Horror tales often take a turn into the realm of morality, and the results tend to reinforce the established order of things; as Stephen King writes in 1981’s Danse Macabre, “Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.” Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, created and written by Mike Flanagan and directed by Flanagan and Michael Fimognari, gets right into terrible people receiving their righteous comeuppance by opening with a funeral.
Three members of the Usher family are dead, following three others who died only the week before. The Usher family, we soon learn, built and maintained a pharmaceutical empire that left millions of people addicted to its “safe” opium-derived painkiller, Ligodone. It all sounds a lot like the real-world Sackler clan, blamed for inflicting similar devastation on the populace with OxyContin.
One of the main differences between the Ushers and the Sacklers, however, is that the Sacklers exist in a world where they are unlikely to face the consequences of their actions beyond some exposure. The Fall of the House of Usher, however, is a horror story, and for this family’s transgressions against humanity, they most certainly pay the piper – in memorable and graphic ways.
When the Usher patriarch Roderick, played magnificently by Bruce Greenwood, catches a glimpse of the ghosts of his six children, viewers can tell that the deaths were far more grisly than the results of, say, slipping in the shower or smoking too much. Most of the spirits appear as they did in their last moments on earth. They are covered in gore, their bodies torn, bent, opened, flayed, or otherwise mangled. It’s both terrifying and satisfying.
The following episodes tell the very entertaining and suitably Grand Guignol-like story about the rise of Roderick (played by Zach Gilford in flashbacks) and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell in the present, Willa Fitzgerald in the past) and the sudden decimation of their family over the course of a few weeks. There are so many Edgar Allan Poe Easter eggs in The Fall of the House of Usher that I couldn’t begin to mention them here, and comparing these episodes to the Poe stories on which they are based is beside the point. Flanagan is mixing the scandal of the Sacklers with the Poe brand as it exists in entertainment today–haunted, nightmarish, doomed, focused on the inevitable end, head bowed to the conqueror worm.
The real starting point for this account of the Ushers’ astronomic rise and the gruesome finalé begins on New Year’s Eve 1979. Roderick and Madeline show up at a bar needing alibis. (At this point, Flanagan hasn’t revealed why they would be in need of friendly witnesses). The bartender, Verna (Carla Gugino), offers them drinks and conversation, but before long, she reveals that she knows quite a bit about them. Flanagan returns to this discussion throughout the series, and by the time Verna gives a hint of who she really is, viewers will have figured it out.
Another conversation runs through the series, this one taking place in the present. Roderick has returned to his childhood home, now a filthy, rambling pile of a house, where he has summoned C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), the prosecutor who has been trying to bring the Ushers to justice for decades. Roderick promises Dupin a full confession, then pours himself a drink and starts at the very beginning, explaining how he ended up with six children from five mothers and how his actions, or the machinations of his company, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, led to each of their grisly deaths.
As the stories unfold, it becomes clear that Verna plays a part in each of the Usher heirs’ demises, starting with that of Prospero “Perry” Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota). Episode two, “The Masque of Red Death”, is the most extravagantly visual of the series, spending its closing act at an abandoned Usher chemical factory where Perry has decided to throw an exclusive drug-fueled rave (a truckload of pills, powders, potions, and edibles are downed throughout the series, making it at times a kind of video collage of excruciating addiction). Perry and his guests end up dead – gruesomely dead – but the predictability of the chemical carnage doesn’t make the episode any less absorbing.
That’s because one of The Fall of the House of Usher‘s strengths is that the characters are much more than meat on the chopping block in this tale; Perry and his siblings are largely recognizable, sympathetic characters who, even at their worst, stop just short of being abominable. Perry is self-indulgent, but he’s a young man, albeit one with too much money. His older half-brother Napoleon, or Leo (Rahul Kohli), is just as hedonistic and just as coked up, but he’s trying to give Perry some guidance and show his partner (Daniel Jun) some affection. Frederick Usher (Henry Thomas), who occupies the Kendall Roy spot in the family, seems to be a decent and supportive father to his child Lenore (Kyliegh Curran). Half-sister Camille (Kate Siegel) puts her finger on it – she and her half-siblings are broken people just trying to get Roderick’s approval and love.
Roderick, for all his faults, isn’t exactly withholding his affection for his kids. Greenwood’s portrayal of Roderick not as a cigar-chomping profit-obsessed magnate but as a man vulnerable to the full range of human emotions – negative ones like pride, impatience, and disgust, but also wistfulness, introspection, and regret – brings a relatable quality to his family. His character also provides a subtle aspect to the show’s critique of capitalism. Is it possible that Roderick isn’t a player in the system but merely a pawn?
