Sunday, November 14, 2021

American Gothic Week: A countenance not easily to be forgotten


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Richard Matheson (based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoiler alert: you read this in 9th grade and presumably recall that the title is not metaphorical, but somehow still only moderate

There are a number of ways I could introduce the Gothic horror films of American International Pictures, briefly the dominant strain of horror cinema in the English-speaking world.  I'll probably eventually wind up going with "all of them," though perhaps the simplest way to explain what they were is by reference to the transatlantic success of Britain's Hammer Studios during the late 1950s, which had revived the Gothic mode of horror (effectively reviving horror as a genre unto itself) with a pair of remakes of Universal horror properties that, legally, Universal couldn't actually claim as its "property," namely The Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein.  Given AIP's infamy as a trend-chasing schlock factory (an institutional tendency that would only accelerate during the onrushing decade), that would probably be sufficient to explain their own turn toward Gothic horror in the first year of the 1960s.  It would not, however, come close to explaining why the AIP Gothics were so damned good.  There were (or would be) three studios that became synonymous with horror during the 60s.  AIP was one of them.  The second, Hammer, I've mentioned, and the third was Amicus Productions, which also kicked off the 60s with horror, even somewhat-Gothicky horror, with The City of the Dead (though that's technically a "Vulcan" film, and horror under the Amicus brand name wouldn't come till 1965).  Now, I have a terrible affection for Amicus, and Hammer, well, Hammer has its charms (not least history's most reliable run of mummy movies); both made undemanding pictures in their respective idiom, and while I've seen about half of Amicus's movies and nowhere near all of Hammer's prodigious output, not many seem to be bad.  Yet to compare either studio to AIP, at least in the early 60s, isn't even really a competition.

The reasons behind that only have a little to do with AIP executives James H. Nicholson and Samuel A. Zarkoff, and only because they said "yes" to one of their producers, who was also probably the best director still at the company in 1960, and who would not subsequently be surpassedthe man, the myth, the etc., the one and only Roger Corman.  But not the Corman you'd immediately think of: not the king of B-movies as the head of New World a decade down the line, nor the Corman who seems to have directed every third 50s-vintage AIP movie to pop up on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 which usually weren't quite as good as Bert I. Gordon's (though I nonetheless retain a fondness for some of them).  I don't like to think of any maker of art ever ceasing to be, at heart, an artistthere are easier and more certain ways to make money than by making moviesso don't take that the wrong way, as any kind of dismissal, even of his mercenary late period.  And even so, in 1960 Corman was still relatively young, and still had ambitions beyond optimizing any given film's ratio of violence to breasts.  His big ambition thenhis dream projectwas to tackle that promethean figure of American horror literature, Edgar Allan Poe, specifically Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher."

1957's The Undead had prefigured the prospect of a solemn, psychology-inspired horror period piece for Corman, but he'd been obliged to compromise with a rewritten (and dumber) script, and the result barely makes for a decent episode of MST3K.  But half a dozen or more films later (Corman was, let's say, prolific), he'd get his chance at a classier brand of horror than AIP had heretofore approached, so classy that the 80 minute movie he made has an overture, possibly because even at his very best Corman had a lot of the pastiche artist in him.  Nevertheless, he managed to wheedle and cajole Nicholson and Zarkoff into authorizing not only an adaptation of Poe's short story, but a budget around double that of any other AIP film to date, with comparatively luxuriant sets, CinemaScope, and even Eastmancolor.  If it didn't outright save the company, whose niche of low-budget black-and-white exploitation films was in the process of dying out, it certainly opened up a whole new chapter of their success: House of Usher (my copy, of course, says The Fall of the House of Usher, but it was distributed in America under the punchier title, and I almost prefer it) was an enormous hit for any movie in its weight-class, earning $1.4 million on an investment of barely a fifth of that.  That $300,000 was high-budget for AIP suggests the kind of movies they had been making.  But, apocryphally, fully one-sixth of that went to the man who was even more essential to AIP's newfound breakout success than Corman was: Vincent Price.

