Rounding out the final instalment of the fruitful and bloody partnership between the talented Mike Flanagan and Netflix studios sees the modern-day horror maestro turning his hand to adapting the sombre and gothic works of Edgar Allen Poe. Having already reimagined Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (among others…), Flanagan is a writer and director who seems to be little phased by the literary titans whose work he brings to the masses.
And The Fall of the House of Usher may be his most audacious effort yet. A verbose and captivating tale that uses the works of Poe as loose inspiration rather than literal adaptation, Usher at times feels like particularly grim season of Succession. Though rather than having their hopes and dreams dashed like the Roys, for the Ushers it is more likely to be their heads and spleens.
Telling the story of an unfeasibly rich family whose money has been made in the highly dubious businesses of the American healthcare industry, The Fall of the House of Usher is a sprawling narrative that jumps back and forth through time. Bruce Greenwood plays Roderick Usher (having stepped in to replace Frank Langella after some on set controversies emerged), a man forged by ambition, determination and a ruthless sense of self preservation. Aided by his incredibly intelligent sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), we watch through flashbacks as the devious and determined siblings rise to the top of pharmaceutical company Fortunato.
In the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy, Roderick decides to offer his confession to the determined District Attorney August Dupin (a magnificent Carl Lumbly) who has fought to bring him down across his entire life. Over the eight episodes presented, we chart the gruesome and occasionally heart-breaking demise of the Usher family as Flanagan touches on some of Poe’s most famous stories and reimagines them for a modern audience.
Returning cinematographer Michael Fimognari shoots in such a gorgeous fashion that the show itself is just wonderful to look at. Whether in glassy high-rise towers of Babel or quiet fireside exchanges, the show manages to creep and shock at a moment’s notice. As adept at building an atmosphere of fear and dread as it is delivering some truly shocking blows, The Fall of the House of Usher is a show that understands the minutia of the genre.
With the opening moments confirming that all of the Usher children are dead, the show wastes little time in throwing us headlong into the family conflicts and violent excesses that led to their demise. Each Usher meets a grim end that ties to a Poe story, and fans of the author’s work will be able to see what is coming from the outset.
But as with much of Flanagan’s work, there is no slight of hand or subterfuge at play; he is a writer / director who is not looking to pull the rug out from under the audience for the sake of surprise. Rather, he will spin a fascinating story that is engrossing and rewarding to the attentive viewer.
Flanagan has always been a terrific writer, and watching him and his team weave the disparate threads of the Usher children’s lives together in a tapestry of blackest night is truly a delight. In the midst of some truly shocking deaths, Flanagan never forgets that it is the humanity of his stories that bring us back for more. Each of the Ushers are well sketched out with their motivations and personal limitations clear from the outset, though some do get more screen time than others as the clammy hand of death begins to claim its prize.
Bruce Greenwood is fantastic as the haunted and broken Roderick Usher. Rich in money but poor in spirit, Roderick is a fascinating character that is played with a nuance and subtlety that would be lost in lesser hands. Hateable and pitiable in equal measure, it is a tour de force of a performance that requires a light touch to make sure that some of the series hammer blows later on land with the correct level of devastation.
Flanagan dips back into his sandbox to bring back some familiar faces that have worked with him previously on his Netflix run; Rahul Kohli, Kate Seigel, Samantha Sloyan, T’Nia Miller and Michael Trucco are just some of the faces that fans of the creator will be delighted to see, but I wanted to make special mention of with wonderful Henry Thomas. An actor who has been given a real career renaissance by Flanagan’s projects, Thomas’ Frederick Usher is one of the most repellent and hateful screen characters of the last decade; creepy, pathetic, spiteful and stupid, Thomas has terrific fun creating the physical embodiment of insecure masculinity.
The Fall of the House of Usher is a show where every part has been cast with a wonderous precision regardless of how large the role. Mark Hamill is almost unrecognisable as the family lawyer Arthur Pym, and though he does not have a lot of screen time, he still has a fully-fledged character arc and comes alive in the talented actor’s performance. Pym is the sort of character that leaves the audience desperately wanting more, and when his time in the spotlight comes, Hamill and his sparring partner paint a tragic and fascinating pair.
But central to the success of Usher is Carla Gugino.
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Gugino hangs over the entire mini-series as the mysterious Verna, a malevolent agent of dark and bloody justice whose motives are only slowly revealed. Sexy, funny, scary and beguiling, Gugino is the beating (telltale) heart of the series and manages to remain fun whilst engaging in some truly horrifying acts. Gugino has been a favourite actress of mine for a while and it is wonderful to see her given such a meaty role that allows her skills to flourish.
Paced perfectly, The Fall of the House of Usher brings its tale to a close with an episode full of heartbreak, shocks and some astounding imagery. When Verna finally reveals the full breadth and scale of Roderick Usher’s empire in all its ghastly glory, Flanagan creates a moment of television that is visually ambitious and technically staggering.
The Fall of the House of Usher may be Mike Flanagan’s swan song for Netflix, but he leaves behind a show that will be remembered for many years to come and a legacy of horror television series that is unrivalled. Is it his finest? Your personal mileage may vary (I still would have Midnight Mass slightly ahead of Usher) but it is an undeniably stunning piece of work which reinforces my belief that there are few more accomplished talents working in horror today.
In some pre-strike press, Flanagan had been very open about the fact that he and his production company were actively looking for a home for his adaptation of Stephen King’s masterwork, The Dark Tower. A winding, sprawling epic that is a mix of every genre of storytelling imaginable, I can think of no one more suited to wrangling the Tower books into a coherent and fantastical series than Mike Flanagan.
Ka is a wheel, so they say. Hopefully Flanagan will be the one to spin it.
The Fall of the House of Usher is streaming now on Netflix.
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