He explored these diverse subjects in the first Hell's Angels biker film, The Wild Angels (1966); in an examination of segregation with an early lead role for William Shatner in The Intruder (1960); by depicting the downside of psychedelic drug culture in The Trip (1967) and the death of Hollywood and celebrity in Targets (1968). In 1970, he established his own independent film production and distribution company, New World Pictures and was responsible for a number of cult films, including Boxcar Bertha (1972), Caged Heat (1974), Death Race 2000 (1975), Piranha (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and Galaxy of Terror (1981). The 'Roger Corman Film School', as it was fondly known, gave early career breaks to the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Demme, Hellman and Dante.
Arrow Films take us back to 1960 with this month's Blu-Ray release of The Fall of the House of Usher (AKA House of Usher), the very first of the Corman-Poe adaptations. Corman's nous for low-budget film making developed in the 1950s after he took a left-turn on a career-path in industrial engineering. Trained at Stanford, Corman secured employment with U.S. Electrical Motors in Los Angeles but then realised he'd 'made a terrible mistake' and, having started the job on a Monday, quit four days later. The source of this revelation was his growing enthusiasm for theatre as he studied thermodynamics and electronics at Stanford and a yearning to work in the film industry. (1)
His first job was as a runner for Fox and after he gained access to their screenwriting department he became a reader, wading through and approving scripts producers had little time to look at. After a brief sojourn to Europe, completing post-graduate work in modern English literature at Oxford’s Balliol College, he worked briefly as a literary agent and a stagehand in television before selling his first screenplay, Highway Dragnet, to Allied Artists in 1953.
From his experience as an associate producer on the film, Corman instinctively came to understand how to make decent quality films for very little money. After a period in which he made a variety of films, including westerns and rock and roll films, car race thriller The Fast and the Furious (1956) and science fiction 'creature-features' It Conquered the World (1956) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), in 1959 he formed Filmgroup with his brother to produce and release low budget black and white double features for drive-ins on behalf of American International Pictures, Allied Artists and other distributors.
'Sam, the house is the monster'
Nicholson agreed, despite his reservations about Poe's suitability for the teen audiences most of AIP's films were aimed at. Corman rationalised that Poe had two audiences, one that respected him as a major American writer and one that simply loved to be entertained by his tales of the macabre. He hoped to transpose his adolescent love for Poe's work into a film aimed directly at a popular audience. Arkoff was more concerned that the film contained no monster or creature, an element he felt was intrinsic to the teen market, and needed further convincing. Corman reassured him, 'Sam, the house is the monster', and he was begrudgingly given the go ahead to make the film. (2)
Ironically, as the film's co-star Mark Damon recalled in his autobiography, Usher's lead actor Vincent Price was curious about a certain line in the script - 'the house lives, the house breathes' - and during the shoot asked Corman what exactly the line meant. '"It means that's the line that made them make this movie," Corman replied. Vincent nodded sagely. "I see. Well, I suppose I can breathe some life into it then."' (3)
As Corman himself noted: 'I suggested Usher to them showing them it could be a good film in the terror genre, that we could make something classic. They took their time making up their minds because it was their most expensive production and they were losing money at the time. They invested what they had left and gave me free reign.' (4) As Jonathan Rigby points out in the interview with him on this release, the market was also changing with the revival of Gothic horror spearheaded by Hammer and as a result AIP must have been aware that colour and horror were now synonymous.
That free reign included a one-and-a-half day rehearsal period, a generous 15-day shooting schedule that commenced in January 1960, a budget of between $150,000 and $270,000 (depending on which sources you read) and the assembling of a close-knit crew of collaborators, including cinematographer Floyd Crosby, production designer Daniel Haller and production manager Jack Bohrer. They would create the signature look for the majority of the Poe films. Crosby, who had worked with Flaherty and Murnau on Tabu (1931) and had shot Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), was well known for his craftsmanship and an ability to work quickly and he shot The Fall of the House of Usher in CinemaScope at the behest of AIP even though Corman felt such an 'interior' film would not be suited to the process.
Crosby and Corman first worked together on Five Guns West in 1954 and had formed an instant rapport. Wheeler Winston Dixon interviewed Corman in 1986 and the director recalled of Crosby: 'He was a rarity. He worked fast, which is important to me, and yet his stuff was always good. No matter how fast I moved, Floyd kept right up, and he could light a setup in 10–15 minutes flat, or even faster if need be, and we'd go. Plus, he knew how to set up these really complicated dolly shots quickly.' Indeed, on the commentary included with this release Corman recalled how they managed to complete the picture within the shooting schedule by planning out each day's shots the night before over a drink and a meal, happily at AIP's expense, and by returning to the set at night and working out camera moves and the need for cranes and dollies.
