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The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

The Fall of the House of Usher inaugurated director Roger Corman's moody, brooding adaptations (very loose adaptations, mind you) of Edgar Allan Poe's atmospheric horror tales, and it's a miniature masterpiece of shoestring-budget suspense cinema. The script owes less to Poe and more to screenwriter Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone and other genre highpoints). When a young man (Mark Damon) comes to marry the beautiful sister (Myrna Fahey) of isolated nobleman Roderick Usher (Vincent Price, at his aristocratic best), he finds himself marrying into a cursed family doomed to madness within a gothic mansion that's literally cracking up along with the psyches around him. Add a little premature burial, some ghosts, a creepy dream sequence, lots of dry ice, and deliciously atmospheric design, and you get one of the prime reasons Roger Corman became a "cult favorite" subgenre unto himself.

Corman shot The Fall of the House of Usher in 15 days — the longest shooting schedule he'd had to that point — and on a budget of only $200,000. He devoted his team to getting the most out of every moment and nickel, so each scene is carefully composed and shot on sumptuous sets for maximum atmosphere. His reward was a critical and commercial success that convinced American International Pictures to continue the series with more movies, such as the following year's The Pit and the Pendulum and concluding with The Tomb of Ligeia. Plus it marked the beginning of one of Hollywood's great collaborative teams: director Corman, elegant gentleman villain Vincent Price, cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and production designer Daniel Haller.

Certainly some elements are dated now, and Price's fellow actors can't hold a candle to him, but Usher still holds up as an example of stately suspense that doesn't resort to gore, monsters, or overuse of shock effects. So don't watch it looking for Scream-style frights.

*          *          *

MGM's DVD edition delivers a good-looking anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a source print that's showing some collateral wear but is otherwise clear and clean, with audio in a crisp DD 2.0 monaural.

A special note to Directing 101 students: The real star of MGM's new DVD edition of The Fall of the House of Usher is Roger Corman, whose engaging commentary track is an 80-minute crash course on getting things right the first time. The original theatrical trailer is also here, of course. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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