#454) House of Usher (1960)
OR “Corn on Macabre”
Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson. Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Class of 2005
The Plot: Poe’s classic story gets the Roger Corman treatment in “House of Usher”. Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the dilapidated mansion of Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), the brother of his fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Roderick keeps his sister away from Philip, telling him of the curse of madness upon the Usher family, as well as their house. When Madeline supposedly dies shortly after an argument with Roderick, the mysteries of the house come to the forefront.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is a tribute to Roger Corman and his penchant for finding fresh talent. The write-up also highlights the Corman/Poe film series, calling them “elegant” and setting “a new standard for screen horror.”
But Does It Really?: I am all for Roger Corman being on this list. Despite his movies being remembered mostly for their cheap production value, Corman is a true original, and one of the few independent film producers to be successful amidst the Hollywood studio system. I suppose a selection from Corman’s Poe film series is a natural choice for the NFR, but I’m always a fan of putting more low-budget cult films on this list, and Corman gives you plenty of options (“The Little Shop of Horrors” comes to mind). That being said, no argument here for “House of Usher”/Roger Corman making the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Roger Corman earned an engineering degree at Stanford University, but quit his job at U.S. Electrical Motors after four days. Following his younger brother Gene (agent to such stars as Joan Crawford and Harry Belafonte), Roger went into filmmaking. Using his money from selling his screenplay “Highway Dragnet”, Corman founded his own production company and struck a deal with the American Releasing Company, later called American International Pictures. Classic Corman/AIP collaborations include “It Conquered the World”, “The Undead”, and “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent”. Many of these films were shot in a matter of days using sets and props recycled from previous movies.
Title Track: We have a title dispute! As with many Corman pictures, “House of Usher” was released under two different titles. The print I watched carried the full name “The Fall of the House of Usher”, but literally everything else I’ve read about the film carries the shorter title.
Seriously, Oscars?: This will shock you, but the Oscars never embraced the low-budget world of Roger Corman. As for the man himself, see “Legacy” below.
- Despite his good working relationship with American International, Corman grew tired of making cheap movies. When approached by AIP to make two black-and-white horror films for $100,000 each on a ten day schedule, Corman countered with one color film for $200,000 on a fifteen day schedule. AIP agreed, and Corman settled on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” as it was in public domain, and therefore free to adapt.
- Even with his newly expanded budget, Corman cut costs where he could. The barren forest Winthrop rides through at the beginning of the movie is a real location in Hollywood Hills that had just been destroyed by a fire. Corman heard about the fire on the radio, and got his crew over there the next day.
- I was incredibly wary of a feature length adaptation of “House of Usher”, especially after watching the visually stunning silent film version that’s also on the Registry. For the most part, this “Usher” does alright, with most of the padding being an extension of the film’s foreboding atmosphere, as opposed to extra characters or subplots. The addition of Winthrop and Madeline being engaged is inevitable, but not farfetched or distracting.
- There is a 22 year age gap between on-screen siblings Vincent Price and Myrna Fahey. Not impossible, but were there any siblings between them? Are they cursed too?
- What does evil do to a house’s property value? Regardless, this manor is definitely what you would call a “fixer-upper” (a fixer-usher?). And the constant trembling in the house may just be from their next door neighbor Admiral Boom.
- Yes, it’s a bit morbid to have your own casket ready to go in the family crypt, but do you have any idea how expensive those are? If there’s a deal, take it.
- Vincent Price is another one of those actors who I could listen to recite anything. You can hear every consonant so clearly from Price.
- I hate to say it, but the two younger leads aren’t that great. Myrna Fahey’s film career never took off, but she had a successful run on episodic TV throughout the ’60s. And Mark Damon pivoted to producing, most notably 2003’s “Monster” with Charlize Theron.
- A dream sequence? Here’s your padding in full force.
- Hmmm…a character in a Poe story haunted by the movement of a presumed dead person: where have I seen this before?
- The film ends with another bit of Corman cost-cutting. When Corman learned of a barn in Orange County set to be demolished, he struck a deal with the owners to have it burned, and for Corman to film it. The footage was used for this film’s finale, as well as in several subsequent Corman projects.
- “House of Usher” was a hit, and Corman made seven more films for AIP based on Edgar Allan Poe stories. Highlights include “The Raven” and “The Masque of the Red Death”. “Usher” was the first collaboration between Corman and Vincent Price, who would go on to star in seven of the eight Poe films.
- Roger Corman continued to direct and produce over 400 movies in the past 60 years. Among the young up-and-coming filmmakers Corman help get started in show business are Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and Francis Ford Coppola, many of whom cast Corman in bit parts in their later big-budget movies as a thank you. In 2009, Roger Corman received an honorary Oscar “for his rich engendering of film and filmmakers”.