Sunday, 25 October 2015

Halloween 31 For 31: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

Directors: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber
Cast: Herbert Stern (as Roderick Usher); Hildegarde Watson (as Madeline Usher); Melville Webber (as a Traveller)

Synopsis: An avant-garde adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's story in which brother and sister Usher (Stern and Watson) are cursed by a malady that will lead to their doom in their ancestral home.

The Fall of the House of Usher has been adapted a few times. The same year as this one in 1928 Jean Epstein adapted the story for a feature length version that was as unconventional in presentation and style. Roger Corman started his series of Poe adaptations (barring one adapting H.P. Lovecraft) with the House of Usher story. Ken Russell somewhat based a film around the story, if anything of it does exist in said film alongside the other Poe references, and shot said story in his garage. This version is one of only three films made between James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, the others including the equally well regarded Lost In Sodom (1932), and a personal favourite Tomatoes Another Day (1930), shot by Watson only, a parody of bad cinema that predates the use of "bad" filmmaking but uses them, rather than for irony, for turning the scenario it depicts into a hilarious and absurd reality where being shot dead doesn't mean you're staying on the ground a second later. While this does retain the basic outline of the Poe story, the directors only went from memory of what took place in the narrative, allowing the result to drift off into something different entirely. Having e.e. cummings write the shooting script - a poet known for fragmented poetry which played with how their stanzas are structured and how a reader even intonates the sounds reading the words - was as well an encouragement to fragment the tale down to its primal form.

A film of the silent era, it clearly absorbed countless influences from films before it but it itself now exists outside of time, new and alien to current cinema regardless of its age. Set in an environment fully indebted to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) populated by giant, geometrical shapes, the film is entirely a mood piece, whittling the original story down to basic images, the most important of placing someone alive in a locked coffin and the madness that bubbles up to the surface. There was no sound, and barring inspired use of letters marking out sound effects at one point, objects alongside everything else onscreen, there's no intertitles either. Everything is depicted through in-camera effects or artificial locations, the three actors within the film as much puppets or automatons who gesticulate and change their bodies at will for the shot being taken.

Technical Details:
Entirely shot in black and white, it's entirely opposite to Corman's lush colour adaptation but the result is an alternative form of atmosphere, an all-engulfing mass where even if you see a great deal in a shot its melded to the shadows. The film becomes expressionist not just from its look by how the in-camera effects are used, from reverse photography to superimposition, all of which are intentionally unrealistic, the plasticity of the cinematic form effecting the nightmare being depicted too, the later made sculptable by these effects. It's not Vincent Price in states of shock using his acting here but the camera tilting at one stage with the environment following it in its slant, looking like both will fall off the edge. The environment, the walls themselves, can be ripped open by an ordinary people and the film, without needing to follow Poe's tale strictly, can add its own character in how each imposition of images over others have their own character and effect the tone.

Abstract Spectrum: Experimental/Expressionist/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
When set to the right music, this perfectly conveys the emotions from the original short story, the few hand built sets used appropriately claustrophobic and everything reduced to the most pronounced, bold shapes and symbols. What's actually depicted in the film is very minimalist at times, merely a wall of the set behind a distorting camera effect, but from the multiplication of one of the actors' faces to a silhouette on the wall, everything is evocative and once you learn to appreciate the film in how it communicates this with the visuals only, it becomes a lot more bolder as a result.

Personal Opinion:
Avant-garde shorts are a particular favourite of mine. For the many that are difficult at first to understand, and for the few that are just technical experiments in form and light rather than emotionally relatable, at their best they push what you can do with cinematic form. Neither on an intellectual level alone either, as they can effects you with a gut impact like The Fall of the House of Usher does. They subject you to something that strays away from what you expect a film to usually look and act like. Poe's stories are as much about what is not conveyed directly in the lines, even if he's very explicit in his descriptions and ideas, something which links hand-in-hand with an experimental short like this whose main good is to convey emotions like fear through less conventional images that are yet more real and impactful. 

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