This look at The Fall of the House of Usher is the next in our series of “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a short story written by Edgar Allen Poe in September 1839 and adapted for the screen in 1960 as “House of Usher” by famed science fiction and horror writer Richard Matheson and “B”-film director Roger Corman (414 producer credits and 56 directorial credits). It has been adapted for film a number of other times, as well as for theater, animation, and music. For the purposes of this blog, though, we will be looking at the 1960 Corman version. For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the short story (taken from Britannica.com) and the film (taken from imdb.com):
“Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of their distinguished line. They are, therefore, the “House of Usher,” as is the strange, dark mansion in which they live. The narrator of Poe’s tale is a childhood friend of Roderick’s, summoned to the decaying country pile by a letter pleading for his help. He arrives to find his friend gravely altered, and through his eyes, we see strange and terrible events unfold.”
“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.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? Well, that’s a little tricky to say in this case, because Poe’s original story was extremely short on details. In my opinion, that vagueness, while perhaps an interesting writing experiment in how to build a sense of horror in the reader, removes this story from the realm of his “great” works and renders it more of an anomaly.
The first person we see on the page is the nameless, nondescript narrator, but the first real character we meet is the “melancholy House of Usher;” upon seeing it, the narrator says “a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.” He goes on to describe it like he would another person, remarking on the vacant, eye-like windows; bleak, fissured walls; decayed trees around it; and the black and lurid tarn below, which, upon viewing, left him with an almost superstitious sense of terror.” This house will come to dominate all other characters throughout the story.
The narrator has been called to the house by Roderick Usher, someone he went to school with many years before but who he has not seen since then. In the letter, Roderick speaks of “acute bodily illness – of a mental disorder which oppressed him” and an earnest desire to see his friend as a means of alleviating the malady.
When the narrator arrives, he is taken aback by Roderick’s pallor and “excessive nervous agitation, and the stated malady of “constitutional and family evil,” for which he despairs to find a remedy. He is clearly a hypochondriac and a slave to “an anomalous species of terror,” as well as to a superstitious impression of the mansion in which he lives. He also believes in the sentience of the remaining vegetation surrounding the house, the fungi that crowd its outer walls, and even the deep, dark tarn upon which the house rests. All this makes for a dark atmosphere that he says has shaped his family’s destinies and now his.
In addition, Roderick is distraught by the severe and long-continued illness of his sister, Madeline, his only companion and his sole remaining relative. Her impending death would render him the last of the ancient line of Ushers. The doctors are perplexed by her exact ailment, but Roderick divulges that she is prone to episodes of catalepsy and is confined to her bed; he catches only one brief glimpse of her. After two weeks spent with his friend, the narrator learns that she has died. Roderick wants to preserve her corpse for two weeks ahead of burial in one of the house’s crypts, and the narrator helps him with the arrangements. He notices, upon the final viewing, that her cheeks are still a bit rosy, and she wears a faint smile, as if this were merely one of her cataleptic fits. Over the next several days, the narrator notes that his friend’s “ordinary manner had vanished. … The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. … There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage.”
Several nights later, the narrator can’t sleep as a tempest gathers outside the house, his mind dwelling on Roderick’s superstitions and a sense of horror inexplicably settling in his chest. He meets a hysterical Roderick in the hall and tries to calm them both by reading aloud. However, he begins to hear sounds within the house. Turning to Roderick, he sees the man swaying, mumbling, “… many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it – yet I dared not – I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. … Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
And outside the door, the Lady Madeline does stand, with blood on her clothes and evidence of a great physical struggle. She “fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.”
The narrator flees the house, but looking back, he sees the structure’s long fissures splitting apart in the tempest, and the walls crumbling, to fall heavily into the deep and silent tarn. The House of Usher, both the people and the house, perishes in the night.
As you can see from the story, there are a lot of “horror” elements: a strange house, an ancient curse, physical and mental ailments, tempests, the burial of a living person, and a return from the dead. However, what’s lacking is context. Who is this family? Why are they and their house cursed? And what, exactly, is the nature of that curse? What are the maladies from which Roderick and Madeline suffer, and what is the siblings’ true relationship? Why does Roderick not act when he realizes his sister is still alive? Why did the house fall to pieces at the end (except for symbolic reasons)? And what purpose does the narrator serve except to be an outside observer to describe the Ushers’ fall? We are left with more questions than answers on issues that needed some explaining to be of relevance to the reader.
