The Fall of the House of Usher: An Ambitious and Engrossing Distillation of Poe’s Work

From what I’ve seen of Mike Flanagan’s output (chiefly Doctor Sleep and The Haunting of Hill House), I’ve admired it greatly. He’s able to ground his horror in quite relatable and emotional themes. This varies from his depiction of a dysfunctional family that’s haunted by trauma in Hill House to the blurred line between Danny Torrance’s alcoholism and supernatural abilities in the Shining sequel. With his Netflix adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan has created an ambitious and engrossing distillation of Poe’s work.

The eight-episode miniseries tells the story of Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood). He’s the CEO of a major Pharmaceutical company called Fortunato, which specializes in an addictive painkiller called Ligadone. The story is told over two timelines. The first is set in the present day, showing the elder Usher confessing to his failures and crimes to C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lummly) within his dilapidated childhood home. The second takes place between the period of 1953-1980, in which a younger Roderick (Zach Gilford) and his twin sister Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald) attempt to seize control of the Fortunato company.

Rather than solely adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story, Flanagan uses it as a jumping-off point to create an all-encompassing series that adapts numerous Poe stories and poems. Many of the episode titles are named after tales and verses within the Poe canon. Some of these episodes result in compelling adaptations in their own right. The most notable is an episode that adapts “The Black Cat,” in which the showrunner takes Poe’s tale about the ills of alcoholism and turns it into a potent and paranoid chamber piece about the dangers of substance abuse. At the same time, Flanagan takes aspects from lesser-known Poe stories and makes them large fixtures of the series. The most notable being Fortunato.

The name comes from a short story entitled “The Cask of Amontillado.” It’s about a nobleman called Montresor who lures a rival noble, Fortunato, to his death. Aside from staging a similar death sequence (including use of the Amontilado wine in question), the name is a lightning rod for the central theme of the series.

Verna and a younger Madeline Usher size each other up in a flashback sequence.

For the Usher twins, Fortunato is a birthright that has to be reclaimed after their (strongly implied) father denies any accountability or feeling towards them and their mother, Eliza (Annabeth Gish), who worked as a PA at the lower end of the company. But the company itself is a stand-in for the personal and societal destruction of capitalism. Despite a chance to pivot the company into a more chartable and philanthropic direction, it’s instead used as a tool to ensure that the Usher family is beyond reproach and accountability. In fact, some of the show’s most satisfying moments are the subtle moments where Rodrick echoes similar lines and actions from the people he has taken down (one example is showing off how expensive a drink is compared with a person’s annual salary).

In this way, he’s just an empty suit who perpetuates the same cycle of abuse that his father and former boss indulged in for selfish gratification. Much like the noble Fortunato in Amontilado, the company is slowly led to its death by circumstance and sickness. These dual qualities come from a deal that the Usher twins make with a mysterious barmaid, Verna (Carla Gugino). In exchange for getting away with a recent murder along with the unwavering success of Fortunato and untold levels of wealth, the Usher line (including the children) will perish. As Verna says in the final episode, “Let the next generation foot the bill.”

With this in mind, the titular Fall of the House of Usher comes from a tragic and selfish choice that favors the short-term acquisition of wealth and power over any happiness future progeny can have within a stable family unit. This idea of wealth and how it affects each of the kids is played out throughout the series. The most touching is after a rendition of “Annabel Lee“, in which Roderick’s first wife explains how the kids were left empty after Rodrick got them to gorge on their appetites (via his wealth) until they had nothing left.

This Succession-styled parenting that pits each child against each other in a Darwinian fashion is a lingering shadow that looms large over all the kids that have the Usher name. In a sense, it seals their fate and plays into their deaths. This aspect of the story is akin to the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise due to the ironic nature that graces every death (from Victorine’s delusional surgery to Fredrick’s slow, tortuous death). This aspect is also where the series visually soars with a mixture of Giallo-styled and dreamlike color palettes that vary from harsh uses of green and red.

Tamerlane Usher falls to her gruesome death (via many falling bits of shard glass).
In the show’s most effective death scene, depicting Tamerlane Usher getting cut via many self-inflicted injuries from smashing mirrors, Mike Flanagan walks a tightrope wire act of homaging Italian horror (via the lighting) and the filmmaking sensibilities of Alfred Hitchcock. The moment notably feels like a homage to Tippi Hedren being attacked by various birds during the attic scene from the British filmmaker’s 1963 film, The Birds (via a fervent and effective medium shot).

On a filmmaking level, there’s nothing in The Fall of the House of Usher that compares with the one-take family-led drama in Episode 6 of Hill House. However, it more than makes up for it in its style, that’s like a pendulum in going between Gothic horror tropes and zany Italian horror-styled uncanniness. In fact, Usher is very broad in its approach. It’s postmodern in its acknowledgment of social media and the existence of Mike Flanagan’s Netflix output. This is compounded by a barnstorming monologue from the older Roderick where he references modern celebrity culture as one of the many tools in making a billion-dollar lemon business. The series is also quite political with allusions to Trump’s infamous “Fifth Avenue” declaration and the recent Roe v. Wade issue. In a pointed and ironic moment, Verna even says that the world’s problems would go away if we stopped making films or television for an entire year.

But Flanagan’s human pathos never gets lost in the shuffle. In particular, there’s career-best work from Mark Hamill, who plays the Usher family lawyer, Arthur Penn. His monologue about leverage in the final episode is touching because it’s fundamentally about a man who acknowledges his lack of human connection throughout his long life. The long pauses and softening in Hamill’s gravelly New York accent speak volumes. Carla Gugino also gives an impressively stylized Brechtian performance, portraying the attitude of someone who is always watching and judging from afar.

Ultimately, The Fall of the House of Usher is a rewarding and enriching watch. Rather than being a grab-bag Easter Egg-laden tribute to Poe, it takes some of his themes (namely centered around frailty and madness) and filters them through a contemporary lens. Much like some Poe characters succumb to their darkness, the Usher twins end up giving in to the same demons and repeating behavior that led to their younger selves and mother being subjugated and bullied. The abyss has never seemed so ironic in gazing back.


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Written by Sartaj Singh

Notes from a distant observer:

“Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”

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