It led to a cycle of Gothics revolving around the same core group of collaborators, and most of them (indeed, while I haven't checked thoroughly and it seems unlikely, maybe all of them) were made by some combination of producer-director Corman, star Price, art director Daniel Haller, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, composer Les Baxter, and, in the third genuinely big name of the bunch, screenwriter (and novelist) Richard Matheson.  The best-remembered of the AIP Gothics credit Edgar Allan Poe, too, often taking no more than a title from Poe and proceeding from there, but frequently capturing the mood of Poe, anyway.  That's the important part, even if they needed to invent substantial incident of their own to make 80 or 90 minute narratives out of Poe's even briefer expressions of morbidity, madness, and general dysthymic unease.

They did not, however, need to do this with House of Usher, for despite all of the Poe adaptations to come, it remains unchallenged as the closest, most one-to-one translation they ever did, with the only big change being that in the film Poe's narrator gets a name, and he doesn't actually narrate, and he's also substantially more psychologically robust, in that he fails to replicate Poe's terror of Goddamn everything; but he's still the same basic guy, and fills the same functional role as in Poe's story.  The shift is that he's come out to see the Ushers' daughter to marry her, rather than see the Ushers' son to comfort him in his illness, and while that's a change that does little to alter the sad fatalism underlying the story, it provides a reason for a third character to be here at all at this particular time in the Usher family's history besides Poe's not very-well-hidden need for a protagonist, and (much more importantly) it offers House of Usher an opportunity to lash itself to a driving character conflict suitable for a feature-length film, rather than just a ten-or-so-page description of a ramshackle mansion and its inhabitants which is interrupted, suddenly, by violence, death, and disaster.

This visitor, then, is Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who came to know Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey) during her studies in Boston, where they fell in love and agreed to be wed.  Accordingly, he's come out to the Usher estate to claim his bride, taking note of the dreadful state of the surrounding swamp, as well as the dilapidation of the house itself, including an enormous fracture that streaks through its walls.  Gaining entry only with importunity, he is taken to Madeline's brother, the master of the house.  This is Roderick (Price), who emerges ruefully from his chamber as if he heard Philip coming, and despite the valet's (Harry Ellerbe's) requirement that Philip remove his clattering boots, he did hear him coming, for Roderick hears most everything in this house.  He is the victim of a profound overdevelopment of all his senses, so that anything but the mildest of stimuli causes him agony, and even the dim light and tasteless food and soft sounds of his abode seem unpleasant and painful.  Madeline, despite Roderick's opinion that she is as gravely ill as he is, seems happy to see her betrothed, but she is reluctant to go against her brother's wishes, and Roderick's sole wish is that Philip simply leave, so that he and his sister may die in peace and put an end to their family line.  He is confident that this will happen soon.

Things proceed in a somewhat repetitive fashion, though few movies as short as House of Usher could be too repetitive, and the repetition is of course part of the point, as the film cycles through scenes of Roderick ineffectually demanding that Philip leave, Philip refusing to do so unless Madeline comes with him, and Roderick grimly and morbidly attempting to explain his perspective to the young gallant.  This, after all, is what House of Usher offers above all else: the spectacle of Vincent Price in a role he sometimes called his favorite, and certainly not for no reason, allowing the very great actor's (and I would be annoyed with you if you didn't think Price was a very great actor) tendency toward the theatrical and sinister to arise naturally out of what may be the ultimate Poe character, for whom the very act of being alive is a constant source of misery.  And thus Price, with his bleached platinum blond hair, moaning softly with anger and agony, whispering Matheson's erudite dialogue that splits between bitter sarcasm and pathetic mewling, and perpetually looking on the brink of tears, as he keeps trying to make Philip understand that he wants to die and that it would be much better for the world if he did.  The incestuous subtext of the story (which is half-imagined by later critics, I think) is traded in for a textual sexual possessiveness, and the Freudianism that was read into Poe a century afterward is consciously incorporated into Corman, Matheson, and Price's rendition, which incarnates Roderick as the death drive itself.  It's not a desire for Madeline, then, but his proprietorship remains centered upon her capacity to bring another Usher into the world.  Together, they turn Roderick into a self-hating eugenicist, and a fundamentally evil man, yet he's still a figure of supreme pity, Price embodying both aspects of the character and often in the same overwrought expression, so that even at his most horrifying extremes, we believe that he believed he was trying to render a beneficence upon humanity.

