Am I feeling strange? Now, why would you ask that?
In honor of the season and as a tip of the hat to S. J. Chambers’ ongoing articles about the first American master of horror and suspense, we’re looking at a pair of silent films based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
It was filmed twice in 1928, once by French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein and once by American experimental filmmakers James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. The American version is short, clocking in at just over 13 minutes, without any title cards to let you know what’s going on. Unless you’ve read the original Poe story upon which it is based, you’ll find it a bewildering series of dreamlike images. If you have read Poe’s original, though, you’ll find that Watson and Melville’s film nicely pantomimes the essence of the story. Never read The Fall of the House of Usher? It’s short and available online. Go read it now. I’ll wait.
Back yet? Now go download Watson and Melville’s film either from the Internet Archive or Google. See what I mean? Short and surreal but substantial, and really pretty far ahead of its time.
The French version is altogether more complicated. Watching it, especially in the present DVD release from All Day Entertainment, is a little like popping a piece of yellow candy into your mouth and discovering it’s grape-flavored. Not bad, but not at all what you expected, especially if you were expecting something Cormanesque only with title cards.
Director Jean Epstein chose to make a feature-length film (well, 63 minutes) from La Chute de la Maison Usher, and in doing so he ran up against the problem any feature director has when adapting original material that’s short: the story had to be padded out. He opted to do a sort of mashup of Usher and another Poe tale, The Oval Portrait, with just a grain or two of Ligeia. Luis Buñuel, Epstein’s assistant director, disapproved of this sort of thing and left the project. Considering the indignities wreaked on Poe’s stories by later filmmakers (Universal Studios in the 1930s comes to mind), Epstein’s Usher is really comparatively faithful to the spirit of Poe’s work.
It opens with Allan, an old friend of Roderick Usher’s, carrying his luggage across a dank and wretched autumn landscape. He has been summoned by a letter from Roderick, imploring a friendly visit because Roderick is depressed and his wife, Madeleine, has a mysterious illness. Come cheer us up! Allan does his best, but can’t get any of the local villagers to give him a ride as far as the Ushers’ place; they recoil as though he was proposing a trip to Castle Dracula. At last one local consents to drive him within sight of the house, situated in bogs, fogs and more bogs, but Allan is obliged to squelch the rest of the way by himself. He is, at least, warmly greeted by Roderick, a neurasthenic given to fixed smiles. He meets the Ushers’ single servant as well as the Doctor (who looks as though his face has been botoxed into permanent immobility) and Roderick’s sister—er, wife—Madeleine (who wanders around looking as though she’d like someone to get this leech off her neck, please…).
Now we learn that the men of the Usher family all have a hereditary kink: they are obsessed with painting portraits of their beloveds. Roderick is no exception and keeps a palette and a fan of brushes with him at all times, forcing Madeleine to sit for long intervals even though she clearly feels the life force being sucked out of her. The more lifelike the portrait becomes, eventually to the point of visibly blinking, the more waxen and aged Madeleine looks. Roderick doesn’t notice, of course, but Allan is no help either; he spends his time nearsightedly examining old books, and judging from the fact that he is shown with an ear trumpet in one scene he’s a bit deaf as well. Unlikely to hear any tormented screams echoing along midnight corridors, certainly.
Sure enough, Madeleine collapses and dies in the middle of a sitting, and Roderick and Allan only notice when they step on her corpse while backing up to admire the portrait. Now Roderick feels remorse, and carries on no end while the others in the household try to organize a funeral. And then the fun begins…
If you’re a fan of the films of Jean Cocteau, you’ll enjoy the surrealism and use of symbols in Usher, to say nothing of the dismal beauty of its images. The House itself is suitably vast and dark, dead leaves blowing along its corridors and ancient books spilling from its cupboards in heaps. Madeleine’s trailing shroud becomes a character in its own right. As the men leave the Usher family crypt, the camera cuts repeatedly to a pair of frogs mating, the male clutching the female in a death-grip. The actual Fall of the House at the end is a little disappointing, due to an unconvincing miniature and special effects, but realism doesn’t matter all that much in a Poe film, does it? It’s the mooood, which has that perfect Poe balance of creepy and dreamy. Madeleine is played by actress Marguerite Gance, wife of epic director Abel Gance whose Napoleon was rediscovered in the 1980s, and indeed Gance himself has an uncredited role in Usher. Amusingly, the cinematographer is listed as Georges Lucas.
The available print features a background score of medieval music, which perfectly fits the mood but was unexpected. No extras whatsoever. Someone with a heavy French accent reads the title cards aloud. This, to judge from other internet reviews, infuriated some viewers but didn’t bother me particularly. You can view this on the Internet Archive for free, but be advised that they have also imposed Spanish subtitles below the title cards and stuck a “retro” logo up in the left-hand corner of the screen. If you’re as neurasthenic as Roderick Usher this will probably vex you to tears, but what do you want? It’s free. Amazon formerly offered it for download rental or sale but has withdrawn it—oops—for licensing reasons. And Netflix offers the most watchable version, without the Spanish subs or irritating logo. Take your pick.
Next week, more scary silents. For now, three red roses and a snifter of brandy to the sad little man from Boston.
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. She has a killer recipe for Gingerbread Zombies.