#297) The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
OR “Pardon the Expressionism”
Directed by J.S. Watson Jr. and Melville Webber
Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe
Class of 2000
The Plot: Are you vaguely familiar with Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”? Great, because this movie is one loose adaptation. This silent short takes the overall themes of “Usher” and presents them in some purely visual storytelling. It’s still about Roderick Usher (Herbert Stern), his mysterious ailment, his catatonic sister Madeline (Hildegarde Watson), a visitor (Melville Webber), and a decaying manor, but all of this is conveyed using some really out-there camera effects.
Why It Matters: The NFR praises this “startlingly stylized” film, though accidentally calls it “avant-arde”. So close. There’s also an essay by silent film expert/NFR go-to Scott Simmon.
But Does It Really?: Sure, why not? I give this film a pass for its representation of its filmmakers, and a reminder that not all film adaptations of books need to follow the text too faithfully, or at all. This is a true adaptation of a story from written text into visual images. If you want Poe’s detailed, macabre text, there’s always the book. If you want a fascinating visual variation on the story’s themes, this is your movie.
Everybody Gets One: Part of the film’s unique style comes from the fact that neither of the directors were filmmakers. James Sibley Watson was a medical doctor and editor of “The Dial”; Melville Webber was an art historian. The two became friends while at Harvard, and developed a fascination of experimental films. They selected “House of Usher” as their film project because neither had read it in a long time, and therefore wouldn’t be slavish to the text.
- First thing you’ll notice about this film: no intertitles. The entire film is expressed visually. Pretty gutsy move, but they pull it off.
- Nice zig-zag optical effect. In fact, all the effects in this movie are really great. Like, surprisingly great considering this was a low-budget experimental film. Well done, everyone.
- In one of the tried-and-true Hollywood casting procedures, Madeline is played by James Watson’s wife Hildegarde.
- Are the stairs just being shot artistically or does this house have escalators?
- The only text in the film (aside from an opening shot of the book) is a series of one-word effects pertaining to Madeline in her tomb. Think ‘60s “Batman” meets alphabet soup.
- Thanks for showing up, alleged narrator character. Where the hell have you been?
- Not being familiar with the source material, I made it a point to actually read “House of Usher” prior to my viewing of this film. And thank God I did, otherwise I would have been so lost.
- Watson and Webber only made two other films, but one of them is called “Lot in Sodom”, so have fun with that.
- There have been several adaptions of “The Fall of the House of Usher” over the years, including the Roger Corman feature-length “House of Usher”, which would find its own place on the NFR. A feature-length adaptation of a short story: what could possibly go wrong?
- For those looking for a more faithful version of “Usher”, look no further than this 2012 animated version, narrated by Christopher Lee.
Further Viewing: The other 1928 “Fall of the House of Usher” silent film adaptation. A French film directed by Jean Epstein, and co-written by future director Luis Buñuel. Apparently it’s pretty great too.