It is with this that House of Usher takes what I think is its most troublesome departure from Poe's text: probably to pump up the nascent horror and the runtime alike, Price takes us on a tour of Roderick's private gallery of his own artwork, portraits of his forebears, and he details his family's abominable crimes, commingling Poe's depiction of the physical and psychological infirmities of the Usher blood, which had given the family a disproportionate share of artists and musicians, with a penchant for the rather more muscular evils of the WASPs these Ushers represent, and which are certainly more than poor Roderick could have ever been capable of.  But even here, Price manages to make the weight of historical guilt part of Roderick's own pathology, and it's a wonder of quietly florid acting as he describes each of Roderick's expressionistic portraits, decades ahead of their time (painted, in real life, by Burt Schonberg), and thereby setting the precedent of malevolent paintings being as integral to the aesthetic of Corman's Gothic horrors as shots through roaring fireplaces, or high walls ascending into obscuring gloom, and as integral as ancestral madness, big decaying houses, and diagnoses of catalepsy would prove for their narratives.

Price's vortex of madness and sadness necessarily causes the whole film to swirl helplessly around himhave you ever heard of Mark Damon? I mean, I've seen this movie several times, and I'd still answer that question "no"but these movies never absolutely required his co-stars to be better than fine, and, honestly, didn't always require them to even be fine (the next Corman Poe film would prove this conclusively).  Yet Damon is fine, essaying a credible and sympathetic young blockhead who's at a loss as to how to navigate the Ushers' world, and thus capable of little more than trying to blandly debate Roderick out of his delusions and raising his voice when Roderick parries him; as for Fahey, she doesn't get a chance to do anything till the very end, but she's much more than fine when her time comes, Madeline appearing before her brother as a vengeful fury, finally privileged by Corman as just a set of fiery, maddened eyes in an overwhelming 'Scope closeup.

All this is rather perfect for capturing the clammy dramatic stasis of the Ushers' last days, but that means the closest thing Price gets to an actual co-star must be Haller's house, a standing set that would serve AIP film after AIP film as the basis for any number of crumbling edifices.  Corman's choice to build the film principally out of long shots from ever-so-slightly inhumane angles, combined with Crosby's murky approximation of candlelight and Haller's production design, goes towards an atmosphere that is perhaps not fully faithful to Poe's outright decay, but communicates a profound indifference and neglect; this house might still be functional (Poe described something akin to a fungus-conquered trashpile), but it's suffused with a feeling of emptiness and abandonment nonetheless, even when its owners are standing in the midst of it.

In competition with the later Corman Gothics, there's a sense that they were all still working out how dark and dank they could render a theoretically-inhabitable space; yet in every frame there's something almost diseased and audibly groaning about this house, whether it's the frequency of blood red in its decor, or, more subtly, the jaundiced complexion of its walls and moldering accoutrements; it is a house that reflects its master.  Corman marinates us in the atmosphere he's created, and more importantly in the perverse vibe that Price has invited us to share.  Corman does this with something of a stately pacenot so stately as to ever feel genuinely slow, but never so fast that you forget this is based on a short storybut this allows the revelation of the full depth of Roderick's misguided, psychotic depravities, and the nearly-simultaneous fiery collapse of his mansion into the tarn, to feel like a sad and threadbare order dissolving suddenly into chaos, before vanishing into nothing.  It's surprisingly adult horror for this director of all people (though, weirdly, it was most popular of all with the kids), and it's delivered by some of the keenest horror filmmaking of its decade.  More importantly, it's delivered wrapped around the exceedingly great performance at its center.  Because it's Price we're talking about here, after all, it's a performance that never forgets to let us in on the sick fun, too; but, to an unusual extent, the camp is absent, and Price subsumes his persona almost fully into the role, refusing to ever accept that this film's villain isn't, truthfully, its tragic hero.

Score: 9/10

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