The Art of Fear: The Fall of the House of Usher

Family portraits in The Fall of the House of Usher encapsulate the Usher’s ‘plague of evil’.

The second film for The Art of Fear is Roger Corman’s vibrant The Fall of the House of Usher or House of Usher (1960) starring the estimable Vincent Price. Like The Picture of Dorian Gray the film adapts a literary classic, Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name published in 1839. It is the first of eight movies Corman would use Poe, sometimes adding a little H.P. Lovecraft into the mix, and besides The Masque of the Red Death it is the best of the bunch. Paintings actually factor in many of the Corman/Price/Poe movies – remember the watchful painting of the ‘dead’ wife in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and the looming ancestral portrait in The Haunted Palace (1963). Considering Corman’s original A Bucket of Blood (next feature on AOF), perhaps he has an art fetish!

Background: Siblings Madeline and Roderick Usher are the two remaining members of the Usher family lineage who live in a house brought over from England centuries ago and re-built in its entirely in New England. Along with the bricks-and-mortar came with it an ugly curse that has plagued all life surrounding the home and all sanity left inside. Convinced that both he and his sister must never continue the family line with children, Roderick attempts to shield her away from her suitor, Philip Winthrop. The idea is that all the craziness will ends with them and, in a way, it sort of does as Winthrop tenaciously challenges the Usher’s eccentricities and all hell literally breaks loose.

Evil is not just a word, it’s a reality – Roderick Usher

Unlike some of the other films discussed in this series, The Fall of the House of Usher doesn’t use artwork as a narrative core. However, the presence of the familial portraits throughout the house, painted by Vincent Price’s character Roderick Usher, establish that the entire family is ever-present, always watching and influencing the living. They also account for Roderick’s obsession with his ancestors, one that consumes and debilitates him. Much like Philip, the viewer isn’t quite sure if the ‘peculiarities of temperament’ (sensitivity to light and sound along with tendencies of violent rage) is an imagined disease or legitimate. To clue us in that there is actually something to this madness, Corman punctuates the story with images of the paintings scattered throughout the house as a reminder that the evil is real.

I’ve chosen to discuss this cinematic version of the story rather than previous or later film versions because these particular paintings are crucial and a bit outlandish. Painted in real life by Burt Schoenberg, Corman dedicates an entire scene focusing on the portraits as a way in which Roderick finally explains the family curse to Philip. Executed with Price’s ability to heighten any story, and make it somewhat plausible, it’s the presence of familial portraits in The Fall of the House of Usher that adds to the belief that the house and family are bad news.

Anthony Usher – thief, usurer, merchant of flesh
Bernard Usher – swindler, forger, jewel thief, drug addict
Francis Usher – professional assassin
Vivian Usher – blackmailer, harlet, murderess, she died in the mad house
Captain David Usher – smuggler, slavetrader, mass murderer

-Roderick Usher to Philip Winthrop

The stories behind the people in the portraits solidify that the Usher ancestry haunts the house and it hints that these paintings are an extension of the dead into the realm of the living. As integral components to the architecture (it’s ultimately the house that is malevolent and the main character), they are absorbed into what Roderick calls, ‘a plague of evil’. So in the end, when a bonkers Madeline goes after Philip and Roderick (a scene with quick cuts between Madeline’s crazy eyes to the leering eyes of the portraits) and the house burns into the marshes, all evil goes down with it.

The Fall of the House of Usher uses paintings as a way to simultaneously house and explain a personal history. More than just documentation, their presence in nearly every room of the cursed Usher house make us question if there can be such a thing as a poisoned bloodline and if escape from the the sins of the father is possible.