As the story goes, famed director and producer Roger Corman was tired of making disposable films on a laughable budget. During the 1950s he’d typically produced two black and white films at a time, to be shown as a double feature in grindhouse theatres. But when approached by American International Pictures to make a horror film, Corman had a proposal: maybe this time, he’d make one film, not two, on a decent budget, and it would be shot in color. It would be a real film, he promised, respectable enough to show in mainstream theatres.
House of Usher was the result, and it was the first of a series of eight Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Corman would make for AIP. Like most of the seven other Poe films, Usher stars Vincent Price, here as Roderick Usher.
This is my first real exposure to Vincent Price. Sure, I’ve known who he was forever, or at least since his brief, final appearance in Edward Scissorhands, and earlier clips or photos of his work have somehow found their way into my memory. But this is the first full-length Vincent Price feature I can recall watching, and I can confirm what many already know: Vincent Price is fucking great. He simultaneously knows exactly what kind of lavish, vaguely campy gothic horror film he’s in, while not lowering his standards as a performer the slightest bit. His commitment is unwavering and he’s a delight to watch – at a few points in Usher, he convincingly picks a horribly out-of-tune lute as if it’s the most soothing music he’s ever heard.
Poe’s short story was adapted to feature length by Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone and I Am Legend fame) in a way that frequently feels padded. The other two leads are serviceable but bland next to Price, and the House’s collapse at the film’s climax is clearly intercut with outside stock footage. But as with The Funhouse, atmosphere carries the day here. The House of Usher and its grounds are a beautiful piece of set design, and color is used effectively, particularly in a dream sequence that combines very, uh, 1960s film techniques (silhouettes of abstract shapes against colored backgrounds) with effectively-foreshadowed gothic horror imagery. House of Usher isn’t without some distracting flaws, but it does somewhat convey Poe’s sense of the macabre and serves as a delightful introduction to Vincent Price.