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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

In ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ karma is not a relaxing thought

The latest from Mike Flanagan & Co. is a loving and disturbing tribute to the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

bruce greenwood.jpeg

Bruce Greenwood is pictured.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for “The Fall of the House of Usher” (2023).

As the creative force behind the widely successful “The Haunting” anthology, Mike Flanagan has set public expectations high for his upcoming projects. His adaptations of gothic horror literature, “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) and “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (2020), both received critical acclaim and created the right amount of anticipation for his next page-to-screen project: a modern twist on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, aptly titled The Fall of the House of Usher.”  

The series opens in a near-empty chapel, at the funeral for the three eldest children of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals CEO Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), who has lost all his six offspring in the two weeks preceding the first episode. As attendants gaze upon images of the deceased and their coffins, Roderick sees a startling apparition — a woman clothed in black wearing a raven mask — and mutters, “She’s here.” He then sees his six dead children, grotesque in ghost form, as his granddaughter Lenore (Kyliegh Curran) attempts to reassure him, attributing his distress to the grim circumstances. As he steps into his car outside the church, visibly shaken, a menacing jester smiles at him from inside his car, causing him to collapse as an army of photographers furiously click away. Elsewhere, Assistant U.S. Attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) is informed that Usher has requested to meet him. He arrives at what is revealed to be Roderick’s dilapidated childhood home, where after some repartee, the tycoon agrees to go on record for the first time about his crimes. The rest of the series follows two narratives: the 1970s, which depicts Roderick and his sister Madeline’s (Mary McDonnell) rise to power, and the 2020s, where karma eventually catches up to Usher and his six children — the spineless Frederick (Henry Thomas), the methodical Camille (Kate Siegel), the ambitious Victorine (T’Nia Miller), the drug-fiend Napoleon “Leo” (Rahul Kohli), the quirky Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan) and the hedonistic Prospero, aka “Perry” (Sauriyan Sapkota).

Flanagan deftly draws on Poe’s lore both overtly and subtly. He noticeably names every main character after one from the author’s works — from the family’s gruff lawyer Arthur Pym, whose name was drawn from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” (1838), to Roderick’s first wife Annabel Lee, based on the eponymous poem released in 1849, to even the Ushers’ company itself, inspired by the character Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846). But it is the more elusive aspects of the series — the creativity through which he pays homage to Poe — that really stand out, such as Perry’s selfish, sybaritic tendencies eventually leading him to his end, not unlike characters in “The Masque of Red Death” (1845), from which the character gets his name. Flanagan is effectively able to bring forth these uniquely Poean themes by interweaving his writing into a modern context, striking an effective balance between the unpredictable thinking of “Who’s next and how?” and the familiarity of “I think I’ve seen this film before.”

Greenwood shines as Roderick Usher, ably foregrounding the contradictions of his character as he deviates between a sardonic self-awareness of who he has become and a fear of confronting the consequences of his moral corruption. Flanagan’s previous coworker Carla Gugino’s streak of powerful performances remains unbroken as well, as she embodies temptation, mystery and disquiet through Verna, a woman on a mission to restore karmic balance. Other regulars on Flanagan’s work such as Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel and T’Nia Miller play their parts skillfully, each bringing a sense of vulnerability to their otherwise loathsome characters.

One must applaud the creative vision of the show’s writers as well, as they blend levity and dark humor with the seriousness of the situations characters find themselves in, adding some variation to the grim, tense tone of the show. For example, Roderick’s second wife and former drug addict Juno’s (Ruth Codd) vivid telling of how she met her husband to Lenore is abruptly cut short by her sudden remembrance that the story may not be appropriate for her step-granddaughter, as the latter blinks awkwardly. In another scene, Camille enumerates the careers of the Usher children in an attempt to humble Leo when he claims to be better than the rest of them, calling him an “Xbox Gatsby” and endowing the rest with epithets such as “a Roderick Usher cover band” and “Goop with a big golden bug sticker on it,” finally surmising that “Ushers don’t make stuff. None of us.” Yet, such moments do not reduce the intensity of the experience, with the final scene of each episode depicting in graphic, almost gratuitous detail the death of an Usher scion, from chemical calamities to primate problems. 

So, if you’re wondering when to begin Flanagan’s next (and perhaps best) adaptation, in the words of Roderick Usher — “it's time.” 

Summary “The Fall of the House of Usher” brings together “Succession” (2018-23) and “Final Destination” (2000) with witty dialogue, gripping cinematography and a killer soundtrack.
4.5 Stars