Saturday, May 7, 2011
The Fall of the House of Usher
Today when I got home, I watched The Fall of the House of Usher, directed by Jean Epstein in 1928. It's obviously based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name. Not only do I love morbid, dark, things, I love literature - and predictably, I am a pretty huge fan of Poe. When I was in high school I'd listen to music, light candles, and read Poe or Lovecraft in my bedroom. Their fascination with twisted dark, and often sad things seemed to match my own obsessions. With Poe, you can just feel his torment seep from the pages of his writing. Not that I was anywhere near as tormented, but yunno, 15-year-old girls think they are.
The film changes a few aspects of the story to make it less weird. Roderick Usher, the owner of the creepy mansion, lives with is wife in film. In the story, it's his sister, and it hints at incest. He is obsessed with painting her, but it seems that her energy and life drain as he paints her. Roderick summons his friend to come see him, which is more of a narrative device so that the story can be told than anything else. Roderick is concerned that his wife may die, or worse, be buried alive, so he paints feverishly to capture her visage. Seemingly exhausted by the painting, she succumbs, but that is not quite the end of her presence in the house.
I brought up my vague history of loving this story because I was so struck by the visual style of the film. All those times I sat reading the Poe's story, I always had a very clear image in my head of what the mansion looked like. It was always a huge, cold, stone space. House-sized rooms with barely any furniture. Billowing curtains. Drafts. Strange patterns on the marble floors. That sort of thing. I actually (no joke) gasped out loud when I saw the house in the film - it was exactly like I always imagined it being. It felt like someone had reached into my head and pulled out the vision I had of it. Over-dramatic, I know, but it was so incredible to see the story come to life and fit with my ideas about it as well. I felt so enthralled with the movie, just seeing the strangeness and creepiness played out.
It's not a conventional horror movie, of course. It's a silent film, and lesser-known one, I would venture to say. It was a bit of a nightmare to track down a copy of it to watch. It isn't scary in any traditional way. No one pulls back curtains to revel something creepy. Nothing appears behind anyone when they look up from the sink in their bathroom. It's eerie, like many silent horror films. It's all mood and tone, and suggestion. I really like this, but I really like silent horror movies. They feel just like the writings of some of my favorite authors - more focuses on psychological instead of visceral horror.
The soundtrack of the movie is so incredible. Ebert says that it's a modern addition, which is interesting. It's such an eerie soundtrack. Lots of little plunking piano notes, sometimes mixed up in big, awful cacophonies. It feels almost more creepy than the rest of the movie. It really helps to create a dark atmosphere. Anthony was playing a video game while I watched this, and he said just hearing the soundtrack made him feel creeped out. It's very otherworldly sounding, I guess, and it makes so much of the movie just feel like a nightmare.
I realize that I'm making this sound more scary than it really is. It's not a "Oh my god I can't sleep without a light on" kind of movie. It's a movie that feels dark, like how Poe's writing feels dark. It's eerie because it brings up frightful and twisted human emotions. It addresses some of our fears about death and dying. When coupled with the disturbing soundtrack, it was just great. I know that the movie is going to get stuck in my head, and I'll think about the images for a long time.
"There are times when I think that of all the genres, the horror film most misses silence," Ebert writes in his essay, "The Western benefited from dialogue, and musicals and film noir are unthinkable without words. But in a classic horror film, almost anything you can say will be superfluous or ridiculous. Notice how carefully the Draculas of talkies have to choose their words to avoid bad laughs. The perfect horror situation is such that there is nothing you can say about it" (Great Movies II, 142). I think he might be on to something, here.
Have any of you seen The Fall of the House of Usher? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Fall of the House of Usher
Watch it on YouTube: