Warning: this article contains spoilers for the film House of Usher and by extension, the story it is based on. However, the original story is old enough and has entered so deeply into our cultural consciousness that I see no problem with discussing the plot points here.
House of Usher (1960) is a special low budget horror movie. Directed by the great Roger Corman, the king of B-movies and a pioneer in the world of independent filmmaking, the film is truly unsettling. Corman faithfully adapts the original story by Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps not always in plot but in theme, and the sickly psychedelic visual style adds a unique and appropriate spin on Poe’s gothic horror classic.
Vincent Price masterfully depicts Rodrick Usher as a kind of supreme protestant fatalist: he is certain of his own family’s evil and of the deserved judgment coming to him. Following this a feeling of intense guilt pervades the entire film. Rodrick explains his family’s atrocious history to Philip Winthrop–-who is betrothed to Rodrick's sister Madeleine and takes the place of Poe's original nameless narrator–-with the help of wonderfully insane psychedelic portraits painted by the character. The repeated visual allusions to and depictions of crucifixes create a clear sense of generational guilt. The Ushers are suffering from a kind of original sin, only in the film there is no redemption for them.
The most effective horror films amplify to the extreme anxieties and fears that are basic to humanity. The intense fatalism that permeates the film helps illustrate two of these major anxieties: the inevitability of death and the fear of mental illness. Death is everywhere in the Usher household. The land it is situated on is dead and the decay in the house mirrors that of a dead and rotting corpse. Even Rodrick’s affliction-–best described as an extreme sensitivity to the senses–-slowly forces him closer and closer to a corpse by taking away his enjoyment in using his own faculties, dooming him to a bland and dark existence closer to death than to life.
There is an incredible dream sequence in which Philip sees all of the past and present Ushers–-usurers, prostitutes, assassins, and even mass murderers–-energetically beckon him towards an open casket with a decorated skeleton inside it. The whole of history seems to be beckoning towards death and the fatalism so obviously displayed in Rodrick has manifested in the outer world of the house as an intense meditation on the inevitability of death. Like the original short story, both Rodrick and Madeline die and in the end Rodrick’s fatalism wins out over Philip’s optimism. Death may be inevitable, the film says, but it should still be feared and if Rodrick is to be believed, it is no release from the suffering of life.
The corruption and insanity of the film is wonderfully reflected in its mise-en-scène. The oversaturated colors that contrast so intensely with the run down house seem sickly, not vibrant and it is no mistake that the palette of the house perfectly matches the palette of Rodrick’s grotesque psychedelic portraits of the ancestral Ushers. The numerous high angles in the film suggest that the portraits look down on the characters like menacing predators waiting to pounce. The madness so evident in their twisted visages is too strong of a corrupting force, and in the end not even Phillip’s love can save Madeline. She goes mad and strangles Rodrick before the house collapses on them, killing them both. Madeline develops the same madness that influenced the ancestral Ushers’ evil acts. Despite her innocence, she belongs not to his world but to the world of the house, who’s enormous fissure reflects the fractured psyches of those that dwell within it.
What makes House of Usher truly horrific is that it presents the problems of death and insanity as inescapable. There is no grand solution offered to these anxieties in the film; Instead they are validated and strengthened by the events and visual style of the film. In the end it is no longer clear that Rodrick was the antagonist, something the film appears to establish very early on. It is no longer clear if Rodrick was the ultimate cause of the corruption in the house or simply another victim of it but the film hints that the latter is true. The only thing that is clear at the end is that Philip failed; that love cannot conquer death and madness. This bleak view of the human condition is the essence of the horrifying, and House of Usher delivers not just cheap, spooky thrills but also a bleak and terrifying view of human existence and the nature of suffering.