Alas, my tastes have tempered somewhat over time, and I’ll shocked to realize that I haven’t read anything from him in a few decades. (Yes, I’m the kind of person who picks up a collection from time-to-time and just reads casually from multiple books simultaneously.) I used to make it a point to re-read a few of his more notable shorts and poems on an annual basis (nerd!), but life throws you twists and turns, and one must adjust. Still, I have nothing but profound respect for what he accomplished in his life as an author, and I think it’s grand to know that his voice still resounds with so many even in modern times.
However, I read a few early reviews for The Fall Of The House Of Usher and was ultimately turned off from watching it in the heat of its initial release. Some of it was owed to the fact that the critics I found heaping praise on the limited series aren’t exactly those I’ve found myself agreeing with over the years, so I basically added it to ‘My List’ on Netflix figuring I’m somehow find my way to it when the time was right. Well, over the holiday season, I happened across a solid article listing the major achievements in broadcast entertainment for all of 2023, and what did I find? Usher was pretty high up on the list, so I caved in and gave it a spin.
While I’m willing to admit that it wasn’t quite what I expected, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that my original gut impression – that being ‘don’t follow the advice of reviewers I haven’t liked’ – was somewhat accurate. Usher is chocked to the gills with political messaging – yes, I say this despite what others will tell you because it’s true – but it’s also so well made that I’d have to agree that it is one of the best made productions I’ve had the good fortune to stumble across in years. (Seriously, folks, it is that good … on technical merits.)
Where I did have some struggle with it … well, that takes a bit more dissection …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
"The Usher family is never far from controversy. The fortunes of siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher were made through Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, a company whose products are often under scrutiny due to health concerns. Assistant District Attorney C. Auguste Dupin is determined to land a conviction and his case against Fortunato and the Ushers has gone to trial. Now, right in the middle of the trial, Roderick's children are dying under mysterious circumstances. Roderick Usher knows who/what is behind the deaths and meets with Dupin to reveal all."
Believe it or not, the late Edgar Allan Poe was most decidedly not popular in his own lifetime. Like so many great voices, his was not found by the masses-at-large until much later – posthumously, as they say – with the only true success he had the chance to see was “The Raven” published in 1845. Given the fact that he passed away only a few years later, such notoriety late in his days pretty much guaranteed he missed his chance at fortune and fame … and, yet, history – that cruel mistress – turned a kind eye his way. Gradually, his works became known to more and more readers; and some even suggest that he was one of the truly great authors of the 19th Century.
That being the case, it’s easy to see how writer/director Mike Flanagan decided that he wanted to shed some new light on Poe’s library; what I find a bit confusing is why he, functionally, borrowed so very little of it to bring The Fall Of The House Of Usher to life on Netflix. I’ve read on the World Wide Web that the series exist not as one but adaptations of eight Poe tales; and – while that might be stylistically true – what emerges on the small screen only draws on minor details to tell a much broader story … with The Fall only serving as a kinda/sorta bookend with which to introduce the Usher family and then host their inevitable demise.
Yeah, yeah, and yeah: I realize that there are those who are going to accuse me of nitpicking here, but – at the end of the day – that’s the job of any good critic. It’s our job to point out deficiencies. That’s why I’d warn Poe aficionados showing up to not look too deeply at this Horror/Melodrama and instead approach it as a larger work inspired by Poe’s narratives. (Otherwise, there’s very little literal Poe in this yet a good smattering of his best ideas.)
However, at eight episodes, I’d still argue that there’s a great deal of excess to Usher. The central story here – basically, the Ushers are undone over a pact with the Devil – could’ve been told in, perhaps, a two-hour telefilm; but the material was expanded to include the whole kit and kaboodle of the Usher clan. Unless I’m miscounted, there are six minor deaths before the big two bite the big one; and it’s here that Flanagan and his coconspirators tested my patience on more than a single occasion. Mind you: each character gets his or her requisite screen time along with the appropriately dark comeuppance. It may not be entirely original if not outright predictable, but the grisly ends certainly serve their narrative purpose.
The cast is, undoubtedly, pretty exceptional here. Not everyone is at the top of their game, but – like many great programs – it’s an ensemble that works: the stronger players elevate the weaker ones, and even when the action slows to a snail’s pace here and there everyone has a part to play in the parable of bad graces. I just wish the scripts would’ve saved some of the more interesting actors and actresses for later in the work: I understand the curse – that everyone had to go – but couldn’t the more vivid ones have lasted a bit longer?
In the role of Roderick Usher, Bruce Greenwood – perhaps one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets – plays the patriarch to perfection. He’s a ruthless businessman who’ll stop at nothing to preserve the family fortune even though all the while he knows it’s destined to vanish in a heartbeat when the check comes due. As his equally duplicitous sister Madeline Usher, Mary McDonnell never quite finds the right notes: she’s a bit too maniacally aloof at times – when perhaps greater mischievousness would’ve been nice to see – and I found it hard to see her as the central voice-behind-the-throne when it mattered most. The ageless Carla Gugino – who looks so good she herself might’ve made a pact – inhabits the mysterious Verna – i.e. The Devil – along with several other iterations of the character; and she characteristically oozes sexiness along with Machiavellian evil in ample doses. Though a goodly portion of the action revolves around the Usher children, this tentpole threesome – in more ways than one – remains that hidden beating heart at all times; and I wish Flanagan’s script had given the three more screen time together in the resulting build-up.
Also, when I was a young’un, the guys in my grade school would come to recess wanting to talk about the latest episode of Rod Serling’s classic The Twilight Zone that frequently aired in syndication back in those days. While they were huge, huge fans of it, I found it only middling – no insult intended to its greatness – because once you’ve seen a good handful of episodes it becomes increasingly easy to predict (or nearly predict) the outcome. In short, they all end with a twist of sorts, and these just deserts usually tie back to some flaw of the main characters. Sadly, the same can be said for the Usher children: whatever gluttonous choice they’ve made in their present will tie directly into their demise. As strong as these final flourishes are handled, they’re still all foreseeable once the seams on the fastball are visible.
And because this is big budget Hollywood production, Flanagan and his crew fulfilled the task of indicting the major ‘baddie of the day,’ and here it would appear that they’d like to bring a glorious end to the entire pharmaceutical industry. (Really, Tinseltown? Can’t you for once just let the Devil be the criminal? She’s right here in human form, for Pete’s sake?) Points are scored, and the Western way of life is attacked from perhaps every vantage point, but there can be no larger social ill than capitalism, of which the various drug making companies drink from the same trough. Usher is increasingly preachy the closer this one strides toward its big finish, and I would’ve appreciated fewer sermons. (That’s what church is for, after all.)
The Fall Of The House Of Usher (2023) has been the recipient of an incredible amount of critical and commercial praise; and – in all honesty – that’s the only reason I wanted to see it. While I’d never suggest the acclaim is unworthy, I would say that those looking for a faithful adaptation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe would be better served looking elsewhere as this really only grabs on a few key stories and, essentially, uses scant ideas of them in a vastly different mold. Performances are good, but the real reason to marvel at this one is its technical prowess: this is, arguably, one of the finest assembled works I’ve seen on television, and – if there is balance in the universe – it should mop the floor with contenders during awards season.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that I’m beholden to no one for this review of The Fall Of The House Of Usher as I viewed it entirely through my very own Netflix subscription.