Arkoff and Nicholson, with Corman's support, approached Vincent Price with a three-picture deal, the first of which would be the lead, as Roderick Usher, in The Fall of the House of Usher. Price had built up a considerable reputation as a character actor, firmly establishing his screen career with Laura (1944), the notable Dragonwyck (1946) and a series of roles as villains and conmen. House of Wax (1953) proved his 'horror star' credentials which would then be exploited in The Fly (1958), its sequel The Return of the Fly (1959) and William Castle's The House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959).
He was paid $35,000 for the first two films in his AIP contract (although Arkoff claims in his autobiography it was $50,000 for Usher alone) and Price regarded the deal as an appropriate artistic opportunity: 'It was a gamble. I think there comes a time in everybody's career when you suddenly say, money isn't everything; I want to take a gamble on something I believe in.' Corman was delighted and recalled that Price provided 'exactly what I wanted and what Richard Matheson's well-crafted, literate script suggested: a man with a brilliant but tormented mind that works on a register beyond that of ordinary men and thus inspires a deeper fear.' (5)
The late Richard Matheson, a Californian writer highly regarded at the time for his novels I am Legend and The Shrinking Man and prolific author of many horror, fantasy and western short stories, adapted the 1839 tale, expanding it and making a number of changes. Poe's stories are notoriously difficult to realise on screen, depending as they do on unreliable narrators, ambiguity and atmosphere in favour of solid characterisation, and their brevity necessitate a creative approach to fill 90 minutes of screen time. The unreliable narrator of Usher - described as Roderick's 'only personal friend' - was transformed into the more commercially acceptable character of Philip Winthrop (played by wholesome teen heart throb Mark Damon) and the dynamics between him, Roderick and Roderick's cataleptic sister Madeline were also altered. Winthrop became a hero in search of his fiancée, engaged to Madeline but fighting Roderick for possession of her, and personified an aspect of the film's doomed romantic themes.
Matheson's script, originally titled The Mysterious House of Usher, had also envisaged Roderick, whom many academics suggest is a Poe self-portrait in the short story, sporting a Van Dyke beard and dark hair much as Price had originally appeared in The Song of Bernadette (1943). Matheson was rather taken aback, when he first met Price on the set, to see the actor in pale make up, sans whiskers and with dyed, white hair. This was apparently Price's own take on Roderick Usher: 'In Usher I bleached my hair white and wore pure white make up with black eyebrows. I don't think anyone had done that since Conrad Veidt - there was this whole extraordinary thing that he was ultra-sensitive to light and sound so I tried to give the impression that he'd never been exposed to the light, someone who had just bleached away.' (6)
'What Freud did consciously, Poe did unconsciously'
Matheson's changes to the relationships between Poe's narrator, Roderick and Madeline do not drastically alter the film's adherence to the story's many themes. Corman's film manages to capture much of the story's atmosphere and tension and the director's treatment of the material from a Freudian perspective is aligned particularly well with Poe's own intentions.
Corman often recalled a childhood kinship with Poe's stories and regarded the writer's use of first person narrative as a key to his psychological take on the film adaptations: 'He was one of the first subjective writers and also one of the first writers to have pierced human consciousness. What Freud did consciously, Poe did unconsciously. He literally penetrated the interior of the human spirit...[and] Poe uses a symbolism that is very close to modern psychoanalysis.' (7)
Certainly the opening of the film captures well the disintegration of the House of Usher, symbolically depicted as not only the collapse of the building and the Usher dynasty but also of Roderick's fractured mental state, through a madness passed on down the line. This insanity is symbolised by the 'two pale drops of fire' Roderick and Madeline (Myrna Fahey), a brother and sister representative of the struggle between the conscious and unconscious mind, by Roderick's dark romantic impulse and the threat to his sister from the equally romantic figure of Winthrop.
Inevitably, the film reworks the basic tenets of the Gothic genre within an American idiom where, despite the nod to the hyperbolised middle-European world of Hammer, Matheson establishes that the story takes place in Boston, New England. The unconscious is exemplified by an old house succumbing to decay, torn asunder, full of death, anxiety and family secrets, with suggestions of mental illness and incest. Haller's production design and Crosby's lush cinematography are immensely important contributions to the film's psychological undercurrents, creating a film of hyper non-realism, claustrophobia and interior narcissism perfectly in tune with Price's performance. Jonathan Malcolm Lampley notes: 'As a result of these underpinnings, House of Usher literalizes a madman's disordered psyche, twisted and distorted by his perverse simultaneous attraction and repulsion towards his own sister.' (8)
When Winthrop calls to see Madeline (the unnamed narrator visits Roderick in the short story) after a whirwind romance in Boston, his point of view establishes the house itself as a character, a tainted architecture of stairways, doors and cellars marked out by Crosby's ever-moving, restless camera, until Roderick literally pops out of the woodwork in one of Corman's many rapid moves into close up. He repeats it again with Madeline's entrance, the camera whipping suddenly to the door as she enters the room.
As Winthrop attempts to remove Madeline from the curse of the Ushers and take her back to Boston, Roderick's objections become less about her inevitable descent into madness and more fixated on his incestuous desire. The young lovers' bedroom tryst is abruptly interrupted by Corman's customary whip-pan to the bedroom door to frame Roderick eavesdropping on their plans.
The family, it seems, is tainted with other unsavoury elements and Corman's film allows them to bubble to the surface, rather like the boiling gruel cooked up by manservant Bristol (Harry Ellerbe). As Lampley rightly observes, Price's performance is the key to this, instantly capturing Roderick's waxing and waning self-control, his passions flaring only to be drowned in regret, sorrow and melancholia. His response to Madeline's charge of hatred is beautifully played. He is both lover and brother attempting to explain the extent of a 'love that makes me act as I do.'
On the other hand, Roderick's over protectiveness and jealousy may mark his fear of the unleashing of female power at the hands of the rationalist Winthrop, whom unstintingly takes Roderick to task over his abnormal reliance on the supernatural and the hereditary perversion of the Usher line to seal in Madeline's brief desire for a younger man. Winthrop's principle goal is to rescue Madeline from her brother's desires and from a house where female emancipation and sexuality is equated with madness, catalepsy and death. Even Corman saw the exploration of the Usher house as an adolescent fear-attraction to the female body: 'The deeper you go into the dark hallways, then, the deeper you are delving into, say, an adolescent boy's first sexual stirrings.' (9)
Madeline's introduction to her deceased relatives is mirrored later with Roderick's own tour of the strange paintings that decorate the hallway and their depiction, the 'savage degradations', of the family as harlots, thieves, drug addicts, murderers and assassins. Burt Shonberg's off-kilter psychedelic paintings, an artist appropriately described as 'a prospector of consciousness', fittingly capture the malignancy at the heart of the film and prefigure the psychedelic touches Corman would bring to this film, especially Winthrop's nightmare about the dead Madeline, the other Poe adaptations and the elongated LSD waking dream of The Trip (1967).
The triumph of Roderick Usher is realised after Madeline's descent into catalepsy. Convincing Winthrop she is dead, a victim of all the Usher stresses and strains, he buries her alive. Price's wonderful reactions as he notes Madeline's recovery during their prayer over her open coffin define his sensitivity as an actor to the material. The premature burial is properly confirmed once they leave the tomb for, as Corman's camera slowly advances on the name plate of her coffin, we hear her ragged breathing and a scream as the screen goes black. Again, in a departure from the Poe story, in which Roderick accidentally buries her alive, the troublesome Madeline has here been deliberately silenced by Roderick and finally embraced by the stifling confinement of the Usher dynasty.
When manservant Bristol inadvertently gives the game away by mentioning Madeline's proclivity to cataleptic trances, Winthrop batters his way into an empty coffin. During his confrontation with Roderick, Corman again drops in visual allusions to Roderick's state of mind with brief shots of the lute lying suggestively across the bed and Winthrop's sudden encounter with one of Shonberg's psychedelic turmoils on canvas. After a frustrating search for the 'dead' Madeline, Winthrop falls, out of sheer exhaustion, into a prolonged and surreal dream. Distorted visions, lurid colours and a seething cloud of vapour take Winthrop into a nightmare where funeral and marriage, death and sex, are intertwined as, surrounded by the demented Usher clan, he sees Roderick sweep Madeline from his grasp. Price offers a lascivious smile and a twinkling eye just to underline the intention.
Madeline's screams transcend dream into reality as the storm lashed Usher house erupts with the power of female revenge. 'Perhaps this storm will finish it,' offers Roderick as he confides that Madeline is still alive and scratching at the lid of her coffin. Corman underlines this with a simple but chilling shot of the chained up coffin yielding briefly to a blood covered hand. Blood becomes more significant when Winthrop finds the open coffin and follows a trail of blood, suggesting the loss of Madeline's virginity not to her lover but to her Usher bloodline. He tracks her through the house, to the circle of paintings and to a brilliantly executed encounter as her bloodied hand claws around the door he is opening and, like a defiled bride, she lunges at him. Corman intercuts her piercing eyes with those of the Usher portraits, acknowledging that the untimely burial by her perverse brother has sent her as completely mad as her relatives.
