The Price of October: The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

In 2013, a mere million years ago, Shout! Factory delivered to the world one of the most delightful October movie packages: The Vincent Price Collection, a Blu-ray set with six classics, including four from the Edgar Allan Poe/Roger Corman/AIP series. (The Haunted Palace is based on a short novel by H. P. Lovecraft, but AIP slapped the title of an obscure Poe poem onto it to make it another entry in the cycle).

Horror movie expert Brian Collins has said that if you go all of October without watching a Vincent Price movie, you’re doing it wrong. I won’t issue an absolute like that—and Collins has admitted he’s gone at least one October without Price—but it makes sense. Price as a persona matches the season: he combines sinister evil, charm, and the feeling of quality company. Halloween should feel sinister and cozy. It’s a holiday after all, meant to be fun, and Vincent Price invites us with his dulcet tones and long, gray face to enjoy ourselves for a few spooky hours and leave with good memories. 

And the best Vincent Price films for the season are the AIP-Poe films, which started with The Fall of the House of Usher. This was the first film I watched off the collection when I got it in 2013, and it was the Price film I chose this October to fill my quota.

First released as House of Usher (the print on the Blu-ray uses the longer title), this low-budget 1960 Gothic film is a major moment for US-American horror, as well as for Vincent Price, director Roger Corman, and production company American International Pictures. None were strangers to macabre cinema, but The Fall of the House of Usher brought a new era of popularity and high production values for all of them. The AIP series became the stateside version of Britain’s Hammer horrors: colorful, Gothic, lurid. It broke from the 1950s modern, SF-based approach to horror, and would remain the dominant style of the genre until the next shift occurred with Rosemary’s Baby and The Night of the Living Dead at the close of the decade.

The story “The Fall of the House of Usher” sits at the apex of Poe’s canon. It’s also the most suitable of his stories for film adaptation. In an interview, Vincent Price noted that Poe’s stories make for fantastic third acts of movies, but don’t contain enough action to cover a whole film. Feature films are narratively closer to the art of the short story than the novel, but Poe wrote with such concision—his famous “unity of effect”—that his short stories require fattening up to work as full-length movies. Or, as is sometimes the case (such as The Black Cat, both the 1934 and 1941 versions), require jettisoning the entire story and creating a new one that only makes slight references to the original.

But the film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” adheres close to the original and manages to fill eighty-two minutes of screen time without enormous additions. The chronicle of the end of Roderick Usher and his house—both in the sense of a family line and a structure—plays out the same: a visitor to the House of Usher witnesses the decline and madness of its final male member, Roderick Usher, concluding with the premature burial of Roderick’s sister Madeline, who doesn’t take kindly to getting buried alive.

Richard Matheson’s screenplay changes the unnamed visitor into Madeline’s fiancé, Philip Winthorp (Mark Damon), who has come from Boston to retrieve her. But Roderick Usher (Price) tells him to go home, insisting that he and Madeline (Myrna Fahey) are dying and they should die, because the Usher family has a history of horrible degeneracy. Winthrop stays around, resisting Roderick’s quiet raving and plotting to get his beloved to leave with. Roderick comes up with a way to keep Madeline at home, and as with Poe’s story, things just don’t go well. Life is hard when you’re crazy and your house isn’t up to building codes. Maybe the family has a curse and the house is possessed, but the movie wisely leaves this ambiguous. The house reflects the crumbling of the sanity of the Usher family, and the metaphor works whether it is natural or supernatural.

The script contains surprisingly little else than what I’ve outlined. Most of the middle has Roderick barring Winthrop from leaving with Madeline and Winthrop trying to discover the reason for Roderick’s obstinacy. There are only four characters in the cast, the fourth being the long-time family servant (Harry Ellerbe, who has a striking resemblance to Hammer character actor Michael Ripper), so events have only the narrowest options.

But it works. It shouldn’t. It should bore the hell out viewers. Yet it’s riveting, and for that we can thank a combination of Price’s performance, Richard Matheson’s literate script, and the visuals from photographer Floyd Crosby (who shot High Noon and fathered David Crosby) and set designer Daniel Haller, both of whom would continue work on the other films in the series.

Vincent Price invited us to this dance of madness, so let’s talk about him. Price was long considered, sneeringly, an actor of limited range and ability. To mainstream critics, he was nothing but a ham who played boogeymen with ironic tones in cheap movies. Guy had a gimmick and he rode it. But since his death in 1993, the cult adoration of Vincent Price has continued to grow. Appreciation for his excellent, nuanced performances in Witchfinder General and The Last Man on Earth caused a re-evaluation of his career—and yes, he emerges as a fine actor indeed and a tremendous screen presence. He could be ham when he wanted to, but always when we needed him to be a ham.

In The Fall of the House of Usher, Price is at his most subdued, although not his most subtle. Roderick Usher has a whisper-quiet madness. He speaks in even, measured tones because of his intense sensitivity to loud noises. The way this plays with the Gothic trappings is wonderful to witness, like black velvet. When Roderick has sudden explosions of anger, they truly leap out at the audience. It’s one of Price’s best performances and he maintained it was one of his personal favorites.

Price overwhelms poor heroic lead Mark Damon, who would later appear in a slew of Italian Westerns as the requisite American “star” before becoming a successful producer. Damon plays the handsome young man part we all easily ignore in these films. Jack Nicholson would emerge in some of these roles in later AIP horrors, and obviously managed better at the material—although not significantly better. There’s only so much you can do with this archetype, and that stretches back to lightweight David Manners floundering around in Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat pitted against Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The fantastic visuals of the series, which peaked with The Masque of the Red Death, are already in place. It’s astonishing how sumptuous the sets look considering the tight budget. The movie cost more than most AIP projects, but it was still a shoestring, and it goes a long way. Of special note are the matte paintings of the house exterior and the huge cracks going up the center of the house toward the ugly gray sky Poe so memorably described.

In the tradition of the Universal classics, The Fall of the House of Usher concludes in a conflagration, and it’s quite the spectacle. According to Corman’s commentary track, much of the footage came from burning down an old barn. He paid for permission to do it, although I can envision Corman finding a barn in some field and burning it down without a permit. This fiery footage would turn up again and again in these AIP pictures.

I’m never sure how much credit Corman deserves as director on these movies. Most of the films he helmed before and since feel listless and plastic, as if Corman cared more about making the budget than making a good film. But he knew how to pick fantastic collaborators, and perhaps the lusciousness of the sets and script, and the chance to do something different, inspired him here and through the rest of the series. Ultimately, I think Corman was a better producer than director. 

As much as I’m now tempted to watch The Masque of the Red Death, the finest film in the Price-Poe cycle, it has become too much the National Story of the moment for me to feel comfortable diving into it. I think I’ll head back to the Universal horrors of the 1940s.