Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Psychobabble's 150 Essential Horror Movies: Addition 3

Every day this October, I'll be adding a film to Psychobabble's 120 Essential Horror Movies to bring the list up to 150. Today’s addition is:

10. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928- dir. Jean Epstein)

Though short on plot, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always been one of the most regularly adapted Edgar Allan Poe stories. Two versions were filmed in 1928 alone, one a short piece by American avant gardists James Watson and Melville Webber, and one a feature by Jean Epstein of France. Perhaps it is that very lack of plot-mechanics that has made “Usher” so popular among filmmakers. Poe’s story is like a spicy bouillon cube from which a complexly flavorful soup may be brewed. Epstein and his co-writer Luis Buñuel, who was just in the midst of making “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dali, take greater liberties with that cube than some subsequent chefs would. Roderick and Madeline Usher are now married rather than siblings, which neutralizes the incestuous themes of Poe’s tale. No matter. There is still much to disturb in this version. Epstein and Buñuel’s film may not be as faithful as many subsequent adaptations (and that includes Roger Corman’s 1960 version), but perhaps no film channels the dreadful dreaminess of Poe’s prose better. The grotesqueness and queasy beauty. The dank elegance, the hallucinatory madness, the sheer morbidity. Gothic well beyond anything even Murnau imagined, The Fall of the House of Usher casts a bewitching spell via disorienting visuals. The camerawork is shockingly modern, eschewing the staginess of so many early films for manic first and second person perspective shots. Epstein superimposes candles and billowing shrouds over Madeline’s funeral procession to ratchet up the dread. He magnifies the beauty of Roderick’s music by intercutting his guitar-strumming hands with scenes of nature. He underlines Roderick’s madness with weird imagery both obviously metaphorical (guitar strings spontaneously snap) and purely surreal (frogs copulate). Madeline’s crypt is a phantasmagoric haunted garden worthy of Lewis Carroll. Her return from the grave is as insidiously chilling as Chaney’s unmasking in Phantom of the Opera is shocking. The Fall of the House of Usher brought European silent horror to a crazed peak. As the decade neared its climax, Hollywood would greedily claim a new era of sound monster movies for its own. Filmmakers of the fantastic such as Benjamin Christensen and F.W. Murnau had already been lured to the booming U.S. industry by the mid ‘20s. As Hitler rose to power in the next decade, others would either do the same (Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene), or sadly, assimilate to the new regime (Paul Wegener). Though horror would not remain quite so international during the 1930s, its impact would still be… well… universal.  

See this piece in context as part of Psychobabble’s Essential Horror Movies of the 1920s here.
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