series can’t come close to the superior output Flanagan has turned in before.