My mate Vincent - minus umbrella festooned scarlet drink
I once, quite some years ago, had a dream about Vincent Price. As many dreams tend to be, it was a rather strange one. It took place on a warm sunny afternoon, I can remember sitting outside a pub with a drink. However it wasn’t my normal butch & manly drink of a Jack Daniels & Coke, but some cocktailed concoction with that was the most vivid crimson red in colour and filled with what seemed like a hundred multi-coloured umbrellas. Just as I was about to taste said umbrella festooned red coloured drink when who should come walking by, but Mr Vincent Price. Now apparently in this dream Mr Price and I were the best of best buddies as I shouted out “Yo, Vincent!”
“Stuey!!” was the reply as a hearty man-hug was exchanged between the two of us.
“Stuey!!” was the reply as a hearty man-hug was exchanged between the two of us.
I don’t remember much of the conversation that we had at that point (well it was many years ago) but I do remember three distinct things. Firstly, I realised that in retrospect Vincent ( I feel I can still call him that) on this warm sunny afternoon was dressed exactly as he was as Roderick from the movie ‘The Fall of The House Of Usher’ – swept back wavy blonde hair, crimson red coat etc. Secondly, I remember asking him if he knew the delicious Hammer Horror actress Madeline Smith and if he would be prepared to ‘put in a good word for me’. The good news was that he said that he did know her gorgeousness herself and that he would give her my telephone number later that day. Thirdly, we then began to sing together a verse from MacArthur park - the Richard Harris version, not the Donna Summer version, naturally…. We then exchanged another hearty manly hug and he walked off into town. The bad news was that I never heard from Maddie Smith.
Why no call, Maddie. Why?!
By this point I’m sure that you’re out there in blogland wondering why I’m blathering on again about something and nothing before getting down to the serious business of actually reviewing something. Well, at the time of the dream I was becoming seriously obsessed with classic horror – devouring from my local, and not so local video outlets all things Hammer, Universal, Amicus, Hitchcock etc etc. Yet for some reason I had yet to fully discover the series of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations and believe it or not, this dream became the catalyst for my love for a series of movies. A series which perhaps provided Corman with the greatest critical acclaim of all his cinematic works. After visiting the local library to research Vincent Price and crimson red coats ( yes kids, this was in those dim and dark pre-historic days pre-internet) I discovered that my best buddy Vincent had indeed appeared in my dream as the tragic Roderick Usher – and a journey of discovery & joy began.
So the bottom line is that when boss Andy from UKHorrorScene suggested in his usual ominous friendly way that I might review the new digitally remastered BluRay of 'Usher' produced by Arrow Films I immediately jumped at the chance. It was simply too much of temptation to revisit this 'old friend' of a movie.
The stunning limited Edition SteelBook Packaging
The Fall of The House of Usher Was the first in American director Roger Corman's series of adaptations of stories by writer Edgar Allen Poe. The series was filmed between 1959 and 1965 and consists of eight classic Poe tales: House of Usher, The Pit & The Pendulum, The Premature Burial, Tales of Terror, The Raven, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of The Red Death and finally The Tomb of Ligeia. All the films in the series featured my mate Vincent, except for The Premature Burial.
Now at this stage in proceedings I must mention one particular point - I'm not exactly a huge fan of Poe. In fact i'd go as far as saying that I don't like his works very much at all. I've always felt that as a horror nerd that I SHOULD love his work and believe me I've tried. However, try as I might to be part of the 'Poemania' that if anything, seems to have increased as the years go by, I just cannot get past his writing style. I find his style of writing is stifling and overly poetic in its phraseology which then serves t detract and distract me from the plot of the story itself. When I read Poe's work I can almost hear the words say "Look at me, look at me!, I'm so descriptive!"
Darling, there's something coming between us...
The film begins with love-struck Philip Winthrop (played by Mark Damon) who has travelled to dilapidated and isolated old mansion, The House of Usher, to visit his fiancee Madeline Usher (played by the gorgeous Myrna Fahey). Upon reaching the mansion, Philip is met by Madeline's brother, Roderick (played by you know who) who immediately makes it clear to the young romeo that he completely opposes any relationship or marriage between the young lovers. He tells Phillip that the bloodline of the Usher family is cursed for all-time, with any continuation of the bloodline only meaning further family descents into violent and agonizing madness. Naturally, the love struck romeo isn't particularly impressed with Roderick's increasing desperate warnings and refusal to even let him see Madeline. He himself becomes so desperate with the situation that he plans to elope with Miss Usher, to which she initially agrees to.
Released initially to mixed reviews, Usher has gained a reputation and following over the years of huge proportions. It is a movie that has everything for any aficionado of horror. Raging insanity, misty desolate moors, a deathly imposing old house and oozings upon oozings of splendidly colourful Gothic splendour. Whether or not Corman was directly or non-directly inspired by the lavish productions that Hammer was becoming famous for is open to question. What is not a matter of debate is that this film began a series of equally lavish productions combined with themes of tortured minds and souls all rounded off with a roll call of stellar performances from its leading character actors. They may not of out- Hammered Hammer, but they came mighty close.