So, now we get to the movie. Given that there was so little of substance to the original story, the filmmakers had great leeway in writing the script. Instead of an unnamed narrator, they gave us one Phillip Winthrop, who is engaged to Madeline Usher. They met while she was in Boston, and he comes now to the Usher house to visit her. Roderick (played with wonderfully sinister mystery by the great Vincent Price) is no weak fool, but rather a commanding presence who insists at every opportunity that his unwelcome guest leave. Not only is Madeline sick, he tells Winthrop, but the house “is not a healthy place to be.” Indeed, the first night tremors rock the entire structure, a large fissure develops in one of the walls, and the motion causes a chandelier to crash to the floor, only narrowly missing Winthrop. While Bristol, the butler, says the house is just “settling,” Roderick imparts a greater meaning to the events – the house is “evil” and is doing everything it can to run Winthrop out. He is convinced of his ideas, but Winthrop refuses to believe him.
Madeline refuses again and again to go to Boston with Winthrop, despite his pleadings, saying that she will be dead very soon. She even goes so far as to show him the crypts in the dungeon, with her name embossed on an empty one; the dead, she says, wait for her to be buried there with them. And Roderick tells Winthrop that, once, the land was fertile and the tarn was clear and fresh. But “something crept across the land and blackened it,” like a plague of evil. He shows Winthrop the portraits of his ancestors, whose lives were all darkened with thieving, flesh trading, blackmail, and murder. He says if Madeline were to marry and have children, this would only spread the evil. Winthrop argues that since the sins of the parents are not passed to the children, this would not be the case, but Roderick disagrees vehemently. They are all cursed, all doomed. Evil is a reality all the Ushers have had to deal with. Even the house, brought to the States from England, has carried its “foul thoughts and deeds” with it, sickening everything.
When Madeline finally agrees to steal away with Winthrop to Boston, Roderick finds out, and this sets off an argument between them. The outcome? Winthrop finds her dead on her bed. But it will not be a happy death, Roderick tells him. She will have no peace, as evil will persist. As they view her one last time in the coffin, she moves her hand slightly, and we can see she is actually alive, though neither man seems to notice. As such, they bury her in the crypt. Winthrop is devastated. He tries to talk to Bristol about her illness, and Bristol, before he realizes what he is saying, mentions that Madeline had been prone to cataleptic fits. The implications are horrific – she might still be alive, trapped in the coffin. When he pulls open the lid, though, the coffin is empty. He confronts Roderick, who admits she was alive when they buried her (for her own good, to escape the madness), but now she is truly dead. Winthrop searches the mansion for her, to no avail.
As another tempest rages outside the house, Roderick’s eyes take on the feverish look of a man possessed. He tells Winthrop that he has heard every sound she has made since she awoke, her breathing, her screams, her nails scratching on the casket. He hears her even now, he says, going mad. And when she appears in the room, bloodied and bruised, her eyes are glazed with purposeful madness. While she attacks Roderick, attempting to choke him, a gust of wind draws fire from the fireplace, setting everything ablaze. Winthrop has to abandon his attempts to reach Madeline and to flee the house instead. As he looks back, he sees the fire consume everything and the house fall into the tarn, leaving no trace of the horrors, real or perceived, behind.
Since the original story was so vague and the filmmakers were therefore at liberty to make up whichever details they wanted, as long as they included the necessary horror elements, it is difficult to say that anything “deviated” from the original. I will only point out two curious points. First, Roderick says Madeline is extremely ill and must keep to her bed, but in the next scene, she’s all dressed up for dinner and holding up her end of the conversation. Second, Roderick repeatedly tells us how sensitive his hearing is, and how painful sounds can be, yet he displays no discomfort as the gale rages all around him at the end.
The Final Cut
So, how did “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a movie fare as a short story adaptation overall? It was certainly very visual, as a film should be, and though it tended to be a bit campy at times, it told its story shockingly well. I’d give it an A-.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.