OCTOBER 11, 2013
I'm sure I've said this here before, but I'll risk repeating myself just to be sure: If you go all October without watching a Vincent Price movie, you're doing something wrong. I see folks watching hardcore gore films for the season, and I'm not going to say they're WRONG, but to me the old Price films are far better suited to get you into the Halloween mood, as they've got a devilish charm that matches the spirit of the holiday - something a splatter movie doesn't quite have. And Scream Factory seemingly agrees; their big release for the month is a boxed set featuring six of his classics, starting with The Fall Of The House Of Usher (sometimes just House Of Usher), which was also the first of his seven (!) Poe adaptations with Roger Corman.
And it's also where I started with the set, as I saw the film pre-HMAD and thus never wrote a review of it before (the other films on the set are mostly reviewed here, albeit without the audio commentaries and other bonus features Scream has assembled for this release). Plus, it had been so long that I couldn't remember much about it beyond the fact that it was similar to a couple of their others in that it involved a guy coming to an isolated manor owned by Vincent Price and inquiring about a loved one, finding himself at odds with the man, and, after some reveals, narrowly escaping with his life as the house (and Price) perished behind him. Corman was famous for reusing sets and such, but I suspect he was cribbing from his own scripts quite a bit as well.
That said, it doesn't diminish from the movie's power (plus it was the first one anyway), as this is a terrific start to the "franchise" and very much worthy of its inclusion into the National Film Registry (one of the few horror films to earn that honor - even The Wolfman hasn't been honored as of yet). Of course, it's not much of a horror film, as it's never made clear whether or not Usher (Price) is right when he says that the house is alive and cursed, or if he's just been driven mad due to his ailments, but it's still got a few tropes of the haunted house film. Our hero (Mark Damon) hears strange noises, is almost killed by a falling chandelier, and as per cinematic law there's a crypt in the basement (complete with cobwebs and a rat), giving the film the SENSE of a haunted house without actually being one. Nice trick, that.
Horror or not, though, it's another wonderful performance by Price, who sheds his dry sense of humor (and his facial hair!) to play a tough role of a man who may or may not be a villain. Throughout the film he urges Damon's character (fiance to Usher's sister, also "cursed") to just leave, and if you take his word about the house's power as fact, then he's just trying to save the guy's life. However, if he's just insane, he's dragging his sister (and their poor butler, the only other character in the film) down with him, making him less sympathetic. Price can easily play this gray area, and he even manages to invoke a few minor chuckles along the way; when Damon suggests that the house can't be responsible for the things that have happened, Price replies "Oh you think this is NORMAL?" without missing a beat.
See that's the cool thing about the movie - it can very easily just be a perfect storm of unfortunate events giving the illusion of a curse. The house is said to be on a fissure, so the constant shifts and rumbles may be just as "cursed" as any home along the San Andreas fault, and Price's symptoms can be explained away as Hyperacusis (sensitivity to sound), Photophobia (light), etc. It's interesting that we never see the sister react as strongly as Price, she SAYS that the light hurts but doesn't flinch, whereas Price is constantly grimacing whenever lightning strikes outside. Corman's decision to never come down hard on either side makes it more interesting, and either way it's a more melancholy film than one would expect from Corman OR Price.
Indeed, it's one of the more faithful of their Poe adaptations (at least one of which was actually based on another author's work entirely, using only Poe's title). In the original story the hero wasn't involved with Usher's sister, and actually was a close friend of Usher's instead of a "rival" as is the case here, but otherwise it sticks to the concept and the ending, with the house sinking into the moor, taking its inhabitants with it. And the story was long enough that they didn't have to add in a bunch of other stuff to make feature length, such as Pit and the Pendulum. Eventually they'd figure out that they could just do anthology films using three short stories rather than try to pad out one of them, but I never got the sense that this one felt like it was stretching even if it does come in at exactly 80 minutes (including an intro that just plays the theme over a title card before the actual credits begin).
Ironically, the one thing that COULD be construed as a time-stretching diversion, a nightmare scene around the one hour mark, is one of the film's highlights. For starters, it actually RESEMBLES a real dream one would have, and is presented as one right off the bat instead of the usual horror movie trick of trying to fool the audience. And it's got all these crazy colors and Price at his creepiest (and it's the only time in the movie you see anyone besides the four principal actors), so even if it could easily be removed, plot-wise, I doubt anyone has ever complained about its addition.
The Blu-ray has TWO audio commentaries, though one isn't full length and rather unnecessary to anyone who's already read up on Price's life. Ignoring the film entirely, it just has an expert on the man and a decent (if exaggerated) impressionist talk about the actor's love of art and cooking, and how he began his acting career. So she provides the background info, and then the impressionist guy plays Price with (what I assume are) direct quotes from his autobiography or something. Bizarre concept, but I'm all for trying new things. Of much more use is the full commentary by Corman, recorded in 2001 or so (he says it's been 40 years). As I've said before his commentaries are always must-listens (for his newer Syfy films, they're of far more value than the films themselves), and this is no exception; he covers the genesis of the project, his approach to the sets and blocking, and tells some of his always hilarious anecdotes about cutting corners or doing things the "wrong" way in order to get more production value (one highlight is explaining how he had a guy keep the fire marshal distracted during the shooting of the finale so that they could get away with more dangerous shots). Finally, a 40 minute audio interview with Price is included; there isn't much to look at (they change the shot a few times) and it seems to be part of a larger chat as it ends with House on Haunted Hill, but it's a delight to listen to him tell stories of the early part of his career. The trailer and some stills are also included, making this a special edition that would have been a good value had it been sold on its own.
The other films on the set are Pit and the Pendulum, The Haunted Palace, Masque of the Red Death, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and Witchfinder General. A fine collection, though not even close to complete, so hopefully this will just be the first volume of an annual tradition (since most of them are owned by MGM, who seemingly has a strong partnership with Scream/Shout!, it's not a stretch to believe more could be coming). Volume 2 - the other 3 Poe films, the Phibes sequel, Theatre of Blood, and Madhouse, perhaps? Even without a bunch of bonus features (the set also includes a booklet with an essay on Price and stills/posters for all six films), it'd be great to have all of them in a shelf space-saving package and in typically solid high def transfers. Hopefully horror fans still have leftover money in their wallets (they've been knocking out must-have releases almost every week for the past two months) to pick it up and ensure that further sets are worth putting together.
What say you?
P.S. Keep an eye on Badass Digest and Fangoria for reviews of some of the other films. I won't have time to go through the whole set before it hits shelves on October 22nd, and I've already reviewed most of the other films here on HMAD anyway, but Phibes was another pre-HMAD entry and the number of bonus features on the others assures I can find something new to say about one of them (either Masque or Pendulum, I would guess).