Sunday, November 16, 2014

Poe 1960, Pt. 2

(Continued from Poe 1960, Pt. 1)

American International Pictures  /  Roger Corman

 "HOUSE OF USHER"

This is a special page, a diversion from the purely comics-based focus of this project.  While there have been countless Poe-based films over the decades, arguably the most signnificant may be the 1960 "HOUSE OF USHER", produced and directed by Roger Corman, and with a screenplay by Richard Matheson.

According to the book "BRILLIANCE ON A BUDGET", which was both an informative and highly amusing overview of Corman's career, the director had gotten tired of the usual habit of doing a double-feature for the drive-in circuits in B&W over a 2-week schedule.  Inspired by the revival of 1930s & 40s Universal horror films on television, and the recent gothic revival in color from Hammer Films in England, he proposed a single color film with a 2-week production schedule, based on the works of Poe.  "USHER" had been filmed multiple times by then (and would be again in the years since), and like Arthur Conan Doyle's "THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES" or Bram Stoker's "DRACULA", has continued to prove popular with audiences.

Expanding a short-story to feature-length can prove challenging, but Matheson, already a veteran of science-fiction and horror, including Rod Serling's tv series THE TWILIGHT ZONE, was more than up to the task.

Movie poster, painting by Reynold Brown
As anyone following this blog may have noticed by now (either from the comics versions or from reading the actual Poe text), in the original story, the writer, an old friend of Roderick Usher, goes to visit him at his family home in response to an urgent plea for help, to see if he can be drawn out of a terminal state of anxiety and depression.  Alas, it doesn't work, and once there, he briefly sees Roderick's deathly-ill sister Madelaine, who dies shortly after.  Rather than bury her immediately, she is interred temporarily for a 2-week period, as part of a bizarre family "tradition".  Afterwards, Roderick's uneasy behavior continues to increase, until he at last reveals that many in his family suffer from catalepsy-- an illness giving the appearance of death-- and that he is terrified that his sister may have been buried alive!  When this proves to be the case (Roderick's overly-acute sense of hearing revealed to him long before this that she was, in fact, not dead yet), and she violently breaks free of her coffin and confronts him, the shock causes him to die of a heart attack, even as she too expires.  Fleeing from the scene, the narrator then witnesses the house ITSELF collapse and vanish into the swampy mire it stood in, all trace of both it and the family that resided there, gone forever.

British movie poster, artist unknown
Richard Matheson's screenplay, while maintaining intact the physical structure of the short story, actually totally upends it, as far as the characters and their relationships go.  In Corman's film, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives to visit Madelaine (Myrna Fahey), who he met, fell in love with and became engaged to while in college in Boston.  He has never met Roderick (Vincent Price), and is greeted with overwhelming resistence and suspicion.  Rather than a mere tragic, innocent victim, the film's Roderick becomes a genuine villain-- as he DELIBERATELY has his sister Madelaine buried alive, knowing full well she isn't dead, explaining at length that he "had to do it".  The film's Madelaine appears full of life and healthy, totally at odds with the corpse-like appearance she has in Poe's original story, thus making her fate all the more tragic and uncalled-for.  Even the loyal family retainer Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) is not innocent in the film, for as well-meaning as he seems to be, he knew full well what was going on, and was merely following his master's orders.  This is revealed when he asks, "Sir, was it really necessary?"

Mark Damon, Vincent Price, Myrna Fahey
Each time I watch the film, I continue to marvel at how well-constructed the storyline is, and what an amazing miracle Matheson succeeded in pulling off.  Although so different from the original, the film really works on its own terms.

Philip approaches the House Of Usher
It worked so well that Corman's bosses at American International insisted he do another one.  After briefly considering "THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH", instead, he tackled "PIT AND THE PENDULUM".  When I began watching Corman's Poe films in sequence (he wound up doing a total of 8 before finally calling it quits), I couldn't help but notice that in many ways, "PIT" contained many elements already seen in "HOUSE".  It reused so many, in fact, beginning with both films starting with someone arriving at the mansion only for the butler to try turning him away, that I began to jokingly call the film "HOUSE OF USHER 2".  But rather than be a cheap knock-off sequel, it actually builds and improves on the earlier film, in the same way as James Whale's "THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN" did.

What really caught me by surprise while doing this Poe comics project, was noting the various elements from the CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED version of "USHER" that turned up in the 2nd film.  This included the physical appearance of Vincent Price's character, the general look of the mansion's interior, and the appearance of the family physician --all of which were NOT in the 1st film.  The comic would have been in print when the film was done, so it's not outside the realm of possibility that it may well have inspired Corman, Matheson, or production designer Daniel Haller!

One of the special features in the film were a series of paintings, mostly portraits of the Usher ancestors, done by artist Burt Schoenberg.  In keeping with this blog's focus on art, here they are!

The House (allegedly painted by Roderick himself)
"Anthony Usher – thief, usurer, merchant of flesh"
"Bernard Usher – swindler, forger, jewel thief, drug addict"
"Francis Usher – professional assassin"
"Vivian Usher – blackmailer, harlot, murderess, she died in the mad house"
"Captain David Usher – smuggler, slavetrader, mass murderer"
--Roderick Usher to Philip Winthrop

The was, apparently, no comics adaptation of this movie.
However, there would be for several of the sequels!

Copyright (C) 1962 by Alta Vista Productions.

For more:
Read about American International Pictures at Wikipedia.
Read about Roger Corman at Wikipedia.
Read about Richard Matheson at Wikipedia.
Read about Vincent Price at Wikipedia.
Read about the film at the Cinefantastique Online site.
Read about the film at the My Movie Addiction blog.
Read about Burt Schoenberg's work at The Girl Who Knew Too Much site.

Read about Basil Rathbone at Wikipedia.
Read about THE WEIRD CIRCLE radio show at Wikipedia.
Read about Gladys Thornton at the IMDB site.
Read about the ESCAPE radio show at Wikipedia.
Read about Paul Frees at Wikipedia.
Read about THE CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER at Wikipedia.
Read about Kevin McCarthy at Wikipedia.
Read about Arnold Moss at Wikipedia.

Read about THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER at Wikipedia.
Read the complete story at the xroads.virginia.edu site.

Hear the Basil Rathbone recording!
Hear the Gladys Thornton WEIRD CIRCLE episode!
Hear the Paul Frees ESCAPE episode!
Hear the Kevin McCarthy CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER episode!

Read the Gus Schrotter HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Harley M. Griffiths HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Steve Ditko HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Tom Sutton HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Jerry Grandenetti HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Cirilo Munoz HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!
Read the Martin Salvador HOUSE OF USHER adaptation!

See my Edgar Allan Poe overview at this very blog!

(Continued in Poe 1960, Pt. 3)

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