08 October 2011
But there was a moment... there was a moment. For a brief stretch in the 1960s, AIP, via the all-time great Z-movie director and producer Roger Corman, flirted with opulence. It was at this time that the company released a number of films adapted from the works of 19th Century American Gothic horror writer Edgar Allan Poe; sometimes these adaptations were faithful and sometimes they absolutely and in every possible way were not; but they were, at the time, the must sumptuous and rich and costly films that AIP had ever handled. Which is to say, they were still outstandingly cheap by the standards of the big studios, but they were in Technicolor. And CinemaScope. And they had big, elaborate sets, though part of the reason that there ended up being so many of the AIP Poe movies was that the cost of those big, elaborate sets could be amortised across the production of five or six or twenty movies.
There were many of these films; eight of them are regarded as "the" Poe films, because those were the eight directed by Corman, the ones made with such confidence and even a sort of low-grade artistry - and, crucially, all but one of them featured Vincent Price in the lead role - that they transcend their limitations as low-budget Gothic shockers, to become each in its own way a Classic of Horror Cinema. For that is the secret truth about Corman in his heyday: though he was unabashedly in it for a buck, and the quicker that buck the better, he was by no means an untalented man and his particular genius was not in finding ways to make movies as cheaply as possible (many dozens of '50s and '60s producers were good at that, and their films are often completely unwatchable); it was in making movies on the cheap with such cleverness that every one dollar spent brought back two dollars of production value. It was Corman, supposedly, who came up with the idea for the Poe movies; I imagine that they were meant to be AIP's answer to the Hammer horror pictures just then taking the world by storm, and Corman knew that if he sunk a bit more money into them than usual, he'd get a lot more money out over the long run, because fancy Technicolor Gothics were popular enough to make the added expense a safe bet.
The first of the Corman Poe pictures is, by almost unanimous agreement, the adaptation out of all the AIP Poe cycle, irrespective of director or star, that most accurately reflects the content of the original story. I haven't seen them all, but that seems entirely reasonable to me, for the film in question was based on the story "The Fall of the House of Usher", which is probably the most sustained horror narrative in Poe's canon - the writer's gift for creating eerie, unpleasant atmosphere was so great that even some of his best-love horror tales are little more than a ghastly image surrounded by an insane man's erratic, uncanny ravings. "Usher" has actual characters, conflict, and narrative developement, and for all these things was a natural choice to jump-start an entire Poe film franchise.
For no obvious reason, the film was released under two different titles, the original and the more compact House of Usher, the latter of which seems to have won out in the history books. Smartly adapted by all-round horror master Richard Matheson, the story follows Poe's model reasonably well: Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is journeying to some hopelessly decayed estate where his fiancee, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) lives with her brother Roderick (Vincent Price); the blighted, unspeakable desolation of the land around the house of the Ushers is horrible to behold, but not half so terrible as the miserable people who spend their days living in that place, which as we learn soon enough is a symbolic extension of the moral decay that has lived with the Usher family for so many generations of rapists and thieves and monsters in human form.
Philip wants to take his beloved away from all of this, but her brother refuses: he believes with all his heart that the Usher line is hopelessly corrupt, that two children in the same generation invariably turn absolutely batshit insane and once he and his sister have both died without issue, the world will have been freed of an evil race. Of course, Philip thinks Roderick is a stark raving loony, naturally, but it doesn't matter: Madeline dies very shortly thereafter, apparently of no cause other than the strain of living in such a ghastly place and being told day in and day out that she is of a tainted bloodline that is evil and unspeakable.
But since this is a Poe story, it's not much of a surprise that after her interment, Philip starts to hear noises and begins suspecting that she wasn't completely dead yet when she was secreted away in the Ushers' cobwebby vaults. Roderick denies this, naturally, but the truth is of course all kinds of indescribably horrid and uncanny, and as pretty much everybody who took high school English knows, the outing of that truth comes at the price of the Usher home splitting apart and crumbling, and taking its last sorry inhabitants with it.
