House Of Usher

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House Of Usher (1960) is the film that began Roger Corman’s cycle of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. House Of Usher and the Poe adaptations that followed it proved so successful that Vincent Price will forever be associated with the works of Poe in much the same way that Christopher Lee will forever be Dracula and Peter Cushing Frankenstein. Corman’s Poe films were instrumental in creating a modernist visual language for the genre of Gothic horror. Like the Hammer Films in Britain, Corman’s Poe films took an established visual lexicon and transplanted it to modernist film techniques.

To this end the most impressive set piece in House Of Usher is Mark Damon’s dream sequence. This silent dream sequence finds Corman distilling the images of Gothic horror to their fundamentals. Fog, coffins, twisted faces, torch light, and long shadows populate the surreal landscape of the dream. It is a sequence that at once recalls Jean Epstein’s own masterful The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928) and predicts the ethereal beauty of Carnival Of Souls (1962). There is no other sequence as primal or as essential as this in all of Corman’s Poe adaptations.

In adapting Poe’s work, acclaimed novelist Richard Matheson was very aware of the limitations of the production. Corman made the film in just over two weeks which meant Matheson had to restrict the action in the film to interior sets. The exterior of the titular house is only glimpsed intermittently as a series of matte paintings. Fortunately, Matheson possessed a gift for narrative economy so that House Of Usher never feels unintentionally claustrophobic or abridged.

However House Of Usher is a film that belongs to its star more than its writer or director. Vincent Price solidified his status as a master of the macabre with House Of Usher. Price had been in horror films before, but none of them looked as lavish or modern as House Of Usher, nor did they afford the actor quite so juicy a part to play. Price chews up the scenery as the villain while simultaneously evoking pity for the demented sibling obsessed with the demise of his bloodline. Price is incredible in all of Corman’s Poe films, but none of them were ever so fresh and exciting as this first endeavor.