"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The House Of Usher -- Vincent Price At His Best

ClassicBecky's Brain Food turned 6 years old in September (as I usually end up doing with friends, this a belated birthday card)!  It's hard for me to believe I've been around that long.  I started out with a small group of wonderful people, guided by our Fearless Leader of the Classic Movie Blog Association, Rick Armstrong, and eventually branched off to my own blog.  To celebrate my birthday, I'd like to spotlight a post I did back in 2011, one of my personal favorites, about the fabulous Vincent Price in one of the best Edgar Allan Poe movies done by director Roger Corman.   (*Alert -- It’s just about impossible to write about this movie without spoilers*)

I would love to seat Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe together at a dinner party. The grim and tragic Poe is certainly not known for a great sense of humor, and Corman’s respect for literature usually takes a back seat to the chance to use any story as he sees fit to make good box office. Many of Corman’s Poe Cycle films take enormous liberties with Poe’s work, often add campy humor, and some practically ignore everything but the title. That doesn’t make me love them any less, but then I didn’t slave over the originals like Poe. Yet, I think both men would agree that The House of Usher (1960) is just fantastic.  (The movie was also released as The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe's original title.)  I have always considered it the best of the Corman Poe films, and it definitely ranked high with the National Film Registry -- in 2006, the Registry chose The House of Usher as 1 of 25 films of significance to be preserved by the Library of Congress.

Home sweet home!

The House of Usher was the first of Corman’s series based on Poe. Corman was asked by American International Pictures to make 2 black and white cheapies to be released as a double bill. He countered with his desire to make one bigger budget movie using color and Cinemascope. This movie was The House of Usher. Now, Corman’s idea of a bigger budget was probably $500 dollars instead of $250, but boy could he do a lot with a tight purse! Corman was famous for using whatever was available and practically free – he filmed a burning barn that had been slated to be burned down anyway, and that footage was so good he used it in several other films. For his scene of the bleak, lifeless landscape around the Usher castle, Corman heard of a wildfire that had burned out nearby land. He took his camera crew to the site the very next day, and filmed the ashen area. I wish I could make my budget stretch so creatively.

Vincent with white-blonde hair, no moustache--  love the dressing gown!
Corman took with him cinematographer Floyd Crosby and set designer Daniel Haller, both of whom worked on all of Corman’s Poe movies. The marvelous look of these movies, the wonderful sets, eerie lighting, particularly the dominant, atmospheric black, blues and greens with jarring splashes of wine red costuming for The House of Usher, are due to the talents of these men.

Price and Myrna Fahey -- American Gothic (without the pitchfork) German style
Roderick Usher (Price) is a man beset by horrors. He and his sister Madeline (Myrna Fahey) are the last of the Usher line, an old family rotten with insanity and sordidly cruel lives, and Roderick is determined that the line end with them. He sees in himself and Madeline certain developing traits of the Ushers. Both brother and sister are plagued by a strange malady:

     “Madeline and I are like figures of fine glass. The slightest touch and we may shatter. Both of us suffer from a morbid acuteness of the senses."

Somehow, Madeline had managed to visit London and have some fun, although how she did it with those problems is a mystery, and she even became engaged to dashing Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon). When Philip makes an unannounced visit to the Usher castle, he finds a crumbling monstrosity with a fissure opening up in the stones, built on top of a swamp to boot (doesn’t sound up to code, does it?). He finds Roderick to be a less-than-welcoming, chillingly morbid man who insists that his sister Madeline is too ill to be disturbed.

Philip refuses to leave, and Roderick gives him a tour of the castle, probably hoping that this alone will send Philip packing. The house was brought to its present location stone by stone from the old country, bringing its evil within the very walls. He points out paintings of the Usher ancestors, downright hair-raising, particularly with Roderick’s description of each one (Aunt Bertha, prostitute and poisoner -- Uncle Bob, pirate and murderer – you get the drift). The wonderful paintings were done by artist Burt Schoenberg, and frankly they are excellent works of impressionist art.

"Uncle Arthur"


Roderick insists that Madeline cannot marry or have children, and that she is dying. Despite Roderick’s constant croakings of doom, Philip doesn’t believe him. For a girl who is supposed to be a figure of fine glass and at death’s door, Fahey is much too buxom and healthy, a bit of miscasting on Corman’s part. She does walk around with a rather tired, worried look on her face, but most people look like that every day after work.

