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Old 02-19-2009, 03:50 PM
Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

As a long-time fan of Poe's works, I was very much looking forward to seeing an adaptation of this story, which is one of the eeriest, most macabre pieces that he ever wrote. It is a tale filled with mood and atmosphere that the movie manages to set up perfectly in just about every way, which makes it a terrible shame that they forgot that they were supposed to be adapting Poe's story.

This version of the classic tale has Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt) inviting his unnamed friend (Charles Lamy) to visit him at his house. Roderick is very concerned about his wife, Madeleine (Marguerite Gance) because she is very sick and the doctor (Fournez-Goffard) cannot explain why. The friend arrives and is greeted by Roderick. We are told that all male Usher's have some genetic desire to paint portraits of their wives, and Roderick is no exception. His portrait of Madeleine is displayed in the main hall, but the more he adds to the portrait the weaker his wife gets. His obsession with painting the portrait eventually leads to her death and burial, but he's not convinced that she is dead....and he's right.

It has been said that Poe's story is all about the atmosphere and its mood, which is true in part, but a large part of it that made the story so incredible was Poe's use of the man vs. nature motif. For some strange reason, the filmmakers decided to leave it almost completely out of this "adaptation."

Man vs. nature was a very common theme not just in Poe's stories, but in all of American Romanticism. Poe tended to use nature as a kind of warning against those that would transgress against it, and in the end, the character doing the transgressing would always have revenge taken on them by nature. In Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Roderick is the one who constantly does this, and in the end, pays dearly for it.

The film uses his first transgression a little bit. He ignores nature by staying cooped up in his large mansion, not wanting to see the light of day. However, the film has him go outside and greet his friend on his arrival and again when his friend goes for a walk on the grounds, but for the most part, he stays in the gloomy confines of the house.

Second, in the story, we are given a long reading list of Roderick's that tells us of his fascination with books on pseudo-science and demonism; some very unnatural subjects. All we get in the film is a brief mention of his interest in magnetism upon the death of his wife. Luckily, this didn't lead into territory already covered in another Poe story, "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."

Finally, upon the death of his sister (it was changed to his wife for this film), he almost immediately entombs her, but when he hears her trying to get out of the coffin, he does nothing to help her. In the film, Roderick doesn't want to bury her yet because he believes that she is not dead. This even leads him to request that the coffin not be nailed shut, which is done anyway at the doctor's insistence.

This all culminates at the end of the story with a terrible tempest destroying the house and claiming the life of Usher and his beloved sister, but the film has taken yet more liberties. His wife comes back to the house after being buried alive and the house is burned down by a fire started by some candles, but the destruction of the house has no purpose when the main theme of the story has been almost completely left out. The filmmakers took the title of the story much too literally. Yes, the house is destroyed at the end, but it also refers to the lineage of the Usher family. With the death of Roderick and his sister, there line is no more. They both survive the disastrous fire, thereby completely ruining Poe's warning against defying nature.

So, what happens when we ignore all the elements that they got wrong when attempting an adaptation of Poe's story? We are left with a really strange, surreal horror film that is all about its atmosphere and mood. It was no surprise to learn that the great surrealist Luis Bunuel had a hand in this as adapter and assistant director. He and director Jean Epstein manage to create amazing interiors for the house of Usher, a vast emptiness with little pieces of furniture here and there. The exteriors on the other hand and so obviously fake that it becomes laughable, though it is also obvious that they are not trying to hide this fact.

This film also had a problem with having to go to other sources to fill in the story. The beginning is far too reminiscent of Murnau's "Nosferatu" as the friend tries to arrange passage to the house of Usher, but everyone is far too frightened to drive him there. Roderick's obsession with painting Madeleine feels very out of place with it leading to her death (it was believed to be a genetic sickness among the Ushers that originally lead to her false death). It borrowed the "person becoming a portrait" from Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray." If the filmmakers wanted to make a film of Poe's story, why didn't they just stick with the original material?

In the end, this film is merely "The Fall of the House of Usher" in name only, including the characters', as it makes far too many changes to the original text and themes to be able to claim to be an adaptation of either. While the atmosphere is set perfectly, the filmmakers instead used the setting to experiment with surreal images, which, while effective at some points, don't belong under the name of "Usher." 2.5/4 stars.
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Old 02-19-2009, 09:04 PM
haha you have so many 2.5 star movies its insane.
i like a lot of them too.
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