The Fall Of The House Of Usher

The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer

Roger Corman is an interesting director in many ways. He has made some terrible movies in his long-standing career, but every time he makes a good movie, it turns out to be a really great one. There is not much in-between in his work. When in 1960 he directed and released the low budget film "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" no one suspected what impact this atmospheric gothic horror film would have and that it would quickly put him in the annals of the horror genre. Based on a short story by Baltimore necrophobic writer, Edgar Allan Poe, "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" is a morbid tale of death and insanity, and with his film, Corman managed to epitomize Poe’s words and bring them to the screen in a truly horrific manner.

When the film opens we see a lonesome rider approach a dark mansion that is looming in the mist, surrounded by a swamp. Death is around, we can tell. The rotten tree stumps, the perfect silence in the air, the fog that is hardly moving – all omens of sinister things to come. The rider is Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) who is arriving at the family mansion of the Ushers to take his fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey) back with him to Boston. But Madeline’s brother Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) is very opposed to this relationship and tries to keep the young man away from his sister. He tells stories of sicknesses and madness that manifests itself in his family, and of a curse that has befallen the house.
A rational young man, Philip does not believe anything Roderick tells him and tries to brighten up the intimidating house – to no effect, and shortly after his arrival Madeline mysteriously passes away. After laying her body to rest in the family tomb, the devastated and mourning Philip prepares to leave the family mansion but Roderick’s behavior indicates that he is hiding something. Philip decides to find out the truth about the curse that lasts on the family. Is it really madness, or is it more?

"The Fall Of The House Of Usher" has spawned a whole series of films by Roger Corman, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, and almost in its entirety the body of work the director created during that period is without a doubt the best he ever made. Tastefully staged, highly dramatic, ghoulishly atmospheric und viscerally scary without being graphic, Corman’s Poe adaptations have become classics of the horror genre, constituting an American counterpart to the British Hammer Film productions at the time.

I always find it fascinating to watch "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" because it is a film that has been put together very carefully, which is especially surprising, given the film’s low budget of a meager $200,000. Shots are very carefully framed, the image composition is rich and visually striking, camera moves are masterfully timed and arranged, the production design is beautifully intricate and the acting is carried by some great talents. Vincent Price made the part of the morbid, slightly insane, yet extremely cultivated aristocrat so much his own that he kept playing it over and over again in practically all of Corman’s Poe adaptations. His performance in "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" clearly shows why that is, as he dominates the screen in a very understated way, luring the viewer into the mysteries he harbors, while creating a harsh exterior with the precise delivery of his lines.

MGM Home Entertainment is presenting "The Fall Of The House Of Usher" in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio, which in and by itself is a beauty to behold, since the image maintains the beautiful camera work and cinematography. The transfer is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets and boasts a very good level of detail. Sadly the film’s age is evident for a number of reasons. The print used for this DVD shows some color inconsistencies as a result of nitrate decomposition and the presentation is littered with dust marks. While it is great to get to see this film in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> version, a digital clean-up to rid the print of the distracting speckles would potentially have made this a spectacular presentation.
The colors in the movie are rich and the DVD perfectly restores the silky look of the production with deep reds and vivid hues, while always maintaining the somewhat drab look that director Roger Corman has set up to create the general atmosphere of the movie. It is a sickly look that perfectly encapsulates the film’s essence and helped define this particular feel that Corman would reuse many times after wards for his other Poe-adaptations.
Blacks are deep, creating a very dimensional picture with good shadow definition and plenty of detail. The compression is flawless, maintaining all the definition found in the transfer.

The DVD contains the movie’s original English mono audio track as well as a monaural French language track. The track is mostly free of hiss or background noise, although the limited frequency response that is evident especially in the dialogues clearly dates the film. Slight sibilance is evident in the dialogues but at the same time I was surprised how deep the audio track goes as the rumbling of the house itself creates a very powerful and emphasized bottom end. The music score also shows its limitations with a limited frequency response and average dynamic range. It is important to understand however that this sort of "vintage" sound presentation is almost essential to the credibility of films such as this one.

MGM Home Entertainment has supplied a newly recorded <$commentary,commentary track> for this DVD. Director Roger Corman delivers and engaging and insightful scene-specific <$commentary,commentary track> that is full of valuable information and great memories. He explains in detail how he was working at the time, where his focus was, how certain things were achieved, and he talks a great deal about his actors. Corman is noticeably fond of the movie – deservedly so I may add – and listening to his comments is truly a pleasure, making it a great addition to this release.

To me Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations are some of the finest and most stylish classic horror films ever made, that truly know how to create scares from within. Corman works the viewer’s imagination in a way that conjures up images that are more horrific than anything he could physically show on screen. It makes these films incredibly effective, and having the chance to now witness these beautifully gothic movies on DVD is a blessing for every true horror aficionado, and I am eagerly looking forward to DVD releases of all the other films in the series already. Give it a try. You won’t be disappointed!