"I'm feeling much better."

Well, guess not!
Suddenly one night, we hear Madeline scream and die for some vague reason. Heartbroken, Philip goes with Roderick and the lone family servant (Harry Ellerbe) to the family crypt (no castle is complete without dead relatives in the basement), and place Madeline in her coffin. After the grieving men go upstairs, we hear a gasp from the coffin, then a bloodcurdling scream. I don’t know why they didn’t hear it. They weren’t that far away, and it was really loud.

"Are you DEAF?!!  Look at my  nails!"
Although it’s kind of hard to tell considering his usual demeanor, Roderick does act strangely, and Philip has a terrible dream of the Usher family. This dream sequence is beautifully done and scared me silly as a kid. Roderick eventually admits to Philip that Madeline suffers from cataleptic fits, and he knowingly buried her alive during one of these episodes to keep her from leaving to marry and propagate the Usher genes. His acute sense of hearing has made him suffer for many days because he could hear her screams and scratching on the inside lid of the coffin. He suffered?!!  (I personally think my brother loves me, but I’m a little reluctant now to let him plan my funeral.) Finding the coffin empty, Roderick informs Philip that Madeline has now inherited the family madness (Oh really? I think she earned it!). There are some very frightening scenes as we see glimpses of Madeline in her white burial dress, scuttling around doorways, leaving bloody drops from her mangled fingernails.
"Welcome to your dream...come and meet the folks..."

"Mom always liked you better!"
Finally, the now-insane Madeline corners her brother and with the strength of a mad woman, strangles him as a fallen candle lights the room on fire, and soon the ceiling crashes down on brother and sister. Philip escapes the castle, and looks back to see it blazing against the grim landscape and sinking into the swamp. The last line of Poe’s story appears on the screen:

     “…and the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently
           over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

Corman’s Poe period (well, Picasso had a blue period and Van Gogh had a dark period!) was also Vincent Price’s heyday as a movie star. Price was already an accomplished actor, having ventured into the horror genre, particularly with a favorite of mine, The House of Wax (1953), followed by the always entertaining movies of William Castle, such as The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill. With Corman, Price found the niche that made him the undisputed master of the macabre. His very presence lent a valuable dignity to Corman’s films. Price was tall and imposing, handsome, with his marvelous voice and expressive face, and most of all his unique talent for blending true fright with sly humor and just the right touch of hammy acting. For instance, at one point in this ghastly story, Roderick turns to the butler and says with a little wave “See to the crypt, will you?” – (he might have been saying “Pick up a six-pack at the store, will you?” in the same manner).

Price, Corman, and an unidentified man who may be Schoenberg
Corman always struck me as two men in one body. One personality excelled at scandalous, roughly filmed exploitation movies like The Wild Angels and G-a-s-s-s, as well as some of the best really terrible scifi movies like my personal favorite, Wasp Woman, featuring some of the cheesiest monsters in B movie history. The other Corman persona created the Poe Cycle, beautiful to look at, eerie, scary, and with a crafty dark humor that makes you snicker as you look at the screen through your fingers. Many Corman fans love both sides of the legendary producer/director. Others choose sides and have very definite preferences for one or the other. Personally, I am a Poe/Corman groupie

Fun Fact: Three in One!
*The Haunted Palace is a Corman movie that has nothing whatsoever to do with Poe except the title.
*Poe wrote a poem titled The Haunted Palace, and infers in The House of Usher that Roderick is the author.
*The famous last stanza of the same poem appears on screen at the end of another Corman/Poe movie,
  The Masque of the Red Death:

     “…And travelers now within that valley,
      Through the red-litten windows, see
      Vast forms that move fantastically
      To a discordant melody;
      While, like a rapid ghastly river,
      Through the pale door,
      A hideous throng rush out forever,
      And laugh – but smile no more.”

(Wow, shivery good stuff!)

Crafty Corman! Maybe at that dinner party, Edgar would have been justified in slapping Corman with a glove and calling him out for a duel at dawn!

The man himself...