Netflix’s resident horror auteur is back with his take on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. You’ll have a good time — even if some of the nods to “sociopolitical relevance” might send your eyes rolling.
A still from The Fall of the House of Usher, Mike Flanagan’s new Netflix horror series. (Netflix / Youtube)
There’s a lurid Gothic melodrama playing on Netflix and getting a lot of critical attention, called The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s an eight-episode series by Mike Flanagan, the director of such horror films as Oculus (2013), Gerald’s Game (2017), and Doctor Sleep (2019), all of them praised by legends like Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, and the late William Friedkin.
Flanagan’s claim to widespread popularity also includes the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House (2018), which was loosely adapted from Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Midnight Mass (2021). Flanagan seems to specialize in taking on classic literary horror stories — updating them and using them as springboards for vastly expanded narratives of present-day life.
In the case of The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan ranges through the eerie tales of Edgar Allen Poe, pulling a creepy character here and a ghastly plot point there to adorn his story of the vile Usher clan. Poe’s desiccated aristocrat Roderick Usher, the last of his line and incestuously obsessed with his late sister Madeleine — who turns out to be interred but not actually dead — is nowhere to be found here. Instead, we have the ruthless billionaire twin siblings Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and Madeleine (Mary McDonnell), heads of a dysfunctional extended family and a business dynasty founded on the Fortunato pharmaceutical empire that flooded the market with a new and dangerously addictive opioid pill.
They represent yet another version of the sordid Sackler family, which raises the question—what is the deal with Hollywood and the Sacklers and the endless TV series about their misdeeds? Dopesick, Painkiller, the upcoming Pain Hustlers, all of them Sackler-based tales. Sure, the Sacklers are horrible ghouls, but there are other foul rich people, y’know. House of Usher even features a photo montage of some of them in one episode, including shots of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk and Mitch McConnell, indicating that each of these grotesques might have succeeded by making a deal with the devil at some point in their early lives.
Anyway, we begin the series at the funeral for three of Roderick Usher’s children in one go. The main conceit is that someone or something is killing off the many Usher offspring, legitimate and illegitimate, at so rapid a pace and in such a variety of ways, it begins to look like a supernatural vendetta. Why is the same mysterious woman (Carla Gugino) turning up in photos with the deceased? And how can she possibly look so much like the attractive bartender young Roderick and Madeleine (Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald) met one fateful New Year’s Eve way back in the 1970s?
The frame story for the series, which proceeds in a flashback structure, is Roderick Usher’s “confession” to his frenemy, the investigator and lawyer C. Auguste Dupin (played by Carl Lumbly as an old man and Malcolm Goodwin as a young one). This takes place in the moldering, abandoned childhood home of Roderick, Madeleine, and their late mother Eliza (Annabeth Gish). It’s filled with rackety ghosts, whether they exist in reality or in Roderick Usher’s increasingly unbalanced mind.
Chapter titles for the episodes are helpful indicators of what Poe story or poem is being looted for each one: “The Masque of the Red Death,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven,” and so on. There’s a lot of grisly violence, tempestuous family fighting, lowdown skulduggery, and ominous paranormal high jinks, all depicted via top-notch production values.
The cast is loaded with Flanagan favorites including Bruce Greenwood and Zach Gilford as older and younger Roderick; Carla Gugino as the demonic Verna (an anagram for “Raven”); Henry Thomas as Frederick, Roderick’s hapless son and the Fortunato heir; Samantha Sloyan as Tamarlane, Roderick’s driven eldest daughter and an aspiring wellness industry entrepreneur; Rahul Kohli as Napoleon, one of Roderick’s illegitimate children and a humorously ranting drug-addict; and Flanagan’s wife Kate Siegel as another of Roderick’s illegitimate children, Camille, who’s the spiky head of PR at Fortunato. They all bring a lot of vim to their roles, but the most enjoyable casting is probably Mark Hamill doing a delightful job as the short, hunched, shady family lawyer Arthur Pym, who stares owlishly through his spectacles, growls cryptic maxims, and exudes a vague sense of menace.
It all makes for fairly entertaining Halloween viewing, full of unsubtly spooky distractions in keeping with the season. But I must admit, I’m at a loss to explain Flanagan’s big rep. I remember one very scary moment in The Haunting of Hill House — the family’s escape from the house pursued by the mother, with the father running away, yelling at his teenage son, “That’s not your mother!” — but in general I don’t tend to find Flanagan’s stuff all that gripping. It’s bingeable for all the usual reasons — tons of sensationalist plot, many cliffhangers, talented actors who really throw themselves into their colorful roles. But it’s also noisy, lurid, and obvious.
And the political commentary in the show seems part of a trend in many TV series toward a familiar crude progressivism, gloating over the evils of monstrous billionaires. It’s preferable to fawning over the rich, of course — but it’s not likely to have much effect in the world.
And the amount of portentous speechifying only increases as the series wears on, until it reaches absurd points of excess in the last two episodes. Madeleine Usher gives a convoluted oration, for example, that takes in such social ills as mindless consumer culture, attacks on feminism, the absurd amount of money spent on scientific research to address male impotence as opposed to many other pressing health issues, and I don’t know what else. But since it’s all in the service of her twisted rationalization of her own crimes against humanity, it’s hard to know how to take it.
Ultimately this series isn’t likely to invade your nightmares like the more brilliantly insidious horror works of Poe, James, or Jackson that Flanagan draws upon. It’s not going to make you uneasy in dark hallways or shadowy cellars. You won’t feel the impulse to sleep with the lights on because of Mike Flanagan’s carnival of horrors.
Which is too bad — even with the horror genre’s ongoing cinematic and TV renaissance, there’s still not enough of the good stuff being made.Original post