THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (2023)
Aired On: Netflix
Release Date: 10/12/23
Drama. Horror. Mystery.
"To secure their fortune (and future) two ruthless siblings build a family dynasty that begins to crumble when their heirs mysteriously die, one by one."
Fans of horror, drama, and mystery rejoice! The Fall of the House of Usher is a delicious convergence of two powerful voices: modern horror and melancholic poetic meter. It's a binge-worthy eight-episode limited series landing just in time for spooky season. This miniseries from contemporary horror maestro Mike Flanagan shrouds itself in secrecy and murder, echoing the whispered words of Edgar Allen Poe from which it is inspired. Fear, grief, guilt, and silence reverberate off the walls of the house of Usher. The wealthy patriarch of a family empire built on shrewd albeit unethical pharmaceutical business and cunning strategy recounts his past and sins as his children, his heirs, his bloodline are all systematically killed off. It is bloody, profane, scary, and beautiful.
Regarding his ending contract with Netflix, series creator Mike Flanagan has chosen his exit project wisely. The Fall of the House of Usher is a gripping denouement, a thrilling swan song that epitomizes a blaze of glory. The idea of addressing morality, indulgence, privilege, and ethics with the words from one of America's greatest poets is sublime. Flanagan has already struck gold with The Haunting of Hill House and captured lightning in a bottle with Midnight Mass. Here, in this ostensible final curtain call (at least for Netflix), he has gifted the world a masterwork in storytelling.
Drawing from the 1839 short story of the same name, The Fall of the House of Usher revolves around Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the corrupt CEO of Usher Pharmaceuticals, who looks death in the face while having a drink. He and his twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) steer the family ship with iron fists and absolute supremacy. Roderick has six children from five different women, all walking on eggshells to toe the company line. More on them later.
The problem with the Usher empire is that it is rapidly dissolving due to everyone's shrinking mortality. While sitting in his dilapidated childhood home, Roderick entertains C. Auguste Dupin, or Auggie, the Assistant U.S. Attorney, with a drink and a confession. Roderick's entire family has died under dubious circumstances, save for Roderick's sister, Madeline, his granddaughter Lenore, and Roderick himself. Auggie, whose life work has been spent in vain trying to throw the Usher family behind bars and held accountable for their illegal practices, sits and listens to what appears to be the calm ravings of a madman. As each episode unfolds, Roderick reveals a little more while we experience each family death in its haunted glory.
This series has so much, and I would love to cover every detail and nuance here now. But that would 1.) rob the experience and 2.) would take hours to read through. But I'll indulge a little.
For those who appreciate Edgar Allen Poe's literature, even on a casual level, there are a lot of visual winks to his more famous works. Each episode, save for the first one, is titled after one of the author's signature stories or poems. Classics such as The Masque of the Red Death, Black Cat, A Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, and, of course, The Raven, to name a few all get brought to life, or death, in this case. However, the Poe scholars will find a gold mine of nods and references. Flanagan and his co-writing team have carefully and cleverly sewn in names, plots, locations, and other discernible associations to the poems that served as inspiration.
The level of detail in this series is extraordinary. In proper Flanagan form, virtually every shot, line of dialogue, and prop conveys a meaning or purpose. I scanned the corners of frames, looking for shapes and movement in the background. Sometimes, something is there. The color scheming, especially in the context of the grown Usher children and the seven deadly sins, bears scrutiny. Orange, yellow, red, black, get the picture? Mike Flanagan has made a point to breadcrumb his projects with optical candy that is savory immediately but so much sweeter with a rewatch. This series fits tightly in eight hours of run time; there is so much packed into each episode that a viewer cannot help but miss a few things on a first run.
The cast in Usher is a veritable who's who of Flanagan regulars, virtually all of whom have appeared in one or several of the director's previous projects. I considered listing them all here, but I found it amusing to notice the players organically while watching. I suspect other Flanagan devotees will too. The six ill-fated Usher children are all distinct; you can distinguish them all from the others well before the first episode's end. The six interior episodes are dedicated to one of the six offspring; the title gives a clue as to where and how their fate is decided. If you wish to stay surprised, don't brush up on Poe's greatest hits beforehand.
The entire cast, in addition to the Ushers, is terrific without a weak link. The breakout for me was Mark Hamill as the shady, implacable family lawyer, Arthur Pym, a.k.a. The Pym Reaper. Despite his slight frame, Hamill plays the heavy very well. Carla Gugino also steals the show in every scene she is in as the mysterious Verna.
Flanagan has gotten flack in the past for writing monologue-heavy scenes that tend to drag. While a fair criticism, he has but one true monologue in Usher; the speech is brilliant, and that scene has forever changed how I think about lemons. Some real-world lecturing crops up in a few scenes, mainly two - one depressing tirade about money and another amusing bit about enhancing security footage. The series' pacing is respectful to the audience; parallel stories are being told across separate time periods. The scenes between present-day Roderick and Auggie serve as an anchor, and their connection is a steadfast lynchpin among all the chaos and blood.
Usher is a violent show. Extremely violent, actually. Those sensitive to animal violence especially should take warning during the middle stretch. This series is also perhaps the most profanity-laced and sexual I've seen in Flanagan's body of work. Yet, in context, all of this hefty adult material is appropriate. Usher needs to be as indulgent as it is. Technically speaking, no critiques are warranted here. The sound design, the score, and the cinematography are all gorgeous. Flanagan has ascended from the horror director niche to the ranks of auteur. His thumbprint of quality is felt from end to end in this series. And this show is scary. The smart editing conceals plentiful amounts of jumpscares that work well. They are not telegraphed or red herrings. This show is meant to frighten, and I suspect it will net many audience jolts.
The Fall of the House of Usher is, above all, beautiful. To call it poetry in motion doesn't do Mike Flanagan justice enough for the scary, brilliant story he has crafted here. Poetry from Edgar Allen Poe expresses the value of being alive, or for some, being buried alive. Affection for good stories often grows with familiarity. We are frightened by what we see in Usher because of what we see in us. Flanagan's tenure at the popular streaming service may be nevermore, but I suspect, like Poe's work, it will always stay with us.