It’s hard to imagine that the house of Usher actually acts as a “house”. There’s very little in terms of warm, domestic quality about it: the halls are long and foreboding, the rooms are empty and grand, and it doesn’t seem accustomed to guests. Rather, its ornate decorations and intense lighting suggest something more of an Arthurian castle, full of fairy-tale supernatural qualities lurking in its grounds. Villagers shy away and whisper to themselves when someone utters the name “Usher”; a lone dog runs away at the property’s perimeter — the house’s haunted aura pervades anything that even dares think about it.
An unnamed visitor rides to this doomed estate of the demented Usher for little explained reason (not uncommon for the actions from the surrealist Epstein). Usher reveals himself as an artistic soul, neurotic about his wife’s oncoming death. When she does pass, Usher literally can’t believe it. He begins having visions about her presence, feeling her in the ghastly atmosphere of his house and claims the newfound theories of magnetism (yes, really) to be evidence for her prolonged existence. She’s spoken in terms of ghosts, shadows, and metaphors, but it isn’t until a dark and stormy night that she can be glimpsed in full bridal gear, rummaging out of her crypt. In a maddened fury due to his bride’s presence, Usher doesn’t notice that the storm has whisked his candles’ flames to the rest of his house. Usher, his zombie-ish bride and the guest finally retreat to the woods to ogle his house’s fall.
Madness, a lonely castle, and a dreary aura are not unique qualities for what is essentially a haunted house film, but The Fall of the House of Usher utilizes these common motifs to excuse its surreal ambitions. The building appears as a fragment of what once may have been a site for grand parties and culture. The owner, Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt), even takes to an impassioned act of playing the guitar and painting as his madness arises, perhaps acts out of habit to ground him. Though the end result of the painting is a traditional portrait, illuminated as something divine, the madness-prompted view of art is reflected in Epstein’s (and perhaps co-writer Luis Buñuel’s) images within the film itself. The painting is granted a montage sequence, used later many more times as a sort of poetic refrain, with a striking amount of double exposure on images of candles, the sea, trees, and the dying Madeleine (Marguerite Gance) all pieced together in a violent progression. Buñuel’s earlier Un chien Andalou looms as the avant-garde personality driving this sequence: close-ups, long-shots, and shaky hand-held tracking shots mix and mingle to disorient us, pointing to possible symbols in a sickening vision that may plague Usher’s eyes.
Though experimental in its form, the theory of art provided in Poe’s tale is undeniably a classical one. The liveliness of Madeleine drains away as Usher perfects his portrait, his face forming with tears from his proximity to its radiant pre-existence. By effectively killing Madeleine with his portrait, he is simultaneously immortalizing her in an ancient Greek sense, channeling the idea that art is for the glory of the gods and must be made perfect and imperishable. Its outdatedness shows as Usher panics upon realizing he may (or may not) have been her murderer: she’s a personal victim to his classical ambition. As a director working within the anti-establishment sensibilities of his fellow Parisian surrealists, Epstein loves to dismantle this conservative approach. In fact, the painting reappears in the various montage refrains as a haunted object, or a murder weapon instead of the immortalizing gesture it was supposed to be.
Poe’s name remains synonymous with horror and dread, though there are very little if any actual monsters or personified evil in his work. Instead, he focuses on madness, on the horror of the interior of his characters. Language allows reality and the supernatural to be blurred to a convincing degree, but giving a visual representation of this interiority proves a remarkable challenge for Epstein. The aforementioned montage sequences help in terms of perspective, but the gravitas of The Fall of the House of Usher (and what fundamentally separates it from the schlocky horror pictures at the time) belongs to its key actors. Jean Debucourt’s madness is not that of John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll, but an understandable emotional duress. Epstein’s camera closes in on his face, often in tears from the sublime painting or from the ghastly presence of Madeleine within his head. It’s too late for him to panic outright: though he is convinced that his love is buried alive, his body is in a constant calm-before-the-storm, his behavior frigid yet anxious. Similarly, Madeleine is nearly portrayed as a MacGuffin, nothing more than the object that drives the story. Yet, Gance’s performance takes this objectified role and transforms it into a work of experimental theatre. She moves from sick mortal to a still painting to a mere body to a dream to a zombie-like ghost with such ease and believability that her interpretation would make a chilling production in its own right.
The early surrealists worked most naturally with the themes and motifs of horror. Dalí frequently painted dreamscapes or fantastic images of the locked-away mind. Buñuel’s most memorable images behave like phantasmagorical nightmares — eyes sliced open, ants dominating bodies. Epstein tapped into this potential with The Fall of the House of Usher, picking apart Poe’s already-dreamlike narrative and interior prose like only someone seeking to redefine art could do.
– Zach Lewis