Let me begin by warning you: this is one of Vincent Price's best! And by that I mean it will haunt you long after the viewing is over.
Somewhere in the 1800s, a young man, Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST , BLACK SABBATH, THE YOUNG, THE EVIL, AND THE SAVAGE, THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT, HANNAH, QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES), rides his steed up to a fog enshrouded mansion. The path to the house leads through a family cemetery. Phillip has never been here before, but he comes today per the appointment he is keeping with his fiance.
Phillip knocks on the door using the huge metal knocker.
When the Bristol the butler (Harry Ellerbe: THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, THE HAUNTED PALACE) answers the door, Phillip quickly learns that the man had no idea Miss Usher was engaged. He learns that she is confined to her bed and is quite sick, and that her brother has forbid any visitors. Good day!
Naturally Phillip won't tolerate that and demands to speak to the man of the house, Mr. Roderick Usher (Vincent Price: THE FLY, THE RETURN OF THE FLY, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, THE RAVEN, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN!, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS). Reluctantly Bristol lets him in.
Throughout the house there are peculiarities that are off-putting to Phillip. He is required to remove his boots and wear special shoes, for example. The emptiness of the large, unusually massive interior is also oppressive.
Roderick Usher makes his abrupt, insolent appearance: angry as a rooster in his territory. His fury flashes and his demure apologies come immediately after. He insists that Phillip leave at once without seeing Madeline Usher. Something horrible has befallen the house and Roderick is loathe for anyone else to fall under the curse.
Then Madeline (Myrna Fahey) makes her appearance. She is surprised to see Philip there and is solemnly delighted that he traveled all this way for her.
Phillip is confused. They were betrothed since college in Boston. Of course he'd come for her.
Roderick is touchingly tender toward his sister, to an almost skin crawling degree. Phillip notices but Madaline does not: This is her brother and its the only way she has ever known him. We also see that there is something about Madeline that seems ethereal. She softly returns to her bedroom alone, with Phillip remaining in the company of Roderick.
In private, Roderick lays out a veneer of the problem. The Usher family is dying, their blood, tainted.
Phillip doesn't understand so Roderick explains, Both brother and sister suffer from an ever increasing morbid acuteness of the senses.
Phillip doesn't know what to make of Roderick. Is he sick by inherited illness or suffering from fantastic self-delusion? Is Madeline truly afflicted or imprisoned by her brother's grim fantasies?
Phillip, concerned for Madeline, refuses to leave the House of Usher until Madeline leaves with him.
"I warn you sir. Whatever consequences fall upon you in the House of Usher, are yours alone."
The house creaks and cracks as if protesting Phillips' presence. From an adapted screenplay by Richard Matheson (THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, BURN, WITCH, BURN, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN , THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!, THE OMEGA MAN, THE DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, TRILOGY OF TERROR, STIR OF ECHOES, Masters of Horror: DANCE OF THE DEAD, I AM LEGEND) and in Producer and Director Roger Corman (THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, NOT OF THIS EARTH, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA)'s hands, the house becomes a living thing. Inanimate objects beyond the control of Roderick, throw themselves at Phillip.
During dinner, Roderick drinks his self-pity away and, while questioned by Phillip, Madeline silently motions her brother to remain silent and not answer.
In such a grim setting, Madeline sits alone while Roderick plays his 12 string Lute. Try as he might, Phillip is having an impossible time bringing any cheer into the house. At times it seems like Madeline controls Roderick, at others, it is Roderick who has the control. Phillip is adrift in the weirdness of it all.
The house continues to move and in doing so, begins breaking itself. Is it falling down or changing into something else?
Deeper into the night Phillip finally, secretly, makes it to Madeline's room to tell her of his love and desire to bring her away with him.
Roderick is ever present however. And it is his genuine love for her that confuses Madeline, makes her doubt her own thoughts and buy into her brother's fears.
Either that or Roderick is telling the astounding truth and there is something far worse: something Roderick cannot bear to inflict into the mind of another, that is happening here.
And Roderick may be telling the truth. Phillip can't sleep so he waits until he is sure Roderick has left, then returns to Madeline's room. But Madeline is gone, her balcony window open. The house itself seems to move to direct Phillip to where it wants him to go. Following the trail of opening doors, he eventually finds Madeline asleep in a casket.
