The House of Usher (1989)

FEBRUARY 28, 2021


I've seen a few adaptations of Poe's The House Of Usher, and the fun thing about all of them is that they're all different, for better or worse. And furthermore, all of them take liberties with the original story; the closest adaptation has been the Corman/Price one because it at least retained all of the characters, even if it changed their dynamic around. This one basically only keeps Rodrick Usher, the character Price played in that earlier (and best) version and is portrayed by Oliver Reed here. His character more or less remains intact to the one you'd know (mysterious ailments, lives in a crumbling house, etc) but everything else about it is so different it almost doesn't even register as an adaptation.

For starters, there's no Madeline here, or any other sister. Instead, Rodrick has a brother named Walter, and he is played by Donald Pleasence, so you get two legandary English drunks for the price of one. In fact it was one of two reasons I was excited when I saw the film was coming out from Vinegar Syndrome, because I had never seen the two together on screen and figured their scenes - whether they were partners or enemies in whatever madness the plot required - would be a hoot. Sadly, Pleasence doesn't appear until the 50 minute mark, and it's only in the last twenty minutes that he features prominently, so his interactions with Reed are pretty brief. It's a delight when it happens though, so it's kind of like Heat in that you might be drawn in by the "two legends together!" appeal but thankfully can find lots to like elsewhere since their time together is so short.

The other draw was because I thought it might be the movie I started watching as a kid because "Loomis was in it", only to be completely baffled and not finish it. I can't recall the title, but it was from around this time; Pleasence made a lot of junk in the late 80s/early 90s so it's not easy to narrow down from his filmography. Though now that I know it's not this, Buried Alive is my main suspect, so I'll pencil that one in and just appreciate that I wasn't confused by this one until the very end, when (spoiler for 32 year old movie ahead) there's a suggestion that the whole thing was a premonition from the main character. Unusual for a VS release, there's no commentary track to discuss it (either from someone who worked on it or some historians), but it's a shame that it has to end on such a weak moment.

Because otherwise, it's actually pretty good! Director Alan Birkinshaw was also responsible for Killer's Moon and even co-wrote some of Don't Open Til Christmas, so I was expecting some sleaze and some total nonsense, and I was not let down. Nor was I ultimately left overwhelmed by it; there's *just* the right amount of said elements, opting for a more slow burn kind of pacing until Pleasence enters the story and things get more murder-y. Our hero is Molly (Romy Windsor, who had a bit part in Face/Off and is therefore royalty), who is enjoying a vacation with her fiance Ryan when he is summoned to the house of his uncle Rodrick. Along the way they get into a car accident near the house (of Usher), leaving Molly relatively unharmed but Ryan in critical condition. Or at least, so Rodrick says. He, along with his creepy butler Clive, don't let her see him in the hospital or leave the house at all, so it only takes about eleven seconds for her to get that classic "something's not RIGHT" suspicion that has driven half of the horror movies ever made.

Though I doubt she ever could have guessed what was happening: her would-be uncle arranged to have his nephew killed so he could take her for himself, planning to plant his seed and continue the Usher bloodline. This is another change from the material, where ENDING the bloodline is Rodrick's usual motive; instead, those duties are assigned to Walter, but he's so crazy and murderous that any nobility of his mission is hidden deep within Pleasence's dialed up to 11 performance. He made this around the same time as Halloween 5, and he comes off the same as he did there (far and away Loomis' most insane appearance) as he wipes out the butler's family and then sets his sights on his brother and Molly, often using this little contraption he has strapped to his arm that looks like a cross between a handheld sewing machine and a bootleg of Freddy's glove.

So it's a movie about a woman who is trapped with one guy who wants to rape her and another who wants to kill her, and it's a shame Pleasence wasn't introduced earlier so she could make efforts to play them off each other while planning her escape, since both mean her harm but also occasionally (inadvertently) are in a position to protect her from the other. As a result it gets a little repetitive in the middle, focused mostly on her half-hearted escape attempts (most of which just involved asking any other party - the butler's wife, a random doctor, etc - to help her leave). Unless their schedules only allowed for a few days of filming (again, a commentary really could have helped here!), I have to assume Michael J. Murray wrote the script assuming two less interesting actors would be hired to play Rodrick and Walter and never bothered to update it to take advantage of these two titans of scenery chewing. I mean, this is a movie about a house that is falling apart - they could LITERALLY devour the sets if they wanted!

Long story short, Poe fans will probably be aghast (the "fall" of the House elements are limited to a few moments), but fans of the two actors are given just enough to enjoy here, and I was charmed by the low-key "erotic thriller" approach to the material. And by "erotic" I mean there's a wedding scene where Reed smashes the cake in his bride's face and then shoved his tongue in her mouth, licks some of the cake out/off, and eats it himself. If that isn't #cinema I don't know is. An interview with Birkinshaw (the disc's lone extra, though the package comes with a foldout poster) doesn't shed too much light on the proceedings, but he does admit that he rewatched the movie as prep for the interview and found it to be better than he remembered. He's right! It's pretty good!

What say you? P.S. This German trailer was the only one I could find, which perhaps explains why the Blu doesn't have a trailer. Maybe they never made one for the US? Also, it's part of Vinegar Syndrom's "Archive" line, and very limited, so the only way to get it is from their site. You can find it HERE.


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