Back in the 1950’s, Roger Corman was steadily directing what today would be described as black and white b-movies. Usually, two separate 10 day shoots would result in a genre based double bill playing at theatres 60 years ago. But being of an innovating mindset and a huge Poe enthusiast to boot, Corman pitched the idea of doing a single movie with a higher budget shot in colour thus projecting Poe’s words onto the silver screen. American International Pictures’ James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff’s initial reluctance gave way and the first of an unintentional series of Poe adaptations FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER was commissioned.
The story tells the period set tragic gothic tale of Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) who rides in from Boston to take the hand of his beloved Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) in marriage. But he is met by the bizarrely unreceptive butler, Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). The peculiar requests by the butler are soon explained when Winthrop meets Madeline’s brother, Roderick, played by the legendary Vincent Price.
It seems the family have a ‘morbid acuteness of the senses’ which culminates in Roderick insisting that under no circumstances can Madeline EVER leave the Usher’s house. Winthrop is naturally unmoved and matches Roderick’s resoluteness, adamant in his refusal to leave.
Although Winthrop puts Roderick’s dread filled ramblings that the Usher bloodline is ‘tainted’ down to mere insanity, some inexplicable events start to occur. First there is Madeline’s mysterious troubled demeanour. But soon Winthrop himself seems to be surrounded by spitting open fires, sturdy banisters turning to dust and plummeting candelabras! What is the real reason behind his lovers’ distressed state? And does the Usher house really have a malevolent secret after all?
SERIOUSLY – This movie is an absolute gem! Released originally in 1960 it came hot on the heels of Hammers groundbreaking ‘Dracula’ and ‘The Curse of Frankenstein.’ But Corman’s first Poe entry was a distinctly different beast. Whereas the aforementioned Hammer entries caused quite a stir at the time with its risqué depictions of flesh coupled with colour gore sequences, Cormans entry has a wonderfully measured pace which helps build a mysterious sense of dread as the narrative develops. Then there are hallucinogenic nightmare sequences (which would soon develop into the calling card of Corman / Poe entries) which also gave AIP’s picture a hugely unique feel and set it apart from its British contemporaries
Corman’s direction perfectly mixes roving camera work and quick inter-cuts to compliment the engrossing dialogue sequences. Price, as you would expect, is absorbing throughout especially as he delivers Richard Mathersons’ excellent script. The picture is steeped in atmosphere due to the meld of lavish visuals and haunting yet dramatic soundtrack provided by the much underrated Les Baxter.
Due to the picture being filmed in Cinemascope (a method usually utilized in outdoor sets) meant it gave Corman’s regular cinematographer, Floyd Crosby, a chance to exhibit his skills. Now presented uncut in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, transferred from original film elements, Corman’s classic gothic horror looks positively sumptuous on this distinguished Blu ray disc. The smattering of reds velvets, candles and carpets in the houses interior are infused life and are generously showcased with Arrows high definition transfer. To elevate the mood of the picture, the nefarious creeping fog and eerie cobwebs that pepper the picture are gorgeously distinct.
The discs Original Uncompressed Mono PCM audio is free from any hiss and as such conveys the most delicate of clinks in the dinner scenes contrasting with the fiendish howls as it draws on.
As we have come to expect from Arrow, their disc is laden with extras. First up we have an audio commentary track by Roger Corman himself. Although this was has featured in the 2001 DVD release it really is a wonderful listen. Corman strikes a great balance when discussing historical, background and intriguing technical information while also touching on the business side of filmmaking back then. Perhaps best of all are his anecdotes about Price and just what a fantastic unit the ‘Corman Crew’ were in their heyday!
Next up in the Special Features is a 26 minute interview with an illustrious Corman protégé, director Joe Dante. Watching this segment immediately after listening to the commentary I couldn’t help but notice what a change a pace it was from Corman’s laid back intonation to Dante’s high tempo patter! But the specially made ‘Legend to Legend’ segment is a very welcome addition to the disc from High Rising Productions. Dante discusses Corman’s personal style as a director and waxes lyrical about the esteemed directors’ transition from black and white ‘B movies’ to the classic Poe cycle body of work. Seeing as Dante entered the movie industry by cutting trailers, he is well placed to some marvellous facts regarding the 1960’s ethos of re-editing and re-distributing poorly performing pictures to unsuspecting Grindhouse theatres!
Jonathan Rigby is next on the agenda and the very title of the Nucleus films interview is a spoiler of sorts so I will refrain from including it here! Let’s just say this 32 minute interview is brimming with encyclopaedic information about how Poe’s works made the leap from printed word to silver screen.
I personally doubt the Corman / Poe series would be so immortal if it were not for the leading man, Vincent Price. As such, a delightful and extremely rare interview, conducted by French director and producer Claude Ventura is included. The segment runs for 11mins 26 seconds and was filmed back in 1986 in the most opposing of gothic settings – the sun drenched climbs of Malibu! At onset of the section and apology is issued (presumably by Arrow) regarding the fixed French subtitles but this is hardly a hindrance in my opinion to a charming addition to the disc featuring Price at his most fun loving and humble.
The penultimate extra is a 10 minute ‘video essay’ titled “Fragments of the House of Usher”. It features the poetically observed musing of filmmaker and critic, David Cairns along with excerpts of Poe’s original work. This unique and amusing portion is a somewhat eccentric addition the bonus material on offer.
Finally, we get a 2 and a half minute trailer which incidentally has the film’s original title, simply “House of Usher”
I only had a review disc to dissect but as always Arrow have offered some collectable packaging for this release. A reversible sleeve featuring Graham Humphries newly commissioned artwork also contains a collector’s booklet penned by Tim Lucas and featuring rare extracts from Vincent Prices long out of print autobiography. A limited edition steelbook package is also available while the disc is also part of Arrows’ SIX GOTHIC TALES box set.
Although as a standalone picture this would be much sought after, considering its historical value in Horror folklore, this is truly an essential purchase for lovers of vintage gothic horror with a touch of class.
Words: Marc Lissenburg