Archive for October 26, 2010

Maisonette of Usher

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on October 26, 2010 by dcairns

Simply incredible. “Loose” doesn’t describe this reworking of Poe. With its am-dram no-name cast (although leading lady Gwen Watford went on to appear in Hammer movies), library music (by DeWolfe) and semi-professional production values (good locations, a few very cheap sets) it’s a real oddity in British cinema: a 1940 1949 indie horror film.

And in a few places it’s actually scary. The madwoman, with her Halloween witch-mask face and unpleasant muttering, freaks me out. The burial alive is atmospherically done, and there are attempts at creating an audio-visual rhythm to match Poe’s idea of “totality”, where each  element compliments the rest.

Might be best watched on some illicit substance: the mixture of artistry and incompetence (especially in the script, which seems cobbled together from two entirely unrelated sources) is hard to process. The picture quality of the ripped-from-VHS copy I obtained was far from perfect: so fuzzed and dirt-speckled, it almost looked like pinscreen animation. But this may be one of the few films to really capture the deep weirdness of Poe’s narratives.

Among the unfortunate elements: we begin in a gentleman’s club, where four smug non-actors are trading inane chat about horror stories. Nothing to do with Poe, but I suspected we were about to follow the English ghost story tradition and have one character recount an eerie circumstance which had befallen him. Instead, he tells his lumpen chums that Edgar Allen Poe writes a good horror yarn. “The thing I like about them is, you’re never really sure what happened in the end. It’s all left more or less to the imagination.” He then fetches a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and the Imagination and we are plunged from this banal bookend into a narrative which initially bears no resemblance to anything in the author’s oeuvre.

Roderick Usher’s family doctor tells him that he and his sister are under a curse, and that to lift it they must destroy the still-living severed head of his mother’s lover, which is kept in a “temple” — actually a torture chamber — off in the impenetrable marshes. But the task won’t be easy, as the head is guarded by Rod’s mum, now a mute madwoman. It’s suggested that Roderick should bring along his friend Richard, the film’s nominal hero, but he doesn’t want to get him involved, so we don’t meet the protagonist until Act 3 (an unusual structural approach which typifies this film’s approach to narrative). Instead, they bring the gardener, since apparently destroying severed heads is part of his job description.

He’s just not very good at it.

The head proves to be a kabuki-mask type thing in an alcove. His makeup has been applied so heavily, he looks like a drawing. The madwoman is a mumbling hag (there’s no nice way to say that, is there?) who attacks with the strength of ten. The poor gardener gets caught in a mantrap and the doctor and Rod run off, cravenly leaving him to his fate. The poor guy’s whispers of “Keep away!” as the hag approaches with extended joke-shop hands is the best and scariest acting in the movie. (The hag, who seems never to have worked again, is very good too, with her soft little moans…)

Having gotten the help killed, our losers heroes now entirely forget about this subplot and take no further action, although the director helpfully cuts to the grinning head at the end of more or less every scene from now on. Madeleine Usher now investigates the gardener’s disappearance, although her interest him is unexplained and she never actually tries to interrogate her brother about what’s become of the poor sap. She gets chased by the hag, then the hag uses a (real, and very scary looking) underground passageway to get into the house, then suddenly Poe’s original story crashes into the initial narrative, complete with directly quoted dialogue.

Madeleine passes away (but was she drugged?) and is buried, then comes back to life. The hero (and where did YOU spring from?) attempts to calm the fraught Rod by reading a blood-and-thunder yarn, a strange choice of bedtime reading but quite faithful to Poe, where the narrator is actually as odd as everyone else. Indeed, Usher’s cry of “Madman!” seems to be an accusation with some basis, although that’s not an avenue we’re encouraged to explore here, even though the line is included. Is The Fall of the House of Usher an unreliable narrative by an insane hero? At any rate, this movie is an insane narrative by an unreliable filmmaker.

Madeleine’s entombment is shot from corpse’s POV, with coffin-lid blackout. The pounding of nails into the casket is lap-dissolved with a swinging pendulum to create a gloomy rhythm. And the reanimated Madeleine is suitably eerie, though not as impressive as Corman’s. After Usher’s death, she disappears and is replaced by the hag, implying… what?


Then animated lightning strikes and a miniature house catches light — cue interspersed burning cardboard arches and stock footage from the blitz. Cut in shot of severed head. Back to the club: everyone is baffled by this incoherent yarn. “Was she poisoned? Was she deliberately buried alive? What really happened?”

The smug storyteller looks smugger. “Your guess… is as good as mine,” he pronounces.

According to the IMDb, director/cinematographer Ivan Barnett may still be alive! If so, come forward sir and take a bow. Despite a low budget and despite/because of an incoherent script, this movie is dreamlike and peculiar, and despite the futzy quality of the copy I was watching, the cinematography was very atmospheric. With a following wind, a movie like this could have kick-started the Hammer horror industry a decade early.

Still from Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which alerted me to this weirdness.