La chute de la maison Usher (1928)

La chute de la maison Usher is a French silent film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s been years since I read the story, and of the film adaptations, the one I’m most familiar with is the Roger Corman production House of Usher, starring Vincent Price. But I wanted to see this one, first as a lover of Poe’s work and horror, and second as a lover of silent film.

Directed by Jean Epstein with Luis Buñuel contributing at about the start of his film career, La chute de la maison Usher is not a strictly adherent version of the story and takes major liberties, some of which I enjoyed, some of which I didn’t. The focus here is more on atmosphere, with some exceptionally beautiful shots of curtains and lace in the wind. In fact there are several highlights to this film: wind, cinematography, and the expressions of Jean Debucourt, who plays Roderick Usher. The intensity of his expressions alone is worth watching the film for; his mad stares of obsession in his painting, his sorrow and loss at the “death” of his sister, his open confession that he knew he buried her alive, all are done beautifully with a face that always stands out from the background. More impressive still are many of the shots and multiple exposures. The funeral procession is handled with nightmarish intensity, as the pallbearers march bearing the weight of their burdens wreathed in candles, juxtaposed with images of barren trees. And the mental sickness of Roderick, emphasized at times with ghostly superimposed images and double-vision, really helps emphasize what was effectively hyperesthesia in the short story.

There’s a lot to love in this movie, and where it takes certain liberties I can see obvious influence from other tales. The introduction of Charles Lamy as the half-deaf guest and pseudo-proxy for the audience at a small tavern that refuses to help him when he says the name “Usher” distinctly recalls the beginning of Nosferatu, while Roderick’s obsessive painting of his sister, Madeline, as she visibly weakens into collapse feels like a reverse version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. 19th-century horror seems well loved and appreciated in this film.

Unfortunately I don’t think it’s always successful, particularly with the ending, after what is a very effective return of Madeline Usher. Neither of the Ushers die in the film, completely unlike the story, and instead the portrait burns and the house crumbles. I’m bothered by this, as there were a few obsessive and incestuous overtones in their relationship (Roderick’s obsession with her portrait, repeated visuals of frogs mating as Madeline’s coffin is nailed shut), and having them survive a tale in which I know they should die just feels like rewarding them for their behavior and weakens the overall impact of the story. They’re supposed to be sickly and possibly diseased, rot and inevitability are kind of the point. By letting them live, it cheats that inevitability.

Instead, to end on a high note, I want to talk about what was to me the most effective horror shot in the film. As the guest reads The Mad Tryst to Roderick, Madeline rises from her grave. The particular shot in question lasts no more than five seconds, mostly of lace flowing in the wind, until you realize it is the door to her tomb and Madeline is pushing it open for her escape. It lasts just long enough to see the side of her figure and then cuts away. It’s a haunting moment in a haunting sequence of film made brilliant by Epstein’s use of wind.

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