Roderick and family
Of course, one cannot mention this movie without making reference to Vincent Price, who along with such luminaries as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing forms part of the three kings of classic horror. Of the five principle characters in The Fall of The House Of Usher, Price provides a performance that brilliantly conveys the tortured mind of a man who knows that he has no choice in the terrible actions he has to take. He makes Roderick a genuine figure of sympathy and empathy - Roderick is not evil, nor the villain of the piece as many people incorrectly seem to summise. We see his loving commitment to his sister and that the knowledge of what the curse will eventually of to her is slowly devouring his soul.
The performances of Damon, Farney and Harry Ellerby as the Usher's loyal manservant are less successful. It would have been difficult for anyone for any actor worth his or her salt to have matched the magnificence of Price's performance. It is Damon in particular that comes across as little more than a wooden pretty boy who never quite seems comfortable in the part of the pining lover who refuses to believe anything that he is told about the family curse. The weak link in the supporting cast could have severely detracted to the resulting movie, and perhaps this may be the reason that for some people, Corman's later movies in the Poe series such as The Masque of the Red Death, are viewed largely as superior pieces of cinema.
That crack's going to need some polyfilling…..
I mentioned a moment ago that there are five principle characters in the film. The final one isn't a human character, it is the house. Corman expertly makes the crumbling Usher mansion, along with Roderick as the main player in the piece. It is the house, not Price's character that is the real villain of the story as it guides and punishes the behaviour of it's human inhabitants.
I was genuinely taken aback by the visual restoration with the richness and texture of the colours threatening to flow effortlessly off the screen at any moment. The original set production and photography is enhanced beyond all recognition which perfectly brings to life the depth and lighting of the various scenes. The famous nightmare sequence is now a sumptuous psychedelic and Gothic delight with the blues and yellows being given a life that that completely transcends any visual experience that I've had for quite some some time.
Unlike some restorations that I've come across, the remastering doesn't detract from the original visual experience of horror that Corman and his crew were string to achieve way back in the early 1960's. The cleaned up image is now umblemished and smooth with only a few minor outline glitches along the way which are only noticeable if one is really looking for them.
The audio experience has also been restored to an exceptional level coming in at 2.0 stereo PCM - the experience is sublime. The musical score, sometimes aggressive, often melancholy together with the sound effects from the soundtrack is now something to be heard on the modern family audio systems that accompany even the basic of family entertainment systems. Perhaps the greatest joy from the audio restoration is the clarity and power of the dialogue, with Price's voice in particular not surprisingly sounding as crisp and full of emotion as he ever did.
As well as the sublime resonation of vision and audio there are a gaggle of excellent special features and extras in the BluRay release which cannot help but add to the overall experience.
The special Feature included in the Arrow video release are as follows:
-Limited Edition SteelBook Packaging
-High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM
-Original uncompressed 2.0 Mono PCM Audio
-Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
-Audio commentary with director and producer Roger Corman. This is a typically detailed and humorous commentary from Corman which provides a plethora of insights into his thinking process throughout the making of the movie - a real treat.
-Legend to Legend: An interview with director and former Corman apprentice Joe Dante
-Interview with author and Gothic horror expert Jonathan Rigby. If you like your humour filled movie anecdotes (and don't we all?) then this extra is for you.
-Fragments of the House of Usher: A Specially-commissioned video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns examining Corman’s film in relation to Poe’s story. This I loved, my only complaint is that I wish that it's running time was longer. The video cleverly combines the thoughts and observations of David Cairns which are intermixed with pieces of Poe's prose. It provides a genuinely insightful look at the themes and inferences that Corman was attempting to convey throughout the film.
-Archival interview with Vincent Price. I must a admit that I thought i had seen every interview Mr Price had made over the years, but this one was new to me. It may be short but it is a wonderful example of the charm and humour that the man had in spades - a real little gem.
-Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Tim Lucas and an extract from Vincent Price’s long out of print autobiography, illustrated with original archive stills and posters. I can only take the makers word for how good this will be as it obviously wasn't for inclusion with my preview copy.
This may not be the best of the Poe adaptations by Roger Corman, but it is still a sublime piece of filming which after the restoration is further cemented as a true great of cinematic storytelling. All too often the remastering of classic movies can leave an artificial and less than palatable result which can occasionally dilute and diminish the memories that one may originally have had when first seeing the film. This doesn't happen here, the mood and atmosphere is given a resounding amplification in this 'new version'.
This article can also be found on the most excellent of horror websites http://www.ukhorrorscene.com/the-fall-of-the-house-of-usher-1960-arrow-film-bluray-review/