The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

How about some unlikely pairings for today's review? Director/producer extraordinaire Roger Corman is the master of the B-movie across countless genres. What author/writer do you think he used as sources for eight of his movies? It's a name I would have never thought of if you gave me a week to think about it. That writer? A mildly well-known 19th century writer by the name of Edgar Allan Poe. His short story was the inspiration for 1960's The Fall of the House of Usher.

Riding out to a worn-down mansion on desolate land in New England, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is trying to find his fiance. When he arrives at the mansion, Winthrop is met by his fiance's menacing older brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), who insists that Philip should just ride away and forget anything and everything about his fiance. He is dumbfounded at the thought and especially confused at Roderick's continuing insistence that he leave and have nothing to do with his younger sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who similarly hasn't told Philip anything about her background or what Roderick is trying to hide. After almost non-stop badgering to find out exactly what's going on, Philip finally gets the truth. The house of Usher is cursed, and it's only a matter of time before Madeline finally cracks.

I read my fair share of Edgar Allan Poe in high school in English classes, but this short story -- originally published in 1939 -- was not one of them. 'Usher' comes from American International Pictures which had previously been known for cheap, black and white flicks made for double-bills and drive-in theaters. Not anymore with some money pumped into things courtesy of change of pace movies like this. I watched it on the MGM HD channel, and my goodness, it was a good-looking movie. Filmed completely on an indoor set with a small cast, 'Usher' is a small-scale, impending doom type of story. It's all about mood and that building sense of the twist to come. So...

Yeah, it never really clicks, not for me at least. I was expecting more from a Corman film working off a screenplay from Richard Matheson with Vincent Price in the lead. It's a short movie at just 79 minutes long (some versions are slightly longer), but it feels much, much longer. Not having read Poe's short story, I can't criticize what did or didn't make the jump but for all the mood and tension building, 'Usher' is surprisingly dull. How many times can Damon's Philip ask the same questions without getting any real answers about the supposedly cursed Usher family? Maybe I was expecting a bigger, better twist when it is revealed, but nearing the hour-mark I had pretty much checked out. Winthrop arrives at the house, talks to Roderick, hangs out, has some mysterious conversations about the Usher family and its background and just persistently sticks around. Meh, I'll pass as it never really comes together.

So there is some recognizable names here with a cast that totals just four speaking parts. Vincent Price is one of the masters of the horror genre and is always a welcome addition to a cast. Here, his Roderick Usher -- rocking a platinum blonde haircut -- is far from his best work. He chews the scenery like his paycheck depended on it as his different ailments wear him down from his sensitive hearing and sense of smell to his intense dislike of being touched. It's an oddball part for sure, one I didn't quite know what to make of. A rising star who never quite became a star, Damon is more on edge here in an uncomfortable, awkward part. Maybe because we're dropped into the story with no real background, but his love for Madeline seems a little much, especially when Roderick starts spouting off about the Usher curse and all that fun stuff. You know, if curses on your wife bother you.

As the seemingly cursed Madeline, Fahey is all right but underused as a key character who just isn't on-screen enough to leave much of an impression. And because every possibly haunted mansion in the country needs a doorman and butler, Harry Ellerbe plays Bristol, the oft-maligned houseman for the Usher home, always looking worried and always trying Philip to bail.

It isn't the big twist or revelation that works in the final act here in 'Usher.' It's more of a surprise that Price's Roderick has for Philip. The reveal of that surprise does work, but it gets lost late as some supernatural family hijinks take over. A disappointment overall. I'm not a huge horror fan, but this one sure sounded like it had some potential only to fall short in the end.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960): * 1/2 /****

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