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  • Post last modified:10/23/2023

Fall of the House of Usher: A Poe Deep Dive



Photo: Netflix

Mike Flanagan has become one of the most valuable assets in the Netflix stable. After the success of The Haunting and Midnight Mass, he announced that his next horror project would be an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe. There were those who believed that this would be a natural installment in the Haunting universe, but in an interview with the Wrap, Flanagan pointed out the obvious fact that Poe’s ”The Fall of the House of Usher” lacks ghosts. This miniseries would also differ in tone from The Haunting. Fans of the director need not fret though, they will feel right at home in this majestic, deliciously overwrought series.

Burying six children
The story begins with pharmaceuticals tycoon Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) burying his last three children, this shortly after the deaths of his first three. To his crumbling mansion he invites an old adversary, assistant U.S. Attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), who’s been trying for years to bring the Ushers to justice. Roderick tells him that he’s ready to talk – and confess.

Dupin begins to listen to a fantastical tale that begins in the 1960s with the death of Eliza (Annabeth Gish), Roderick and his twin sister Madeline’s (Mary McDonnell) religious mother. The children buried her in the garden only to witness her rise from the dead and go after the man she worked for, the CEO of the pharmaceuticals company that Roderick would one day run…

Superior examples of Gothic fiction
I remember discovering Edgar Allan Poe as a kid, borrowing collections of his short stories. I was fascinated by the chilling mystery of ”Murders in the Rue Morgue”, horrified by ”The Premature Burial” (I think I want to be cremated) and intrigued by ”The Tell-Tale Heart”. The stories he wrote, the supernatural touch of his poetry, not least ”The Raven”, are superior examples of Gothic fiction that still has us enthralled – and it serves as a perfect foundation for this deep-dive into Poe’s world.

It’s much more than a mere adaptation of the Usher story. Flanagan uses a great number of Poe’s works as inspiration for individual episodes that show us how Roderick’s adult children died; for instance, a black cat plays a crucial and cruel role in the downfall of the drug-addicted video game publisher Napoleon Usher (Rahul Kohli). There’s a certain predictability in that structure, obviously, but it’s catnip for Poe fans and the episodes also move the story forward in more subtle ways as we follow the young Roderick and Madeline in the 1970s. There lies the answer to why death is coming to the Ushers half a century later and who exactly Verna (Carla Gugino) is, the demonic creature who shows up in different guises as she guides the family members closer to the precipice.

There’s nothing subtle about it, but it’s devilishly entertaining.

Flanagan serves up a vicious, colorful and sadistic feast, full of his traditional shocks, but he also anchors the story in the here and now, letting us know that the Ushers are a stand-in for the Sackler family. There’s nothing subtle about it, but it’s devilishly entertaining and done on such a grand scale that one can’t help but think, isn’t this what they used to do in the movies in better times? From a technical standpoint, the series looks great and delivers its scares with great skill.

Greenwood and McDonnell are outstanding as a wicked pair of siblings whose ambition was always going to come back and haunt them. Flanagan regular Henry Thomas is also fun to watch as the coke-addicted son whose fate is inspired by ”The Pit and the Pendulum”… and then there’s Mark Hamill who’s a hoot as a raspy-voiced, criminally loyal fixer for the Ushers. 

The Fall of the House of Usher 2023-U.S. 493 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jamie Flanagan, Kathy Gilroy. Created by Mike Flanagan. Stories: Edgar Allan Poe. Cast: Carla Gugino (Verna), Bruce Greenwood (Roderick Usher), Mary McDonnell (Madeline Usher), Zach Gilford, Willa Fitzgerald, Henry Thomas… Mark Hamill, Annabeth Gish. 

Trivia: Originally shown in eight episodes. Co-executive produced by Flanagan, who also directed four episodes. Frank Langella was initially cast as Roderick Usher.

Last word: “My favorite way to describe it to people is like Hill House is kind of a string quartet, and Bly Manor is this delicate, kind of beautiful piece of classical piano music, and The Fall of the House of Usher is heavy metal. It’s rock ‘n’ roll.” (Flanagan, The Wrap)

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