The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)


Synopsis: Roderick Usher (Herbert Stern) is haunted by the death of his sister Madeline (Hildegarde Watson) and is convinced she still roams the grounds of his mansion. He is comforted by the arrival of A Traveller (Melville Webber), but soon even his companion’s methods of distraction begin to remind Roderick of his sister’s gruesome fate.

First of all, let me apologize for the weakness of my synopsis. This 1928 twelve-minute American production by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber is an experimental adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 eponymous short story – and even the little information I’ve given you on the “plot” is probably more than the film itself reveals. So many amazing horror films were made in the 1920s; in fact, two of my favorite films of all time, The Unknown (1927, dir. Tod Browning) and The Man Who Laughs (1928, dir. Paul Leni) are ’20s horror films. But instead of doing one of those, and gushing for pages on the exquisite performances of Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt respectively, I’ve chosen to do yet another short adaptation of 19th-century Gothic literature. What can I say, I like to be difficult.

Like Frankenstein, The Fall of the House of Usher is in the public domain and available to watch in its entirety on Internet Archive. However, unlike the previous film, I actually sat down and read the source material before watching this particular cinematic adaptation. This might, in fact, have turned out to be a mistake, as Watson and Webber’s film is so experimental and lacking in explicit exposition that it’s impossible for me to know how much of the original story I might have been able to glean from this enactment, had I not been previously exposed to the original.

Fall of the House of M.C. Escher.

I believe a few aspects – Madeline’s death, the Traveller’s arrival, Roderick’s growing madness – are portrayed clearly enough, though the reasons behind such events and their relation to one another may be a bit fuzzy. But other than that, it’s all camera tricks, baby. Objects reflected in kaleidoscopic prisms; unnerving camera rotations; repeating images of hammers, coffins, and stairs (so many stairs); onomatopoeic words spelled out and floating phantasmagorically across the screen. While the German Expressionists used such effects at opportune moments to evoke the audience’s emotions, this film takes out all those nasty logical bits in the middle and instead chooses to go with pure, undiluted, 100%-proof Symbolism. The result is a disorienting, haunting, yet highly evocative mishmash of emotions, sensations, and oblique references to Poe’s text that immerse the viewer in the essence of the story, while never even giving the slightest clue as to what the heck the story actually is.

Don’t be scared. Want the Creepy Hat-Faced Man to read you a bedtime story?

If you do know the story, this hodgepodge of sights, shapes and “visual sounds” (the spelled-out onomatopoeias) is actually a surprisingly literal translation of the tale. I don’t know how to explain that, but it is. The atmosphere is just right, and the climactic scene of the Traveller reading to Roderick and having the sounds of the story play out simultaneously in reality is clear enough to spot. (Incidentally, I was intrigued by the use of the word BEAT followed by the floating image of a heart superimposed over Madeline’s blurred body, as a bonus reference to “The Tell-Tale Heart.”) Even the ending is there, once you figure out what’s actually happening in all that haze. The only section that threw me for a loop was the very beginning, where it seems Madeline is killed at the dinner table. There isn’t any reference to poison or eating in the story, so I think this was just an added bit of symbolism thrown in for fun, or possibly as an attempt to clarify(!) the ambiguities in Poe’s text.

Junior Jumble! The filmmakers were inspired to make this movie after doing a lot of _____.

As an “experimental” film, though, I was basically unimpressed. This would have been a neat little project, had the Germans not already been doing cool stuff like this for over a decade, with the added advantage of actually working it into a coherent and compelling narrative. The film almost feels “faux-vintage,” like a modern student art film; that’s not a good thing. When it comes down to it, what I see here are a couple of independent American guys trying to copy German Expressionism and feeling really cool and “arty.” I don’t care if it was 1928 – these dudes were obviously hipsters.

So maybe experimental film just isn’t my thing. Maybe I’m not getting it. But to me, knowing this is from 1928 and knowing what came before it, there’s not much new or innovative here. How is this at all impressive when both The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, dir. Robert Wiene) and Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang) had already happened? There are many neat visuals and it’s definitely worth the mere twelve minutes of your time, but in my assessment, The Fall of the House of Usher isn’t worth half the fuss some people like to make over it.


The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) – 3.5/5 stars


5 Comments

  1. Kim (the zombie variety)

     /  October 6, 2010

    Your picture captions crack me up. Or should I say, they junior jumble me up? Yes.
    Also, would you say that this film reminds you of…STUDENT WORK? BUMBUMBUM I hope you are a Tim Gunn fan, because otherwise that was just dumb. …It might be dumb either way.

    • OF COURSE I’m a Tim Gunn fan, Kim. I’m human, aren’t I? (Aren’t I?!? I worry sometimes.)

  2. “When it comes down to it, what I see here are a couple of independent American guys trying to copy German Expressionism and feeling really cool and “arty.” I don’t care if it was 1928 – these dudes were obviously hipsters.”

    You’re my favorite person.

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