It was 60 years ago this month that American International Pictures (AIP) released The Fall of the House of Usher (also known as just House of Usher), a film based on the classic 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, produced and directed by a low-budget B-movie specialist named Roger Corman.
Corman recruited horror and sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) to adapt the Poe tale, while also hiring Vincent Price — already established as a horror star in films like The Fly and House on Haunted Hill — for the lead role (just one of four in the film) as the tormented, doomed Roderick Usher.
“This film was a gamble for all of us and yet I was prepared to take a gamble because I believed in the works of Edgar Allan Poe,” Price told film historian David Del Valle (in the liner notes for the Shout Factory Blu-ray set The Vincent Price Collection). “I felt audiences would enjoy seeing them on the screen.”
Corman, who had produced his first film, The Monster from the Ocean Floor, in 1954 and had begun directing for AIP (then known as American Releasing Company) in 1955, had already helmed a slew of pictures in a number of different genres, including Apache Woman, Day the World Ended, It Conquered the World and many others, some for AIP and some for other companies or under his own banner.
His fast style of shooting (sometimes filming two completely different movies back to back on the same sets), uncanny eye for talent (providing future stars like Charles Bronson and Jack Nicholson with some of their earliest roles), and ability to churn out economically made genre crowd pleasers had made Corman one of the busiest filmmakers in Hollywood.
But when AIP approached him about shooting two black and white horror movies for less than $100,000 each on a 10-day shooting schedule, Corman balked. Tired with that kind of quick moviemaking, he instead proposed one movie for $200,000, shot in color on a 15-day schedule. He pitched AIP an adaptation of the Poe story and the studio said yes.
“What drew me to Fall of the House of Usher was first the macabre setting, the house itself,” Corman later told PBS’ American Masters. “Surrounded by fog, deserted…and then within the house, the relationship between Roderick Usher and his sister. The incestuous sexual/horror relationship between them, it was just a fascinating situation.”
Corman had in fact pitched the Usher mansion as the movie’s monster when AIP questioned making a horror picture without a monster in it. Matheson’s script is largely faithful to the decrepit, morbid atmosphere and main narrative beats of Poe’s story, although the nameless narrator of Poe’s tale is changed to Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), a young gentleman who has come to visit his fiancée, Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey).
Winthrop finds the house and surrounding countryside in disrepair and decay, with Madeline’s brother Roderick telling him that the family’s cursed bloodline has driven previous generations of the family to madness, even poisoning the house and the land around it.
Roderick says that the curse must end with him and his sister, the last two members of the Usher family, whose overly acute senses provide them nothing but discomfort. When Madeline falls into a cataleptic trance, Roderick convinces Winthrop that his sister has died and buries her — still alive — in the family crypt, determined to end the Usher bloodline once and for all.
Price went on a crash diet to prepare for the role of the cadaverous Roderick Usher, telling Del Valle: “I created a character that had not been seen in the cinema since the days of Conrad Veidt. He was so pale and withdrawn that the sunlight never, ever touched his flesh.”
By the time Corman filmed The Fall of the House of Usher, the American horror film itself was about to undergo a kind of generational shift. The era of the Universal monster movies was long gone, with its star players like Dracula and Frankenstein getting fresh, blood-red coats of paint from England’s Hammer Films. Creature features and more contemporary terrors like the atomic bomb had replaced old dark houses and cobwebbed crypts, while quickies such as I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and The Blob replaced the courtly protagonists of old with younger faces.
What Corman and Matheson did with the Poe story was not so much update its setting or characters, but retain the psychological complexity and underlying metaphors inherent in the author’s writing. As in the original story, much of The Fall of the House of Usher is open to interpretation: an unspeakable relationship between the Usher siblings is strongly implied — perhaps the “curse” that Roderick speaks of — while the house itself can be seen as a living entity that shares the same soul and same moral rot as the inhabitants festering within.
The mansion seems to take steps against Winthrop at first, attempting to kill him through “accidents” when he states his intention to take Madeline away. The butler (Harry Ellerbe) notes that Madeline began to appear ill, as if the life was being drained from her, after she returned home from Boston, where she met and fell for Winthrop. Returning to the malignant influence of her brother after experiencing a taste of freedom and perhaps real love is a potent metaphor for a victim of sexual abuse being forced to continue living under the same roof as her attacker.
Corman handles all this with flair and style, aided by some luscious widescreen cinematography from Floyd Crosby and the striking production design of Daniel Haller. One sequence in which Roderick recounts the entire depraved history of the Usher family, as eerily distorted portraits of his ancestors leer down upon him and Winthrop in flickering light, is nothing short of stunning. While the rest of the small cast is adequate, Price is riveting and even understated as Roderick, a man for whom the very act of existing leaves him in a world of pain.
Many viewers nowadays may think affectionately of Corman as the huckster behind cheapies like Attack of the Crab Monsters and, much later, Syfy network schlock like Sharktopus — a businessman with a camera who never met a genre he couldn’t exploit or a market whose insatiable need for content he couldn’t fill.
But his skills as a filmmaker of genuine artistry, style, and vision came to the forefront on The Fall of the House of Usher. Faithfully transferring the work of one of the great American authors to the screen, he elevated the genre and fashioned an unsettling piece of atmospheric work that helped usher in (no pun intended) a new era of sophistication for horror cinema — a decade that brought us the psychosexual terror of Psycho, The Haunting and The Innocents, the Gothic fever dreams of Mario Bava and the social commentary of Night of the Living Dead.
The film was also a box office hit for AIP, leading the studio to ask Corman for a second Poe adaptation and starting a string of eight films in total inspired by the work of Poe (and in the case of one, The Haunted Palace, based on a novella by H.P. Lovecraft).
“I myself had no plans to make a second picture,” Corman said years later on American Masters. “I simply wanted to make The Fall of the House of Usher. It was a very large success for the company I was working with and they asked me to make a second picture, and I chose The Pit and the Pendulum, so I unwittingly got into a cycle of Poe.”
Unwittingly or not, Roger Corman started a horror franchise with a minor masterpiece that is still remembered today. The House of Usher will forever loom, tall and forbidding, over the history of its genre.