“THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER”: The Best Film About Meeting Your Girlfriend’s Family
Art changes. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, while ostensibly the same film it was in 1960, has become something else entirely for this viewer. Consumed as a teenager by reverence of its icons—Vincent Price and Roger Corman—USHER was not so much affecting as it simply was “essential watching.” Playing on Turner Classic, it was something that had to be seen and in turn, there was the thought that that was enough. HOUSE OF USHER didn’t properly digest. Or maybe, I didn’t know how to.
That introduction is not meant to define Scream Factory’s release of FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER in its Vincent Price Collection as now the only proper way to see the film. Although unquestionably stunning, the fact remains that Roger Corman’s first Poe adaptation, written by the esteemed Richard Matheson, is a stone-cold, enduring classic. The new Blu is wonderful, dripping in an old-fashioned gothic atmosphere. Its rich design and amazing color are visually entrancing, making it all essential. If you’ve never seen though, most options will do.
Instead, what’s changed more significantly than the presentation is me. As most dedicated to film—or any art, really—learn, the prism of life and past experience can attach or deduct meaning to and from most anything. THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER then, has become infinitely more touching and affecting than I ever thought possible.
Two synopses: A) THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, based on a short story from the great author of macabre fiction Edgar Allan Poe, finds Phillip Winthrop (Mark Damon) come to the desolate, foreboding Usher estate to meet his fiancée, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). There, he finds his betrothed sickly and faltering under the weight of her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), who believes a curse of madness and terror plagues their ancestry and will continue to do so if either are allowed to leave. B) I, in less ruffles and with hair I only wish could measure up to Damon’s, find myself utterly in love and have been for years now. The woman in question, my girlfriend, is first-generation American. Born to parents who relocated to the U.S., her family (and a community that makes up a large population of New York City) belongs to a culture fighting to maintain and uphold its identity. I enter as a man who needs a minute to remember if he’s an eighth or a sixteenth Cherokee. Subsequently, and perhaps naturally, her family disapproves.
Of course, there are myriad rom-coms directly touching upon the concept of meeting the stern, unwelcoming family of your beloved. Never having been one for the bland nature of most studio comedy—and you know, maybe in the way plenty of U.S. audiences didn’t want to see films specifically about the Iraq War—THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER has transitioned to a touchstone for myself, and what could be for many others as a definitive piece on understanding the power of another’s heritage. See, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is concerned with something a bit stronger than “I just don’t like him.” It (possibly retroactively) understands the struggle of many first generation children who are currently toeing a line between what they want, and what their families expect.
The nature of many recent rom-coms finds the hilarious folly in the disapproved attempting to impress the disapprovers. Phillip here is valiant sure, but actually fairly insignificant. HOUSE OF USHER’s power lies in empathy, both for Madeline and Roderick. Roderick is less villainous than the madness-inducing history which bears on him and his sister, personified by the house itself. When Phillip arrives at the oppresive home, he finds a Madeline of a different sort, something I’ve long noticed in my own Madeline. Phillip speaks of their time together in Boston and her immense brightness. But here, in the Usher home, Madeline cannot escape the pervading atmosphere of anxiety and dourness. It’s a melancholy that can infect my girlfriend when she’s home for too long, unable open up with those closest, those who, despite their flaws, she loves dearly.
In HOUSE OF USHER, that anxiety is an ever-narrowing one for Madeline, who is often confined to her bed. Roderick and his rhetoric are ultimately too powerful and she gives over to their worst fears. The tightening grip of the Usher family’s spirit-crushing aspersions eventually gives way to Madeline occupying the same space as their corpses. Kept in their eponymous home, the corpses, much like hulking, decaying traditions, are kept overdue in the home in fear of letting go.
Roderick however, is all along a quieter crazy, having accepted his unfortunate place in a line of unfortunate souls. “I could hear your horse approaching,” he says, describing his acuteness of sense. Playing the role in such a tender, tragic manner, Price gets to the heart and humanity of the parents—often immigrants—that staunchly ignore a wider world, not unlike how a murky swamp separates the Ushers from others. Not ignorant or out of touch, Roderick is instead sadly beholden to something. I’ve noticed from afar that my Madeline’s family is rarely celebrating the culture they feel they must continue. At weddings sure, where cultural enactment is a display that ends when the shoes are kicked off at home, but it often seems more a curse of necessity, just as Roderick is forced to carry.
When Madeline invites Phillip into the basement crypt of the Usher home, she reveals a casket with her name. Phillip, immediately accusing Roderick of such morbidity, is met with, “There’s one for him, too.” In this tragic tale, the overbearing Roderick, much like the enforcers of disappearing traditions, is as much a victim. This place, this life, is what’s expected.
The tendency of horror to externalize and present the extremity of fear is the key to the genre’s emotional impact. My worst fear, despite our longstanding couple-dom and with no indication to support it, is that my Madeline would somehow decree our challenge not worth it. Truthfully, our situation could be much, much worse, but there’s no changing that it hits her hard. In THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, Madeline Usher is driven mad, violently snapping seemingly because there was a chance of escaping. Not only is my Madeline of stronger constitution, but we exist outside of gothic horror story construct, where a house will not implode if she steps outside. Conceivably, a middle ground will be found where tradition can be shared and opened, instead of pressed down, suffocating. Thankfully.