3 stars out of 4. Recommended. Essential for Vincent Price and horror fans.
Roger Corman’s House of Usher is the first in the American International series and stars Vincent Price in the role that would firmly cement him in the mind as a horror star. Persuading the producers to adapt a work by Poe must have been some undertaking. While the resulting film is obviously made on a shoestring budget, Corman doesn’t allow this to effect his direction nor the atmosphere. The house does indeed come alive as another character as the story details.
If you can allow your imagination to fill in the gaps made by the budgetary constraints, House of Usher adequately recreates the essence of Poe and actually gives a relative close approximation of the original story.
The film follows the original Poe story. An interloper arrives at the House of Usher which is surrounded by an area of extreme decay. The film gives the interloper a purpose. Phillip Winthrop has arrived to find his fiancee, Madeline Usher. Her brother Roderick, absolutely refuses their happy union, claiming that the Usher bloodline is cursed for eternity. Madeline has become ill and is essentially confined to the house. Roderick himself is unable to endure any assault to his senses and looks half dead already. Phillip refuses to leave without Madeline and repeatedly tries to take her away. Finally, Madeline dies and is interred in the family crypt below…
The photography is in CinemaScope and color, which for AIP was far beyond their limited means. Corman attempts to give the film an air of prestige with these two pricier (no pun intended) elements but the widescreen photography alienates more than it impacts. There is a certain awkward feel to the film as if at certain moments everything gets switched off and we are stuck with mere static elements. (Plus the CinemaScope process didn’t help. I’ve never seen a single film made in CinemaScope that didn’t look wrong in some way. It loses focus, places odd emphasis in composition and just looks like the early variant it was. Pit and the Pendulum was filmed only a few months later, and it’s Panavision image looks brilliant.) The use of color is well done, not overbearing but not faint like so many films produced by companies jumping to color.
With Price’s brilliant performance (as always! Did the man ever give a bad performance?) one wishes that there could be a stronger film surrounding his Roderick Usher. What happens is that Corman gets lost between faithfully following Poe and entertaining a 1960 AIP audience. This initial stumbling isn’t too detracting, and Corman fully realized his intent in later films of the Poe cycle. The difference between the AIP film and the masterful 1928 French silent version is that the earlier film runs on atmosphere alone. Either one must follow the story material exactly in order to heighten the tale visually or one must elaborate on it to such a degree that the film is free to create its own impact. House of Usher tries to have it both ways as a crowd pleaser, and a prestige film adaptation of Poe.
In any case the success of this film finally made an American competitor for Hammer films in the horror market. The lasting appeal of House of Usher led to it being selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2005.
MGM’s DVD is an early one. It is 2.35:1 anamorphic with a decent Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack. Also included is a rambling but informative commentary from Corman. It has been repackaged numerous times, but usually as a double feature with the next Poe film, Pit and the Pendulum. The print source is relatively free of damage, though there are still quite a few of marks, spots, pops, hairs, and other damage. It is also a single layer transfer from the early days of the format, so it is certainly in need of a new transfer as are all of the other films of Corman, Price and the others that were later released under the MGM “Midnite Movies” banner. I don’t think a Blu-ray of such an important film is all-that unreasonable. Since MGM has shown no real interest in ever revisiting any of these films, (and some of the transfers are very poor) imagine a Criterion Blu-ray edition of all the Corman Poe cycle and the prestige Price films; Abominable Doctor Phibes, Doctor Phibes Rises Again, Theater of Blood, Witchfinder General. That’s a thought for sore eyes.