Allan visits the sinister Usher family mansion, where his friend Roderick is painting a portrait of his sickly wife Madeline. The portrait seems to be draining the life out of Madeline, slowly leading to her death.
Allan has a hard time finding the Usher's house, which is known to be cursed... But he is a personal friend of Roderick Usher, who lives with his sick wife Madeline and a doctor. Roderick is painting a portrait of Madeline, but every pose exhausts her. Allan worries more and more...Written by
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (Jean Epstein, 1928) ***
I had always wanted to check out this Silent version of the Edgar Allan Poe horror perennial, and not just because of Luis Bunuel's involvement; actually, he only served as Second Assistant in charge of interiors on the film – so much for the co-directing credit that is often attributed to him (including the DVD front cover). Ironically, when the disc was released by All Day Entertainment, I recall complaining about its "Collector's Edition" moniker when it was a bare-bones affair apart from an essay by the director himself – the company's President David Kalat, however, was prompt to inform me that the proposed Bunuel-related supplements fell through at the last minute.
Anyway, this is now my third viewing of the movie: the second had occurred either as part of an earlier Bunuel retrospective or to compare it with one of the many other filmic renditions of the tale. For the record, a viewing of the obscure low-budgeted 1949 British effort followed this re-acquaintance with the Epstein film, while I also own and have watched the U.S. short (also from 1928) and the 1960 Roger Corman/Vincent Price classic but there are at least five more versions I would be interested in catching (by such notable directors as Alexandre Astruc, Jan Svankmajer, Jesus Franco, Curtis Harrington and Ken Russell)!
That said, my reaction to the film under review continues to be ambivalent: to begin with, this is perhaps one of only two cases which can truly be described as a dream-like experience (the other being the equally haunting but more readily satisfying VAMPYR  by one of my favorite auteurs, Carl Theodor Dreyer); however, the sluggish pacing makes its brief 66 minutes feel long not helped by the archaic parts of the accompanying score (at least, some of it was suitably avant-gardist) and the droning narration, reading the English translation of the original French intertitles, by respected but heavily-accented actor Jean-Pierre Aumont!
Visually, the film really cannot be faulted as the Impressionist first half (with images that could almost be taken for paintings) giving way unsurprisingly to Expressionism in the much-anticipated high-strung finale. Even more than in MAUPRAT (1926), Epstein virtually lets the camera and the editing tell the story: the acting actually leaves much to be desired (especially since both Usher and his guest are way overage, with the latter bafflingly also made out to be quite deaf!); as for Madeleine, she is played by Marguerite Gance (wife of famous pioneer film-maker Abel – Bunuel's disdain of whom eventually cost him his job!), who manages the character's essential frailty and subsequent wraith-like features. Incidentally, Roderick and Madeleine are here husband and wife rather than brother and sister; other unwarranted changes to the source material were its depiction of the Usher mansion as something of a monstrous abode, akin to Castle Dracula, and the rather disappointing climax in which the Ushers actually survive the ordeal – thus rendering the title pointless!
Again, the power (and reputation) of the film rests squarely on its memorable detail: taking a cue from Poe's "The Oval Portrait", Madeleine's 'painting' by Roderick literally comes to life as its subject fades away more and more (at one point, Madeleine even feels her husband's brush stroke on the canvas, as if it had really touched her cheek); her eventual succumbing to catalepsy, played out in slow-motion; the lengthy ritual of her burial (her resting-place even lying across the river, a la Bunuel's own much-later THE RIVER AND DEATH ); her 'resurrection' (amusingly, the name Ligeia also crops up as an ancestor in the Usher family crypt!), with the sight of the casket moving about in the grave anticipating the surreal coffin-scurrying-through-the-wilderness sequence from the Spanish maestro's SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965), etc.
Despite the rather grainy DVD transfer (the faults of the print exposed all the more on my 40" TV monitor), the quality of the cinematography comes though – highlighting both the desolate, fog-bound landscape and the expansive interiors (the wind blowing through the house results in constantly billowing curtains and books falling from the library shelves in slow-motion); as already mentioned, Epstein practically runs the gamut of the cinematic language along the way, adopting such techniques as cross-cutting (at various points during one particular sequence incorporating, for no very good reason, a couple of frogs engaged in the act of copulation!) and superimposition, down to shaking the camera in order to evoke a character's disorientation. Unfortunately, the all-important closing moments of the film are rushed and decidedly muddled – even diminishing a nice effect ostensibly created by a constellation of stars, which appears in the skies behind the mansion, shaped like the Ushers' warped family-tree!
While highly acclaimed in some quarters - with hyberbolic claims ranging from "the finest horror film ever made" to "the pinnacle of artistic achievement in European cinema of the 1920s" - this version would be all but forgotten forty years later (it does not even earn a mention in Carlos Clarens' influential tome "An Illustrated History Of The Horror Film") and the exact same destiny befell Epstein himself later on, despite having been one of the three key avant-garde French exponents of the era (the others were the afore-mentioned Abel Gance and Marcel L'Herbier).
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