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House of Usher

House of Usher(1960)

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American International Pictures and producer/director Roger Corman had a very productive relationship in the 1950s; the studio would give Corman pre-selected titles and pre-set budgets, and the resulting pictures were released to drive-ins and smaller hardtop theaters in a double bill. Careful advanced planning and selling would mean that a double feature consisting of (for example) Corman's It Conquered the World paired with the non-Corman film The She-Creature (both 1956), each shot in black-and-white on a 10-day schedule, would make a tidy profit once it played through its pre-determined markets and territories.

By 1960, market conditions were changing and Corman suggested to AIP owners James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff that they try making a 15-day picture in color rather than two 10-day pictures in black-and-white. Edgar Allan Poe's gothic horror story The Fall of the House of Usher was chosen as a property; the advantages of such a move are obvious in hindsight - the title would be familiar to anyone who had the story on a reading list in High School English class, and as it was public domain, the story rights cost the studio nothing.

With a larger budget, Corman was able to spend more on talent. For the screenplay he enlisted the established science-fiction and fantasy writer Richard Matheson. Matheson expanded on the Poe story for his feature-length adaptation, most notably adding a romantic angle. In the film, we see Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) approach the desolate and foreboding Usher residence, in order to take away his fiance, Madeline (Myrna Fahey). After warnings from the family butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), Winthrop confronts Madeline's brother, the enigmatic and hyper-sensitive Roderick Usher (Vincent Price). Roderick immediately tells Winthrop to leave the house; that Madeline must not marry or bear children because she suffers from the Usher family curse of slow-mounting insanity. Undeterred, Winthrop continues to try and persuade Madeline to flee, all the while noting the decay of the house itself in the form of tremors, falling chandeliers, and breaking staircase railings. As Winthrop reaches his breaking point, he finds that it is too late; Madeline has died and Roderick plans to entomb her in the family crypt below the house. Roderick has lied though, as Winthrop discovers from the butler that Madeline has suffered in the past from catatonic spells.

AIP co-founder James Nicholson readily approved of the Matheson script, but Sam Arkoff was hesitant. The story, he said, didn't have a monster - something AIP was very accustomed to playing up in the advertising of their horror pictures. Quoted in Vincent Price - A Daughter's Biography by Victoria Price, Arkoff said, "Roger had an answer...'The house is the monster! Can't you see it? It's the house!'...In the middle of shooting, Roger made sure he had covered his bases. He asked Vincent Price to utter a couple of lines that he had written into the script at the last minute - 'The house lives! The house breathes!'"

With a large chunk of his budget Corman wanted to hire an A-list actor for the pivotal role of Roderick Usher, and had only one person in mind: Vincent Price. According to Corman, the actor accounted for $50,000 of the film's final budget of $270,000. Price suggested to Corman that he bleach his hair for the role. As Victoria Price writes, "Indeed, Vincent had an affinity with Poe's characters. He was attracted to the Romantic ethos of these Gothic tales, in which hypersensitive men whose dark heritage combined with their refined sensibilities, doomed them to torment as outsiders. He would later say of House of Usher, 'I loved the white-haired character I was playing because he is the most sensitive of all Poe's heroes.'"

Corman made the most of a modest day-and-a-half rehearsal period for House of Usher. He was an engineering student before becoming a director, and would pre-plan movements of actors and cameras beforehand by drawing lines and angles on set layout sketches. By 1960 Corman had assembled one of the best independent crews in Hollywood, headed by cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller; like Corman, they worked quickly.

The striking opening shots of House of Usher show Mark Damon riding on horseback through the desolate landscape surrounding the Usher mansion; they were captured on film in a wonderfully Cormanesque manner: The day after reading in the Los Angeles Times about a forest fire in the Hollywood Hills, Corman arrived with Damon and a skeleton crew to shoot at the exotic (but very convenient) scorched location. The conflagration which ends House of Usher gets some of its scale from cutaways that Corman shot at a remote California barn which was set to be torn down. The director burned it down instead, and the "stock" fire footage that resulted was also used in other AIP pictures, including The Masque of the Red Death (1964).

House of Usher was the first film Corman shot in CinemaScope. He thought the property was not suited for widescreen, because "...when shooting inside a house, you're not exactly working with what CinemaScope can give you." Nicholson and Arkoff wanted the CinemaScope name on the picture, so Corman did the best he could with the process, and used a wide angle in the establishing interiors " give a size to what was, essentially, a not-very-big set."

The macabre Usher family portraits seen throughout the film were painted by a West Coast artist named Burt Schoenberg, who was, according to Corman, "...having something of a vogue in - what would I say - post-beatnik, pre-hippie coffeehouses and art galleries in Hollywood." Many in the cast and crew, including renowned art historian Price, were taken with the artist's work and took home a painting following the shoot.

House of Usher (known by the longer title The Fall of the House of Usher outside of the United States) was the biggest hit AIP had seen up to that date, grossing 2 million dollars during the summer of 1960. Corman, Price, Matheson, and most of the crew reunited the following year for Pit and the Pendulum (1961), kicking off the "Poe cycle" of the early 1960s.

Executive Producers: James H. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe
Cinematography: Floyd Crosby
Film Editing: Anthony Carras
Production Design: Daniel Haller
Makeup: Fred B. Phillips
Music: Les Baxter
Special Effects: Larry Butler, Pat Dinga, Ray Mercer
Cast: Vincent Price (Roderick Usher), Mark Damon (Philip Winthrop), Myrna Fahey (Madeline Usher), Harry Ellerbe (Bristol), Eleanor LeFaber, Ruth Oklander, Geraldine Paulette (Ghosts).

by John M. Miller

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