Jean Epstein’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, which played at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse with live accompaniment by the Southwell Collective (excellent — they even researched the music referred to in Poe’s story and used it as the basis of their work), was really the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe Week — that, and the Cornell Woolrich comparison. Since I’d done a Woolrich Week, a Poe Week seemed essential, and also a nice way to build up to Halloween.
Where to begin? Storywise, Epstein goes surprisingly mainstream and literal for a European, tidying up a lot of Poe’s excess and illogic. The incestuous vibes of the Roderick-Madeleine relationship obviously made somebody uncomfortable, so the Ushers are now man and wife, which makes everything dandy (so long as they aren’t still brother and sister as well — that would be worse) and their friend, the narrator of Poe’s story, is a stodgy old duffer rather than a fervid neurotic. You don’t need a Degree in Eng Lit to spot that the craziest character in the story is the storyteller, but filmmakers generally avoid this implication, preferring to set a stable frame for the narrative — as if stability were in any way part of Poe’s goal.
Fortunately, Epstein’s visual approach compensates for his narrative conventionality — the movie is almost as ideas-packed as the classic Watson & Webber short, also from 1928. The ideas are mostly visual in both films, although Epstein also has the smart idea of folding in another Poe tale, The Oval Portrait. In said story, a man paints his beloved and as he nears completion, she gets sicker and sicker. In capturing her spirit on canvas, he extinguishes her life. Rather brilliantly, the painting in this film is an empty frame with the actual actress visible through it, standing still.
(I recently acquired a large-scale 1934 student film version of THE OVAL PORTRAIT, directed by future Twilight Zone director Richard L. Bare. But it’s not very good — an attempt is made to flesh out Poe’s story with a bookend structure, but the result is almost as clumsy as the British 1948 version of USHER, and much less interesting.)
The idea of padding one Poe story by allowing it to ingest another has been a popular one: Corman’s MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH swallow up Hop-Frog, and his Black Cat episode of TALES OF TERROR consumes so much of The Cask of Amontillado that it winds up resembling the second story more closely than the third. Another Black Cat, Argento’s episode of TWO EVIL EYES, casts Harvey Keitel as a crime scene photographer, all of whose cases turn out to be drawn from Poe’s writings (Berenice, The Pit and the Pendulum…)
Epstein was a marvelously versatile filmmaker, with neo-realist, surrealist, and melodramatic tendencies, any of which could dominate utterly on any given project, or which could be allowed to battle it out with one another. USHER is naturally more in the surreal/expressionist vein, with a musty, misty, vignetted look which is far more alien and antique to modern eyes than his FINIS TERRAE, made the following year in a completely contrasting style.
Nevertheless, by whizzing the camera along at floorboard level, Epstein introduces “The Presence” that haunts THE EVIL DEAD films of Sam Raimi, and the slo-mo tumble of books from a cluttered, overflowing cupboard is a dreamlike pre-echo of Bunuel (who worked as assistant on this).