Sunday, 18 June 2017
Mystery and Imagination: The Fall of the House of Usher (Kim Mills, 1966)
When one thinks of The Fall of the House of Usher, it could take on many forms in the subjective mind. We could be thinking of Edgar Allan Poe's original 1839 masterpiece of the macabre (originally published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine - an intriguing title, but i think this periodical may have been a bit early to contain mucky pictures of ladies alas), Roger Corman's Technicolor Gothic of garish ghoulishness starring the great maven of the monstrous Vincent Price with the truncated title of House of Usher (1960), or perhaps even Steven Berkoff striding the stage of the 1974 Edinburgh Festival - his face a mask of greasepaint before a stylised castle wall whose cracks open ever wider in psychological symbolism as the sanity of the Ushers crack - in his unique theatrical interpretation.
A favourite iteration of mine, though, is the television adaptation broadcast on the UK's ITV network on the 12th of February 1966 as part of the anthology series Mystery and Imagination. Television in the 1960s was already by this point heaving with spooky series relaying stories of a spooky, spectral and supernatural bent - in addition to Rod Serling's legendary The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1965), there was Boris Karloff himself telling tales of tenebrous terror in Thriller (1960-1962), the BBC's Out of the Unknown (1965-1971) and cinema's maestro of suspense himself fronting Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) - and so Mystery and Imagination may have launched itself into a slightly saturated market of both genre television and an era where the cinema screens were regularly filled with the ghoulish delights of Hammer Films' Kensington Gore-drenched classics, as well as the period Poe pictures of Corman and many European (and even further afield) horror, science fiction and exploitation films, The new show chose to forego the modern day or futuristic settings of other series to focus upon the seminal works of the genre, with adaptations of short stories, novels and novellas by the likes of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson and - of course - Edgar Allan Poe.
The screenplay adaptation by David Campton is a 'free adaptation' of Poe's story, substituting the stead of the prose's unnamed narrator the series' stock recurring character of Richard Beckett - protagonist of Sheridan Le Fanu's story The Room in the 'Dragon Volant' from his 1872 collection that also gave the world the Sapphic vampire classic Carmilla (both stories would be adapted for the series' second season, as The Flying Dragon and Carmilla respectively, on the 5th and 12th of November 1966). Played by David Buck (Dr Syn, Alias the Scarecrow [James Neilson, 1963], The Mummy's Shroud [John Gilling, 1967]), the dashing and gentlemanly Beckett relates the story relates the story to us retrospectively as he sits ruminating regretfully by the brackish (and blackish, in Kim Mills' monochrome photography) waters of a mountain tarn about his fateful adventure at the gloomy house of Usher. We flash back to Beckett's old life amidst the dreaming spires of Oxford, a life of safe and prosaic domesticity with his fiancee Lucy (Mary Miller, remembered from my distant childhood as the characters of Lilith and Mildread from ITV's fantasy game show Knightmare [1987-88]) - a cosy book lined haven soon invaded by the tornado of wild female energy that is Madeleine Usher (Susannah York, The Killing of Sister George [Robert Aldrich, 1968], They Shoot Horses, Don't They? [Sidney Pollack, 1969], and of course Lara in Richard Donner's masterful 1978 Superman and two of its sequels), who bursts into his study on day like a crazed hurricane. "Aren't you handsome?" she coos to the befuddled Beckett, who has never seen her before in my life. "Oh. Have i done wrong? I was never taught to behave you see - my mother dies when i was born." Then she turns to the flustered academic with a coquettish smile: "Will you teach me how to behave?"