Stunned by the morbidity of it all, he goes to touch her when Bristol the butler appears.
"You must not wake her, sir!"
Bristol explains that, ever since Madeline returned from Boston, she has taken to walking in her sleep and lying in this very casket: a family heirloom. Adult caskets are made for the children while they are young.
We soon see that the house reacts badly whenever Phillip mentions that he is taking Madeline to Boston with him.
"It's just the house settling, sir."
In getting Madeline away from the house, Phillip seems to be fighting an impossible task. The next day he attempts to take Madeline away, while her brother sleeps. But even when it is just the two of them, Madeline won't leave. She can't leave. She is about to die.
For a character who is supposed to be weak and frail with the family sickness, Vincent turned in a powerful performance. It's possible that the man knew no other way.
The lushly ornate Production design by Daniel Haller (DIE, MONSTER, DIE!, THE DUNWICH HORROR), riddled with its secret passages and hidden rooms and stairs, is as gothic as the cinema is likely ever going to get. And the look of it is enriched by the cinematography of Floyd Crosby (MAN IN THE DARK, MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR, THE SNOW CREATURE, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, THE SCREAMING SKULL, WAR OF THE SATELLITES, SHE GODS OF SHARK REEF, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, PREMATURE BURIAL, HAND OF DEATH, TALES OF TERROR, THE RAVEN, THE HAUNTED PALACE, X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS). Not even Tim Burton can be more gothic without descending into his twist of German Expressionist, rococo mockery.
Make no mistake, more than Bela Lugosi's Dracula movies, it is the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Vincent Price movies that established the enduring Westernized Goth subculture. HOUSE OF USHER cemented Price's place as a Horror cinema icon, long after his death in 1993, that continues to this day.
The always experimental music by Les Baxter (THE PHAROAH'S CURSE, VOODOO ISLAND, THE INVISIBLE BOY, THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST, MACABRE, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM,TALES OF TERROR, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!, THE RAVEN, X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLEN POE, THE DUNWICH HORROR, CRY OF THE BANSHEE, FROG, THE BEAST WITHIN, THE MACHINIST) infuses the mood of the imagery, bringing us into the feel of a period none of us have ever experienced. Screenwriter Matheson kept his adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's story as faithful as the budget (and censors of the time) would allow (it was originally rated X).
I also need to mention the SFX of colorful process photography by Larry Butler (THINGS TO COME , THE GIANT CLAW, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!), Special Effects by Pat Dinga (BRIDE OF THE MONSTER,THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, TALES OF TERROR, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!, THE RAVEN, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, THE OUTER LIMITS [TV]), and Photographic Effects by Ray Mercer (REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, SEVEN DOORS TO DEATH, THE PHANTOM OF 42ND STREET, THE MISSING CORPSE, DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, THE SKY DRAGON, THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, PANIC IN THE YEAR ZERO!). The House of Usher isn't merely a house, but a living character of the story, enshrouded by fog and a constantly shifting pattern of shadows and light that create the overall atmosphere of the tale. These three brought the visual effects to the level of modern computer graphics from over 50 years ago: Amazing achievement in retrospect!
It speaks to the quality of this movie that, even after 50 years, the DVD alone still sells for full retail and it remains one of the highest rated movies among critics and audiences alike (4.4 out of 5 stars at Amazon. 90% at Rotten Tomatoes. 7 out of 10 at IMDb.)
Finally I should mention the super creepy paintings of the family Usher by Burt Schoenberg (THE BRAIN EATERS, PREMATURE BURIAL): E-Freaking-Gad! If a group of commissioned artists painted my family portraits like that I wouldn't know whether to kick them or kiss them!
If Phillip is to save Madeline, he first has to uncover the mystery of the House of Usher. Both brother and sister are aware of it, as likely is their butler Bristol. And all are too withdrawn within the terror of their macabre existence, and too considerate, to inflict their personal Horrors onto an innocent like Phillip.
"The house itself is evil now."
But Phillip's love for Madeline means he can't leave until he discovers the cursed "Plague of Evil" that fell upon the final children of the family Usher.
Four Shriek Girls
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