It's an oft-told tale; the most-freqently filmed of all Poe's work outside of "The Raven", which has been featured as a segment in just about every TV cartoon show's Halloween episode at one point or another: there are a couple of great short versions of "Usher" from 1928 (one straight, one quite literally an art film); but of the versions I have seen, Corman's is my favorite, and even with its minor stretching out of details to make sure the film scrambles up to feature length (and even then, it's only 79 minutes), I think this might be the one that gets Poe the best. Viewed through contemporary eyes, one of the things you can't help but notice is how very measured House of Usher is, which is a fancier way of saying that it is extremely slow and taken up to an abnormal degree with scenes of Winthrop glaring at Price and Price staring back with the thousand-yard stare of the dead, or of close-ups on the Usher family portraits (adventurously Expressionist paintings that fit not remotely in the story's time scheme, but for that very reason are all the more effective). It is a slow damn movie in which nothing much happens until about an hour in, basically, and that sort of thing does have a tendency to put people in a grumpy mood; but how else is an adaptation of Poe meant to work? The author's characteristic mode was one in which senory details were piled on one by one until the slimy, dank awfulness of the setting (and it is nearly always slimy and dank in Poe; and often streaked with nitre) all but rots the page in your hands.
In other words, a Poe film that does nothing but send the camera brooding around an opulent but corroded set as Vincent Price stands there looking like a corpse that has been in the water for a week is exactly the right way to do it: heavy on the atmosphere, so heavy you're about to choke on it, and then make everything explode in a final gust of shocking release (for that is another trick of Poe's: in some of his most famous stories - "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Black Cat" most famously - it's all atmosphere until the very last sentence). Obviously, this approach to filmmaking is not without its risks: get the atmospehre even a little bit wrong, and you're left with a disastrously static and, yes, boring horror movie.
That's precisely why virtually none of the non-Corman Poe films have a reputation worth mentioning: it was Corman's particular genius to hide the shortcomings of his set,, to use his teeny-weeny cast to superlative effect and spend a bit more money in the most judicious moments to give them that extra bit of go (in this case, the fiery destruction of the house; an effect so nicely-done, in fact, that Corman streteched his money even more by re-using the footage in several of the subseqeunt Poe pictures). Making cheap sets look really good is an arcane art, and Corman and his crew were absolutely brilliant at it.
The other key ingredient, of course, is Vincent Price: a man who saved more low-rent cheapie horror pictures than everybody else put together. This was his first big role after his run of pictures with William Castle solidified his transition from character actor to goofy horror icon, starting in 1953 with the relatively tony House of Wax; I and others have spilled enough ink on Price's remarkable ability to indulge in the broadest, hammiest excess without every seeming insincere or cheesy: he was an actor who uniquely understood that horror was meant to be fun, but not so funny that it stopped being threatening. His Roderick Usher is an eminently typical performance, not one of his best; but even here, the milky joylessness with which he embodies the fallen scion of a terrible clan is so profoundly pathetic that Roderick ends up stealing all the sympathy away from Winthrop's tremendously straightforward Philip. Roderick's apparent insanity is made to be, rather than hideous, the sad relic of all that Usher evil, and it's hard not to believe Price when he states with all due simplcity that he deserves and desires immediate, even violent death.
Hell, just the mere fact of casting Price as the much-younger Roderick pays dividends; the actor is saddled with a most unbecoming blond wig that sits most awkwardly on his mature face, and the contrast is, in and of itself, one of the surest signs of the pronounced internal fatigue that has turned Roderick into such a depressive madman.
The film is weird and a touch silly, but despite being a B-picture made by a B-studio, neither Corman nor Matheson treat the film as a disposable drive-in time-waster. In fact, House of Usher is a very serious, mordant picture, as serious as anything with Vincent Price in a gaudy blond wig can be, at least. It was the start of a bold new maturity in Corman's films, and the beginning AIP's single great run of genuinely good, instead of merely playfully stupid and diverting horror pictures: as it should be, for this is in all ways a tightly-made, handsome, and entirely convincing supernatural melodrama.
Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)