Madeleine is conveying greetings to Richard from her brother, Beckett's old school friend Roderick Usher, from whom he hasn't heard in years. "He had to return home... at the end of the Earth it seems." This golden haired whirlwind without reason sweeps Beckett away from his staid and studious existence, enticing him to visit her and Roderick's ancestral manse upon the marshy moors, followed by the spectral Shadow cast by the grotesque Tor Johnson-like hulking henchman Finn (Oliver MacGreevy). The eponymous edifice makes a stark impression - its walls carved and scrawled with the images of tortured and hanging men, and the central parquet pocked with a great gurning Sheela-Na-Gig twisting its visage into a mask of horror. This is not a happy home. The camera lingers upon the great crack rent throughout the house, cutting through the skulls and skeletons of the ceiling until we are revealed upon the master of the house, Roderick Usher himself (Denholm Elliott, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush [Richard Donner, 1968], The House That Dripped Blood [Peter Duffell, 1971], Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981]) as he covers his ears and begs for peace to descend upon his cursed house, his white-maned and aghast visage a mask of torment. Elliott's performance is, i believe, more nuanced than Vincent Price's epicene iteration of the character in Corman's picture - he conveys every second of the agony that his heightened senses convey to him. His catechism as he hears his sister's caged linnet on the other side of the house ("Now it is terrified. It chirps, feebly. It hurls itself against the bars of the cage... It breaks its wings against the bars...") and then turns down his doctor's recommended laudanum to greet his smiling sister ("Why do birds sing so? Is it because they know their lives will be so short?") is a show of the inherent insanity of the Usher brood in microcosm.
Madeleine takes Richard down, down into the depths, for a date in the tombs and vaults of the family remains beneath the lake amidst the caskets and coffins and ancient bones of her family and points out the fault in the house of Usher (the solid foundational one, as well as the moral and inbreeding one) - "When these walls split, Usher will crumble, into the lake... Nothing lasts forever. Everything dies.". York conveys Madeleine's taphophilia - or thanatophilia? - "Are you afraid of bones, Richard?" she coos, caressing a sad skellington and lamenting its lost chances of love.
"Madeleine will never marry", snaps Roderick to Richard. "Madness runs in our family. Each generation it blossoms forth - the flower of evil", conjuring the fleurs du mal of Baudelaire as he speaks of the horror that runs in the veins of the Usher line and how both he and Madeleine must be confined to the house. Summoning Lucy to the house of Usher to, if you'll pardon the phrase, 'cock-block' Richard's affections towards Madeleine, Roderick sorely underestimates his sister's psychopathy. What's that noise? "Madeleine... is taking Lucy... down to the vaults".
York's Mad Madeleine is a terrifying and stark streak of insane beauty reflected against the bleak backdrop of the scenes of torture and miserable miserichords that decorate the house, a golden angel of death bearing a blade as she prepares to stab her brother. "I know why you've come", he intones fatalistically. "Have you brought that knife for me? Do you hate me so much? Once, you loved me. We were children then." The confrontation causes Madeleine to collapse in a cataleptic conniption that Roderick passes off to Richard as death - a gambit that he hopes will cause the lovelorn suitor to leave and return to his normal life. Yet Beckett's insistence on 'doing the right thing' by remaining for the funeral leads Roderick to inhume his sleeping but still-living sister in her premature sepuchre, Finn nailing her coffin lid closed as Roderick agonises with his enhanced senses, imploring his buried alive sister to "Be still!" and crying over the "scratching... like rats in the beams".
For judgement day has come for the Ushers, as Madeleine claws her way with bloodstained fingertips and torn fingernails from her early grave, her madness inflamed by the terror of waking within her grave to avenge herself upon her sibling. As the Ushers entwine in the tombs 'neath their home - "The lake rushes in", as Roderick says. "The disease is cured. The poison stopped... I am no longer afraid. FALL!" - the great crack opens and the very House of Usher itself collapses upon itself as a grave for the living and the dead.
As Richard Beckett concludes his reminiscences by the dark tarn, he leads us out with his Springer (not Sprenger nor Kramer) -esque Final Thoughts: "Memories are all that is left to prove that they ever existed. They're a poor enough epitaph, but it's a friend's part - perhaps - to keep them fresh."
And then he tosses his final flowers into the brackish brine and we fade out from this phantasy fable on a bittersweet note. I don't think he's wrong.