THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
(La Chute de la Maison Usher)
Jean Epstein was a poet and critical theorist who turned filmmaker in 1922. Epstein made some thirty plus films during his career, although The Fall of the House of Usher is the most famous of the ones that exist today. Epsteins assistant director and co-writer was none other than Luis Buñuel, the celebrated surrealist director of films like LAge dOr (1928), The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), although Buñuel apparently parted ways with Epstein during the course of shooting over their differing interpretations of Poe.
Jean Epstein makes a number of changes to the Edgar Allan Poe short story. Roderick Usher now no longer suffers from his hyper-acuteness of senses, although this is vaguely alluded to later on in one intertitle card that says that the slightest sound exacerbated him where this is seen as a reaction to the trauma of Madeleines death. In its place (at least during the initial scenes), Roderick seems to have an unhealthy obsession with painting a portrait of Madeleine where this becomes an odd mix of Poes themes combined with ideas from Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) about the essence of a person being imbued into a portrait and so now Madeleine is killed when Roderick obsessively transfers too much of her lifeforce into the picture. The most notable change is that Madeleine is Roderick Ushers wife rather than his sister the upshot of this is that we end up with a film that is less set amid an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom than a work about a husband who is simply obsessed with his dead wife. The mood of the story also seems far more melancholic than the utter desolation of the soul and sense of decay that comes across in Poe. (This is also incidentally the only version of The Fall of the House of Usher to intercut the narrators reading of the story of Ethelred the knight with Madeleines rising from the tomb as Poe has it).
Jean Epstein shoots some amazingly melancholic exteriors of the house and Usher estate. The grounds, filled with bare trees, water rippling on desolate and unwelcome lakes, the placid and unnaturally stilled surface of the lakeshore, the stone balustrades and pathways echo with a haunted sense of grey emptiness. (The melancholic atmosphere is superbly aided by the score composed by Ivan Fedele for the modern 1995 restoration print). There is a fine sequence following Madeleines funeral procession where the cortege is first seen travelling down an avenue of trees, over which has strikingly been superimposed a series of candles, with the trail of her burial gown lying out of the coffin and drifting along behind them in the water as they cross the lake by boat to get to the crypt. The interior of the House of Usher is all vast, empty sets like a soundstage with giant high walls and random pieces of furniture placed in the middle of the bare space around which the action occurs. This makes great contrast to the ornate Gothicism and richness of Roger Cormans The House of Usher (1960) and his subsequent Poe adaptations. The depiction of the exterior of the house is somewhat unwound by a model that looks only so-so convincing today, where Epstein at least tries to hide many of its shortcomings by covering the model set in mist.
Jean Epsteins camera-work is often undeniably experimental he does after all have the wife of Frances most avant garde silent director Abel Gance, best known for works of the silent era such as Entracte (1924), The Crazy Ray (1925) and The Imaginary Voyage (1925) and later Hollywood ventures such as The Ghost Goes West (1936) and I Married a Witch (1942), playing his Madeleine. The film is at its most experimental during the depiction of Rodericks mental decay following Madeleines death, which comes emphasised by closeups of frogs, owls and cats, the ticking of a clocks pendulum and cuts away to the interior of the clock, wavering double exposure shots and shots of guitar strings snapping.
Other adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher include:- a dreary British version The Fall of the House of Usher (1949); Roger Cormans The House of Usher (1960) starring Vincent Price; the tv movie The Fall of the House of Usher (1979) with Martin Landau as Roderick; Jesus Francos cheap The Fall of the House of Usher (1983) with Howard Vernon; Harry Alan Towers equally cheap The House of Usher (1989) with Oliver Reed; the low-budget modernised The House of Usher (2006); David DeCoteaus softcore gay House of Usher (2008); and as an episode of the animated anthology Extraordinary Tales (2015).
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