Dark and stormy nights, people buried alive in vaults… Why yes, this is another Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, this time from the French Impressionists and featuring some very grim material indeed.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Before going into this, I suppose I should provide a little background on my opinion of director Jean Epstein. I purchased an entire imported box set of his work from France and… I was unmoved. (Regardless of my opinion of the films, the set itself is absolutely wonderful and put together beautifully with tinting, music and subtitles. It’s an example for us all.)
This happens to me sometimes. I know intellectually that something is being done well but I don’t feel anything on an emotional or artistic level. And not all of the films were what you could describe as “good.” (Lion of the Moguls, which was the main film of interest in the set for me, was downright terrible. But oddly enough, in a roundabout way, it did give us the restoration of Napoleon.)
So, when I planned to embrace a creepy theme for March, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit Monsieur Epstein and see if his most famous picture, an adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, was more appealing to me than I remembered.
You can read a public domain version of the original tale here but if you want a brief rundown, here it is: An unnamed narrator pays a visit to the decaying mansion of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher. Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their line and when she suddenly dies, he is inconsolable. His guest tries to distract him but during a dark and stormy night, Roderick confesses that he has heard Madeline trying to claw her way out of her coffin—he buried her alive. Madeline appears and throws herself onto her brother and he dies from the shock. The guest flees as the mansion is rent asunder.
Obviously, there is double meaning in the title with the literal and figurative houses of Usher collapsing by the end of the story. And with the creepy atmosphere and ripe subtext, it’s no wonder that it was an attractive subject for silent era filmmakers. James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber made a short version the same year that Jean Epstein (assisted for a time by Luis Buñuel) tried his hand at a feature film.
I won’t repeat the synopsis because the film follows the story with one major exception: Madeline (Marguerite Gance, married to Abel) is not Roderick’s (Jean Debucourt) sister but his wife. Further, Roderick is painting an alarmingly lifelike portrait of her. His unnamed guest (Charles Lamy) is perturbed by the atmosphere of the house but he is also enthralled with Roderick’s library and is unable to see anything past his own magnifying glass.
Madeline’s death and Roderick’s madness unfold in a series of symbolic images, diaphanous double exposures and the inclusion of symbolic elements—water for Madeline and fire for Roderick—that eventually join forces to strike down the cursed house.
Let’s start with the positives. This film contains some striking imagery, most famously Madeline’s veil trailing from the coffin as it is rowed to its final/not-so-final resting place. I also liked the incorporating of Roderick’s musical obsession as a means of coping. We see guitar strings snapping of their own accord as he imagines the sound of nails being driven into the casket.
“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.”
By the way, the last waltz of Carl Maria von Weber was not written by von Weber at all and was actually composed by Carl Gottlieb Reißiger.
Pulling this information from the heart of the original story adds flavor and interest to the picture. In contrast, the Melville and Webber version of The Fall of the House of Usher was intentionally crafted out of half-remembered details in order to capture a feeling rather than events. While I understand why this would be an attractive concept for avant-garde filmmakers, I think Epstein’s methodical approach is more successful. Nobody could craft an image of terror and the macabre like Poe and making use of his skills enrich the picture.
That’s why I find some of the changes to the tale for this adaptation to be baffling. I believe it was a big mistake to change Madeline and Roderick’s relationship from siblings to spouses. It removes the somewhat incestuous family dynamic hinted at by Poe and the family seat does not feel so hermetically sealed. I mean, some poor woman agreed to marry an Usher. How? Why? So many questions. I wonder if fear of censorship was behind this decision.
And the ending (spoiler, I guess) does not feature Madeline falling onto Roderick and literally scaring him to death. Instead, both of them escape the crumbling family manor accompanied by the narrator, which gives the title only a single meaning and removes the dramatic flourish that makes the original story so memorable. I have no issues with adaptations making changes to the original but these changes need to improve the material, question it, deepen it. This seems like a change for its own sake.
(Of course, you can interpret the final “happy” ending as the final manifestation of the madness that has gripped Roderick as we are clearly inside his head for a good portion of the film. That being said, I prefer the sharp, dramatic, merciless end of Poe’s original story.)
So, where am I with this version of The Fall of the House of Usher? Pretty much where I am with the other 1928 adaptation: I understand what they were trying to do, I appreciate the work and craft, I just can’t seem to get terribly excited about it. Or, to lift a Peter Falk line from The Princess Bride, “Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up.” I suppose I will have to turn in my silent movie fan card for this but there are bigger things to worry about these days.
The Fall of the House of Usher is definitely worth seeing and it has woven a spell over many a film critic but to me, it comes within a hair’s breadth of playing like a parody of pretentious art pictures. You may like it better and that’s fine but I remain unmoved.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Potemkine box set of Epstein’s work. It includes English subtitles and a very fine score by Stephen Horne. If you want to see it, this is the version to look for. Alas, it is a bit pricey.
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