[Spoilers ahead.] In his conversation with Dupin, which is more like a confessional monologue that provides the scaffolding for this tale, Roderick is an aging lion who has finally seen past all the world’s delusions and his own self-deceptions. He must tell this tale now rather than take it to his grave, as he knows he will soon succumb to the most personal horror of dementia.
Siegel’s Camilla is dramatically attired like a supervillain. She runs her PR operation from a futuristic lair where she makes sneering comments about the media and her own relatives to two terrified-looking assistants. Siegel’s slicing line deliveries and scenery-chewing build up to a revelation that she demands sexual submission from those two scared assistants or hers, to which they succumb. But when they eventually refuse, in a comment about entrapment in capitalism, she angrily reminds them that providing her with sexual satisfaction is in their job description. Camilla is alluring in her Machiavellian ways, but I’m relieved when her part concludes with her murder in episode three, “Murder in the Rue Morgue”.
World-renowned voice-over actor and occasional Jedi Mark Hamill has a turn in The Fall of the House of Usher as the family fixer, Arthur Gordon Pym. Hamill speaks as if he has a mouthful of gravel, and his character utterly, perhaps fittingly, lacks compassion. Like Siegel’s, Hamill’s role is compelling, but it doesn’t match Greenwood’s expansive performance. Lumbly as Dupin, on the other hand, is a perfect sparring partner for Greenwood’s Roderick, and their scenes together work well, especially as the series moves along.
In a twist on Poe’s story The Black Cat, Leo is menaced by a shelter animal in episode four, “The Black Cat”, until something fatal happens. For the other Usher deaths, there’s a connection to their company and its activities, but Leo bites it in a remarkably unoriginal fashion.
In the home stretch of The Fall of the House of Usher, we see more “satisfying deaths”, if you will, of Victorine (T’Nia Miller), Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), and finally Frederick, and we move to the series’ dénouement. This is when we learn what happened in the hours after the funeral that opened the series, and also what happened in 1979 that led to Roderick and Madeline meeting Verna.
The contrast between the roles of leading actors McDonnell (Madeline) and Gugino (Verna) is stark. McDonnell is harsh and stoic, embodying a guarded demeanor as if she is delivering her lines through the bars of a portcullis. Human feelings, for Madeline, are something she scrapes off the sole of her shoe.
Gugino, however, is open and candid in her role, with a heartbreakingly sweet smile and a gentle, empathetic voice. She seems to be circling the Usher clan because she finds them genuinely fascinating, flaws and all. Indeed, perhaps her attraction to the family is solely their flaws. Verna is a woman of mystery, but Gugino plays her as someone who’s not hiding anything and who harbors contempt for no one. Another good performance comes from Ruth Codd as Roderick’s latest wife, Juno, a Lipodone-addicted character who seems to be a broad caricature at first, then seems more like comic relief, then grows more endearing, and who finishes with some excellent scenes with Greenwood’s Roderick.
The natural performances allow The Fall of the House of Usher to glide into scenes where Poe’s poems are recited by various characters. Roderick’s bereaved deliveries of Annabel Lee and The Raven are especially fitting for their moments, and Verna’s reading of Spirits of the Dead at the end is equally chilling. It’s a thrill for bibliophiles to hear words written almost 180 years ago voiced again in a contemporary television series. Sometimes, there are merely allusions to Poe’s poems, such as when an overheard jingling sound prompts Greenwood to refer to “the tintinnabulation of the bells“, the slow, ever-ticking clock evoking Poe’s classic anxiety-inducing story, The Tell-Tale Heart and, of course, Vera’s role as in The Fall of the House of Usher as the Raven-like figure.
Poe’s twilight world of decaying sanity and psychological torment slots well into this contemporary comment on greed and addiction. The Fall of the House of Usher makes a successful marriage of these two inspirations, drawing from the morality of Poe’s poems and stories like “The Masque of Red Death“, as when Prospero’s attempts to seal himself away from the world’s horrors prove fruitless, and he is brought down in his own pleasure palace, and The Tell-Tale Heart, wherein a murderer reveals his crime as he loses his mind, and “Hop-Frog,” where a demeaned man has his revenge to the powerful people who abused him.”
The series’ production is seductive, also thanks to the score by the Newton Brothers, which goes from epic to shocking to surprisingly quiet and lovely at times in a manner reminiscent of Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Stephen Daldry’s 2002 drama, The Hours. The Fall of the House of Usher is a journey through a familiar darkness to a perfectly satisfying destination – for those among us who are still standing.