The Fall of the House of Usher

In celebration of Edgar Allen Poe’s birth:

FROM The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why ; – from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least – in the circumstances then surrounding me – there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli. 

Read my ART OF FEAR essay on the Roger Corman version, House of Usher, and the role of artwork in the narrative.

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Film influences: David Noonan

In Frieze’s October 2006 Life in Film London-based artist David Noonan discusses, amongst others, two influential horror films: Susperia and Toby Dammit (which is certainly one of the most surreal and insane Poe adaptations in cinema). Noonan’s screenprints are filmic in themselves. A collage of images from movies, books, and magazines, they are haunting impressions of a scene that vibrate with a sense of performative movement. See his most recent exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles.

In Suspiria (1977), directed by Dario Argento, an American ballerina enrols in an exclusive ballet school in Germany and becomes embroiled in a witches’ coven bent on chaos and destruction. The art direction is astonishing and overshadows the acting; the film is saturated in a very unnatural palette, which heightens its sense of unreality, right down to the wallpaper designs by Escher. The baroque, flamboyant soundtrack is by the Italian Prog Rock band Goblin and is a masterpiece in itself. The murders are theatrical and balletic; the film is like a violent opera.

Federico Fellinis’ short film Toby Dammit (1968) is part of the trilogy, ‘Histoires Extraordinaire’, also known as ‘Spirits of the Dead’ after a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. The film is complete with Fellini’s trademark references, from circuses to paparazzi, stardom, kitsch and glamour. The film stars Terrence Stamp at his finest: an alcoholic, self destructive thespian lured to Rome to appear in a television show by the promise of a Ferrari – in other words a Faustian pact. Fellini conjures an extraordinary, creepy atmosphere, and Stamp’s crazed, decadent performance makes it all the more powerful.

Image: Leicester Square, 2005, Archival inkjet on paper from paper collage (not one of the more filmic works but one of my favorites)

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!

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