A stunning moment is her appearance before she strangles Roderick, extinguishing her father, brother and lover in one fell swoop, where she is briefly seen holding her bloodied hands in front of her face, eyes lit with insanity. No matter how hard Roderick and Winthrop have tried to control Madeline, her female monstrosity will rise to threaten and destroy the symbolic masculine order, an acting out of female revenge for the long line of Usher patriarchal failure. There's a great shot of Myrna Fahey walking directly into camera, going completely out of focus as she approaches the lens, before she polishes off Vincent Price and the entire house goes spectacularly up in flames and its remains sink into the poisoned tarn.
The closing act of the film really gives Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey some delicious material to work with, transforming them from rather drab love birds into, respectively, ferociously angry and cuckolded suitor and demented bride-to-be. Price dominates the film with a classy performance, one filled with quite subtle nuances that do challenge the received wisdom he was capable only of camp excess. He completely captures what Mark Jankovich sees as the core theme of the Corman-Poe films, of madmen 'morbidly aware of their own psychic vulnerability... [who] desire their own destruction. Products of corrupt families, they seem simply to lie in wait for the fulfilment of their worst fears, fears they will be engulfed by the past; that they will be condemned to repeat the histories of their forebears.' (10)
(1) 'Corman Speaks', interview with Bertrand Tavernier, Bernard Eisenschitz and Christopher Wicking in Roger Corman Interviews, edited by Constantine Nasr
(2) Tom Weaver interview with Corman in Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers
(3) Mark Damon and Linda Schreyer, From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster
(4) 'Corman Speaks', interview with Bertrand Tavernier, Bernard Eisenschitz and Christopher Wicking in Roger Corman Interviews, edited by Constantine Nasr
(5) Denis Meikle, Vincent Price, The Art of Fear.
(7) 'Corman Speaks', interview with Bertrand Tavernier, Bernard Eisenschitz and Christopher Wicking in Roger Corman Interviews, edited by Constantine Nasr
(8) Jonathan Malcolm Lampley, Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price
(9) Denis Meikle, Vincent Price, The Art of Fear.
(10) Mark Jankovich, Rational Fears, American Horror in the 1950s.
About the transfer
This is a very satisfactory viewing experience in 1080p. Transferred from original film elements by MGM, the colour reproduction is particularly good and flesh tones and costumes - Mark Damon's blue coat and Vincent Price's blood red robes vividly come to mind - look rich and Winthrop's nightmare is aptly lurid with its optically manipulated shades of green, purple and blue. There is also some impressive detail in faces, costumes and set decoration too and only occasionally does the image look soft. Transitions between scenes do decrease the image quality momentarily but that's perfectly normal during original optically printed fades in and out of a scene in films of this era. It's not distracting at all. Overall, it looks sumptuous and clean with good levels of contrast and grain. The uncompressed PCM soundtrack is robust and copes extremely well with the full blown Les Baxter score, dialogue, screams, thunder and lightning.
Commentary with director and producer Roger Corman
A pleasant time is to be had in Corman's company and he discusses aspects of the production, the casting, working with Floyd Crosby and Daniel Haller and his Freudian take on the film and Poe's tale. There are brief moments of silence but this is well worth a listen.
Legend to Legend: Joe Dante (26:47)
Dante discusses the 'Roger Corman School' of film making and how he eventually worked for Corman in the 1970s, editing trailers and learning his own craft. He also provides an excellent introduction to the cycle of Poe films, complimenting Jonathan Rigby's interview with his own view of the adaptations and their place within horror cinema.
Interview with Jonathan Rigby (32:58)
An informative, erudite and detailed production history of the film, featuring plenty of illustrative clips and stills, from horror expert Rigby. He covers Corman's proposal to AIP, Price's casting, the Matheson script, the location filming and the ensemble work of Floyd Crosby and Daniel Haller. He also contextualises the film within the American Gothic tradition and gives a considered opinion of the film's triumphs and failings.
Fragments of the House of Usher (10:47)
An interesting video essay from critic and film maker David Cairns which explores the Poe story in relation to Corman's adaptation, teasing out its themes of corrupt families, incest and death.
Archival Interview with Vincent Price (11:26)
Endearing and lovely interview at Price's Malibu home, conducted in July 1986 courtesy of a French television company. This touches on many aspects of his career - contracts with Howard Hughes, working with James Whale on the ill-feted Green Hell (1940) and then the Poe films with Corman. He comes across as an utter charmer.
'The screen's foremost delineator of the Draculean!' screams the unrestored U.S. trailer about Price.
Featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
Featuring new writing on the film by author and critic Tim Lucas and an extract from Vincent Price’s long out of print autobiography, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.
The Fall of the House of Usher
American International Pictures
Cert: 15 / Released 26 August 2013
Arrow Films / Region B / Blu-ray / Feature Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / 1080p / Colour / English 2.0 Mono PCM / English SDH / Catalogue No: FCD844 / Feature Running Time: 79:19