This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie/series/feature being covered here wouldn't exist.
BY JOHN MCDONALD OCTOBER 20, 2023
The acclaimed Edgar Allan Poe is one of America’s best-known literary masters. His short stories and poems, heavily laden with Gothic Horror, macabre, and intricate mystery have become stalwarts in American literature. In the years since they were written (and that’s an awful long time), have been referenced, parodied, and countlessly paid homage to. Whether it’s The Simpson parodying ‘The Raven’, several humorous references in The Sopranos (look them up, there are some good ones), or the use of his writings as inspiration for many more great works throughout the decades. But even with so many great examples of Poe’s work being retold, Mike Flanagan’s latest project, The Fall of the House of Usher, might just be the most extravagant, the most truthful, and perhaps, even the greatest of them all.
This limited series arrives on Netflix just in time for the Halloween celebrations, so if you’re looking for something to get stuck into, then this could be the perfect watch. Mike Flanagan is no stranger to the weird and wonderful and is a dab hand at creating spectacles of horror, with Doctor Sleep (2019) and Gerald’s Game (2017) both being wonderful examples of his contemporary style of filmmaking. Although, it’s his television career that’s given him his highest acclaim, and this latest series, another instalment into the gothic world of the ‘Flanaverse’ (so his fans are calling it) showcases his talent for the genre.
Loosely based on the short story of the same name, as well as some other works by Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher focuses on the lives of twins, Roderick and Madeline Usher (Bruce Greenwood and Mary McDonnell respectively); pharmaceutical moguls and owners of Fortunato, who have enjoyed a life of extreme wealth, monumental power, and privilege, but must soon come face to face with their destiny, one that was decided long before they even experienced their first taste of riches. The series begins with Roderick attending the funeral of his last remaining offspring, all of whom have died under mysterious circumstances over the course of a fortnight. Fast forward to later that night, and Roderick agrees to confess all of his past crimes and divulge the details of his children’s
deaths to one person, the Assistant United States Attorney, C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) who has been trying to bring the family down for years.
The series is split up over multiple timelines and dictated by the family patriarch in the present day. Each timeline – which begins in 1953 when the twins were children – plays a key part in establishing background, motive, and reasoning as to how and why the twins are in their current predicament, and the lead-up to a nasty court case they have found themselves in. But it is the year 1979 where we find the context most important to the story, especially the night during New Year's Eve when everything changes for the twins (played by Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald during this period), as well as being the first time they meet a woman who will change their lives for the better, and then at their undeniable worst. Each episode is based on a different story of Poe’s (the titles are a giveaway) but after the first episode, the attention turns to a different member of the Usher children (who are also named after characters from Poe’s literary work), and the tragically sudden ways in which they die.
The first of the children to face their demise is Prospero “Perry” Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota) the youngest of Roderick’s illegitimate children which takes influence from ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. The second of the illegitimate children, Camille L’Espanaye (Kate Siegel) the razor-sharp public relations manager of Fortunato, whose death mirrors that of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, which is then swiftly followed by the death of another of the illegitimate children, video game publisher Napoleon “Leo” Usher (Rahul Kohli). Next up is the eldest of the unlawful children, Victorine LaFourcade (T’Nia Miller), a gifted surgeon whose end comes at the cost of someone dear as well. Roderick’s legitimate children, and the two eldest of the group, Frederick, and Tamerlane Usher (Henry Thomas and Samantha Sloyan) are the final two to meet the fury of Lady Death in all her might. Their deaths are no coincidence either because each of them brushes shoulders with one mysterious woman in her various forms, the unrelenting and charismatic Verna (Carla Gugino), who’s only collecting a debt after all.
The performance of Carla Gugino needs to be celebrated as much as possible - it’s an absolute joy to watch her have this much fun with a role. She portrays different versions of the same character (the human version of Poe’s infamous Raven) and rotates through various emotions and styles with absolute ease. Gugino is equally adept as a sinister antagonist with a breadth of self-assurance, as well as she harnesses a more timid and relenting side to the character. There’s such an air of confidence to her portrayal that you just have to sit back and admire – although, credit must go to Flanagan’s writing for birthing such an interesting persona. But is she the only performance of note though, surely not? Well, Bruce Greenwood might just have turned out his best performance in years as well and matches Gugino stride for stride. Not only are his theatrical monologues a treat, but he perfects the battle Roderick has with still being a magnificently powerful man and the agony that comes with the grief of loss, and a deteriorating illness that takes away all of one’s senses. I’m not only for making early predictions, that’s up to everyone else, but if both of these actors – or at least one of them – aren’t up for Emmy awards, then it’s a travesty.
The Fall of the House of Usher truly is one of the most enjoyable limited series released over the last few years. It blends both genuine terror entertainment with fantastic visuals (credit to the costume designers and makeup artists for their expertise), as well the psychological warfare it emits onto the characters and the viewers. On top of the obvious though, it’s a fabulous drama about a family’s downfall, and how greed and power can dissolve a once powerful blood bond, something that made recent shows like Succession so memorable. This isn’t just another contemporary rehashing of historic tales because it’s as true to its source material as it can possibly get without it being classed as a basic copy, and the series’ outstanding finale is the greatest bit of evidence of this being true