We are pleased to present noted scholar Rosemary Benton’s thoughts on Roger Corman’s House of Usher, the cinemafication of Poe’s classic about a cursed family doomed to madness through the ages. Special kudos must be awarded since Ms. Benton lives in rural New England, where the movie houses are not all air conditioned…
It’s been a particularly hot summer this year, but a deep love of movies compelled me to visit my local theater nonetheless. This time it was to enjoy a film that has been making quite a stir since it’s release in June: House of Usher.
Buzz about the movie claims that it was shot in only 15 days, and apparently a forest fire in the Hollywood Hills served as the perfect filming location for the opening shots of the movie. On the one hand, I had to wonder how good a film that was shot in such a rush could possibly be. On the other hand, Roger Corman’s dedication to effect can hardly be questioned when he drags his crew out into the ruin of a forest fire all for the glory of atmosphere. And with the positive reception that another of Mr. Corman’s recent pictures has been getting, The Little Shop of Horrors, I couldn’t justify missing out on an opportunity to see some more of his work.
What atmosphere there is in House of Usher. Silence is allowed at times, just to hear the creaking of the house in the dead of night. When music does occur strains of the orchestra’s violin section and the hypnotic vocals utilized in the film’s peaks make for a memorable score by veteran composer, Les Baxter. Music, or lack thereof, is key to what makes House of Usher so very creepy. The vocals are employed to great effect about half an hour into the movie when our protagonist wanders into the mansion’s chapel. It comes as a great relief that soothes the fear the audience was experiencing just moments before. Here is a place that, in the honeycombed labyrinth of the Usher mansion, offers comfort and protection. Then, with a cascade of violins, the scene transforms into a shock that the audience didn’t predict. It’s a turn that, in lesser films, would have been achieved only by a shot of the shocked face of the actor, followed by a quick cut to the object of the shock. Or perhaps a panning shot would shows the audience what the actor will be scared by moments before they themselves see it. In House of Usher the visuals, acting, and music all unite in many memorable moments throughout the film.
There is a distinct lack of exposition which I found to be very refreshing. The audience is allowed to draw their own conclusion on the mental states of characters, and are left on the edge of their seats wondering what twists and turns will come next. This kind of horror film could not be more anticipated given the many low grade double feature horror movies, sequels, and franchises of recent years. This glut of horror movies has shown a strain on the formula that made the careers of Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff.
Headlining actor Vincent Price’s telltale drawl, soft line delivery and affected mannerisms have type-cast him to such a point that nearly his entire early career has been built upon television spots as villainous rogues. The characters he portrayed for many years were sadly only as deep as a few establishing shots allowed. There is a renaissance afoot in Mr. Price’s career, however. Oddly enough, this maturation was brought on by a satirical horror film with the most ridiculous premise. The Tingler showed Mr. Price playing a morally ambiguous mortician/scientist who wavered on a thin line between antagonist and antihero, someone goofy yet menacing. Now, as the titular master of the Usher household, he has been given the freedom to waver between madman and protector, a person who believes so profoundly in the existence of evil that he is willing to stamp it out even at the cost of his own life and the family line. It is my firm belief that actors like him, with directors like Richard Corman, will carry horror films on to something greater.