In this striking 1960 elaboration on Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the crumbling New England mansion of the Usher family to seek out his fiancée Madeleine (Myrna Fahey) and is promptly warned by her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) against marriage because the family is cursed with ‘a history of savage degradations’ which sends them mad. When Madeleine suddenly dies, Philip goes into mourning and his intended bride is quickly interred in the family crypt. But he is unaware that Roderick has buried his catatonic sister alive…
At the end of the 1950s, rubber suit monsters were the mainstay of American horror films, while over the pond Hammer was packing cinemas with their full-blooded restaging of the Frankenstein and Dracula characters. Indie maverick Roger Corman quickly followed suit, combining America’s answer to the gothic, Edgar Allen Poe, CinemaScope and his trump card, Vincent Price.
The result was this minor masterpiece, which stays faithful to Poe as it tells the story of Roderick Usher (played by Price as a white haired, ashen faced aesthete, decked in a blood red robe) who longs for an end to his family’s curse which has impregnated the very walls of his crumbling mansion and has distorted his psyche and that of his sister – which is chillingly echoed in the line: ‘The slightest touch and we may shatter’.
Price gives an intentionally concentrated, eerie and sad turn here and lends the film a mellifluous quality that brings to life Corman’s Freudian take on Poes themes of inner corruption. It was a performance that would solidify Price’s new status as the crown prince of horror – that had kicked in while he was working on William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler – and which makes this film so chillingly memorable over half a century on.
Richard Matheson’s intelligent script is enhanced by Floyd Crosby’s atmospheric widescreen cinematography, whose psychedelic scenes tapped into the counter-culture movement of the day, while Daniel Haller makes the hired-in Universal sets look even more sumptuous. Coupled with Corman’s whip-smart direction and quick turnaround (the film was shot in 15 days), a rousing Les Baxter score and Price’s star quality, the style established here would be carried over in seven more Poe films, ending with The Tomb of Ligeia in 1964. But they would never have been made had Usher not set the box-office alight, which it did – earning in excess of $1 million back from its $250,000 budget ($50,000 of which was Price’s fee) when it went on general release in the US on 22 June 1960 following its previews on 18 June.
THE 2013 ARROW VIDEO RELEASE
In a world first back in August 2013, Arrow presented a Region B HD Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred and restored using the original film elements by MGM, original uncompressed 2.0 Mono PCM Audio and Optional SDH subtitles. Plus, the following extras which would later be included in Arrow’s now sold-out Six Gothic Tales box-set (READ ABOUT IT HERE).
• The Roger Corman audio commentary is the same as on the previous MGM DVD release, but the maestro is still a joy to listen to. (79:19)
• Legend to Legend Director Joe Dante gives his thoughts on the film and on working with Corman. (26:47)
• Gothic horror expert Jonathan Rigby provides an informative insight into the history of the film, and on Corman and Price. (32:58)
• Fragments of the House of Usher This video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns is a super little film studies analysis. I never knew the original story had gay overtones or that the film was ‘the perfect marriage of the oneric to the economic?’ (10:47)
• This French interview with Vincent Price has popped up on other DVD releases, but the transfer here is the best yet. It was shot at Price’s Malibu cottage in July 1986, the same year that he was doing The Great Mouse Detective for Disney, which was one of his last best performances. Ever the consummate raconteur, he provides the interviewer with some wonderful quotes, like the following, about why his horror films have stood the test of time. (11:26)
‘The secret of those films and why they have lasted so well is that you scream at the terror of them, but then you find yourself ridiculous for having screamed and you laugh at yourself, maybe that’s the clue to life.’
• Unrestored US trailer with the most hilarious copy writing ever: ‘The screen’s foremost delineator of the Draculean!‘ (2:30)
• Reversible sleeve on the standard release, featuring artwork by Graham Humphreys.
• Booklet featuring Tim Lucas essay, Vincent Price autobiography extract, archive stills and posters.
DID YOU KNOW?
The opening shot of Mark Damon riding towards the Usher mansion through a bleak, blackened wilderness of charred trees, ash and fog was achieved by Corman filming the sequence in the aftermath of a forest fire that had torched part of the Hollywood Hills just prior to filming.