Netflix’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has filled my horror/death-obsessed heart with so much joy! Based on Allan Edgar Poe’s famous gothic short story, the 2023 series created by Mike Flanagan should be a hit with those who loved his previous works, particularly ‘The Haunting of Hill House’.
The eight-episode series starts with a somber funeral in a grand church, with only a handful of people sitting in the pews despite three coffins on display. The opulence of the church contrasts with the meager attendance at the service, setting the tone for this tragic horror story about the billionaire Usher family, led by twins Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and Madeline (Mary McDonnell). They lose their entire second generation—six siblings—within a matter of a few days. And the deaths strike amidst an ongoing lawsuit against their medical empire called Fortunato for grossly fraudulent practices. The central theme of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is thus how excessive greed and ambition can entirely corrupt an individual.
Titled “A Midnight Dreary,” after the opening line of Poe’s poem “The Raven,” episode one lays the foundation for the horror-thriller, as Roderick agrees to confess to U.S Attorney Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), the man leading the case against the Ushers. In fact, Roderick even claims he is responsible for all six of his children’s deaths. Bruce Greenwood as Roderick serves as an excellent narrator for the series. He begins his story in the 1950s, gradually revealing how he and his sister Madeline went from rags to extraordinary riches and why his descendants began to perish one by one. The next six episodes serve as separate chapters for each of the Usher siblings’ unfortunate ends, while episode eight wraps up the series with a chilling conclusion that mirrors the original short story.
Visually, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is Mike Flanagan’s most diverse looking work yet, since the timeline ranges from the 1950s to 2023, giving the creative team decades of aesthetics to work with. While the series is rife with gothic elements like crumbling old homes, ghastly specters, gory deaths, mutilated animals and ominous symbolism like ravens, crows and black cats, it also has plenty of brightly lit lively scenes and modern motifs. However, for the most part, the cinematography is warm, with a lot of orange hues pervading the screen, which is typical of many horror movies and thrillers.
The ensemble cast, which includes many faces from Mike Flanagan’s previous works like “Midnight Mass”, “The Midnight Club” and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”, comes together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each one fittingly settles into their roles, regardless of the length or significance. Carla Gugino is sinister and mysterious as the often masked woman who haunts Roderick and stalks the Usher family like death herself. Bruce Greenwood as the tormented Fortunato CEO with several dirty secrets up his sleeves keeps you hooked to every word he says. Meanwhile, Mary McDonnell is intriguing in her role as the shrewd, calculating twin, Madeline. However, Willa Fitzgerald, who plays the younger Madeline, delivers a more powerful portrayal of the mastermind behind Roderick’s phenomenal success. The most imposing supporting character in the series is Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), the one-man legal powerhouse of the Ushers, who is always cleaning up their mess and meticulously orchestrating their moves.
There’s a lot of competitive rivalry among the six Usher siblings, each eager to impress their father Roderick and the world, giving viewers an amusing look at how large wealthy families function. Henry Thomas plays the eldest sibling, Frederick Usher, who simply mimics his dad, lacks an independent mind, and is derisively referred to by the rest as ‘Froderick’. Samantha Sloyan is Tamerlane, second in line, married to a fitness influencer and keen on launching her own health business. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Sloyan’s performance; however, her character was intriguing – a neurotic woman with intimacy issues who is desperate to emerge from her family’s shadow. Frederick and Tamerlane are the only children born to Roderick’s first wife, while the other four are their half-siblings, each from a different woman. The eldest two thus mockingly refer to their half-sibling as “the bastards”. T’Nia Miller plays the next Usher, Victorine, who is working on a unique heart device with her partner. This device is still in the animal trial phase, but Frederick puts her on an impossible deadline to move it to human trials. Victorine’s gruesome death was the most cleverly done scene in the show, it’s horrifying, morbid and just gratifyingly symbolic.
Rahul Kohli was fun as Leo Usher, who “makes games” and is always high on drugs; he is the Usher family’s go-to man for a quick mood fix. Daniel Chae Jun, as his cat-loving partner Julius, is exceptionally understanding of Leo’s ways, and it’s too bad he is never formally inducted into the crazy rich family. Kate Siegel is the smartest and flashiest of the Usher siblings, she portrays Camille L’Espanaye, who manages all of Fortunato’s media and PR. With stark silver hair, a killer attitude, and two minions always by her side, Kate reminded me of the vampire Alucard from “Castlevania” due to a particular scene, but I am not going to say what it was; you’ll know what I mean when you watch the series, and, well, if you’ve seen Castlevania. Sauriyan Sapkota portrays Perry Usher, the youngest of ‘the bastards,’ who aspires to start a chain of exclusive nightclubs but doesn’t get his father’s approval. Sauriyan’s portrayal of Perry is silly and forgettable, which aligns with his character’s role as the youngest and least astute of the siblings. Ruth Cod is memorably eccentric in her small cameo as Juno, Frederick’s much younger second wife, who is constantly taking the dubious pills manufactured by Fortunato and is often ridiculed as “junkie” or “child-bride” by the step-kids.
The pace of this series is consistently steady, with each episode giving viewers mild chills and major deaths. What really thrilled me as a horror fan is how Mike Flanagan consistently peppers the runtime with tributes to Allan Edgar Poe, from naming each episode after Poe’s work, to constantly alluding to his horror stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a befitting tribute to the gothic writer. For example, Frederick’s wife is called Annabel Lee, which is also the title of Poe’s most famous poem. In-fact, Frederick recites lines off the poem a bunch of times. I have to admit I was really thrilled that this series alluded to one of my favorite horror short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado.”
The final episode, titled “The Raven”, neatly ties up this horror-thriller, with viewers finally getting concrete answers to how Roderick and Madeline made their fortune and just why everybody in their family is dying. And even though the final closing moments of the story won’t be a surprise to those who’ve read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it’s a theatrically satisfying ending. It’s hard to recall a horror film or series whose conclusion made me applaud at the climax. It’s a must-watch for horror fans.
Rating: 9 on 10. Stream ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ on Netflix.
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