When I read that Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Ouija: Origin of Evil) was planning to turn The Fall of the House of Usher into an eight-hour mini-series for Netflix I did a major double take. I’ve read the story, and I’ve seen an astounding number of takes on it, from Roger Corman’s classic to reimaginings like The Fall of Usher and Lady Usher. But there was no possible way I could see someone getting eight hours of material out of it.
And I was right, rather than an adaptation of one story The Fall of the House of Usher is an adaptation of Poe’s works en masse with Roderick (Bruce Greenwood, Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, Spectral) and his sister Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell, Battlestar Galactica, Scream 4) reinvented as heads of a Sackler like pharmaceutical empire.
The first episode, “Upon A Midnight Dreary” opens at the funeral of the last of Roderick’s children, all of whom have died within a span of weeks. That night C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, The Alphabet Killer) a government attorney who clashed with the family in court receives a call. Roderick is willing to meet with him, without his lawyer/enforcer Gordon Pym (Mark Hamill, Star Wars, Metalocalypse: Army of the Doomstar) present. The meeting is to be in what remains of Roderick’s childhood home.
What follows is an incredible tale, two tales actually, of decadence and supernatural horror, Dynasty by way of American Horror Story if you will. One is the story of Roderick and Madeline’s rise from orphaned children of the CEO of Fortunado Pharmaceuticals’ very personal secretary to the company’s immensely wealthy owners.
The other is the family’s downfall as they face Dupin in court and one by one, Roderick’s heirs meet brutal ends. This sends a family already infighting over their father’s favour and suspicions that one of them is working with Dupin into a panic. Especially as footage of an unknown woman turns up at several of the of the death scenes.
Mixed in with this is the actual telling of the tale as Roderick’s condition rapidly degenerates and he has increasingly gruesome hallucinations. Are they a combination of his mental condition and his heart condition starving his brain for oxygen? Or has whatever it was that took his children now come for him?
Mixed in with all of this is an incredible selection of references to and themes from, Poe’s work. Not just in the names of the characters or places some of which, such as a research facility named R.U.E. which due to the experiments on monkeys performed there has had Morgue informally attached to its name.
As The Fall of the House of Usher’s episodes unfold we see moments taken from The Black Cat, Hop Frog, Masque of the Red Death, The Cask of Amontillado, The Premature Burial, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Tell-Tale Heart, and several others, famous and obscure, become plot points in Usher’s story. I’m not going to spoil some major surprises by giving examples but fans of Poe, or those at least familiar with his works from literature classes, will have fun spotting them.
The other major accomplishment of The Fall of the House of Usher’s writing team is the portrayal of the Usher family and those in its orbit. There’s very little if anything, good that can be said about them. But, with a couple of exceptions, I didn’t enjoy watching them die. They’re humanized just enough that the viewer doesn’t sympathize with who or whatever is taking them down. They don’t sympathize with the victims either, but they can feel the horror of their deaths, several of which were extraordinarily brutal, that a story like this needs to work.
You can also thank the cast, which is uniformly excellent, for helping to make the story work and feel believable. There’s way too large a cast to mention them all but Bruce Greenwood does a great job as Roderick despite stepping in at the last minute to replace Frank Langella. Kyliegh Curran (Doctor Sleep, Secrets of Sulphur Springs) should be the show’s breakout actress for her role as Roderick’s granddaughter. Carla Gugino (Gunpowder Milkshake, Sucker Punch) also deserves mention for her performance as Verna.
As regular readers know, I don’t usually watch series, let alone binge them, I just don’t have the time. But I’m glad I made an exception for The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s eight hours of horror, both supernatural and human, capped off with some nightmare fuel deaths.
The first two episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher will be shown at Fantastic Fest on September 22nd and 27th, you can find details and ticket information here. The show will debut on Netflix on October 12th.