The Fall of the House of Usher
Dir. Mike Flanagan & Michael Filmognari (2023)
A pharmaceutical magnate finds his offspring dying one by one after a face from the past comes back into his life.
I've made it no secret that I'm a huge fan of Mike Flanagan (and you can check out my interview with him from much earlier in his career!). He is arguably the best horror director working today, he has put together a string of colossal hits, and he has recently turned his attention towards creating some of the best horror television ever made for Netflix (and soon Amazon). With genre-defining shows like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass already under his belt, Flanagan this time turns his attention towards the works of Edgar Allen Poe, delivering a series that dives deeply into the revered author's more storied works and reinterprets them within the context of one extremely wealthy family with an inheritance problem.
Containing the usual Flanagan crop of actors (Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Rahul Kohli, Samantha Sloyan, Zach Gilford, and Kate Siegel) along with a few new faces (most notably with excellent performances from Mark Hamill, Mary McDonnell, and Willa Fitzgerald), The Fall of the House of Usher deals with Roderick Usher (Greenwood) and his spoiled rotten brood of children. As the family faces legal charges for their sale of a highly addictive painkiller, the children start dying one by one in various Poe-esque accidents. In the backdrop of each incident is Verna (Gugino), a woman Roderick first encountered almost forty years before, who hasn't aged a day and becomes more and more menacing as the bodies continue to fall.
Referencing stories like The Masque of the Red Death, Murders at the Rue Morgue, and The Black Cat to name a few, the series provides a pretty comprehensive overview of Poe's bibliography with a modern, socially relevant twist. The stories are gothic and macabre, with some truly shiver-inducing scenes of brutal and gory violence thrown in for good measure. Straying a good bit from his more monologue-focused writing in Midnight Mass, House of Usher is perhaps even better than its Flanagan forefather. The performances are more often than not jaw-droppingly good, the story as sad as it is ghoulish, and as someone who grew up reading Poe more than any other older horror, the stories told within are a real treat.
One interesting facet ofUsher is the unlikability of its characters. A staple of Poe's tales of revenge and guilt, the characters within the Usher family are more than deserving of their fates. You know from the opening frames that all of the family will die, and it is a credit to Flanagan as a "film"maker that the story remains interesting regardless. It is, after all, the fall of the House of Usher. Linking the story to a drug company, and most applicable to the Sackler family who tried to destroy the world with their Oxycontin under the banner of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Usher feels particularly refreshing in a world where reality dictates most of these modern robber barons get away with a slap on the wrist. No matter how ghastly the bloodshed may be, it's always particularly enjoyable and never as bad as we wished it was.
The Fall of the House of Usher is an excellent series regardless of your familiarity with its source material, and you certainly don't need to have read any Poe to enjoy the show. That said, having at least a cursory understanding of his thematic elements that correspond with the series would be helpful, though I would avoid reading the outcomes of the stories if you're looking for a surprise. The overarching themes of guilt, privilege, and greed ring as true today as they did almost 200 years ago, showing that while their methods of destruction may change, man never does. Perhaps Poe has some lessons that we still need to learn today.
Who this movie is for: Flanagan fanboys, Poe purveyors, Licensed drug dealers
Bottom line: The Fall of the House of Usher is excellent, and it's some of Flanagan's best work. That's getting harder and harder to say, however, because the man makes practically nothing but hits. It's gruesome, socially relevant, and is an absolute feast for the senses, with Flanagan delivering a bloody good ride throughout. If you're a fan of Poe, it doesn't get much better than this. If you're not familiar with the writing, watch the show anyway. It's a stellar sendoff for Flanagan's Netflix career, and I can't wait to see what he brings to Amazon in the future.