By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In recent years, Mike Flanagan has firmly established himself as the king of contemporary horror television. Flanagan’s ability to blend genuine terror with profound drama is rivaled by few, making every show or film he works on certainly worthy of one’s attention. His latest work is The Fall of the House of Usher, an eight-episode series streaming October 12 on Netflix that will first premiere at this year’s Fantastic Fest.
Loosely inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe (and not just the titular short story), The Fall of the House of Usher follows Roderick Usher (played by Bruce Greenwood) and the rest of the Usher family. A mix of children from different marriages and relationships, the Ushers also consist of Roderick’s twin sister Madeline (played by Mary McDonnell); his children Tamerlane (played by Samantha Sloan), Victorine (played by T’Nia Miller), Napoleon (played by Rahul Kohli), Camille (played by Kate Siegel), Prospero (played by Sauriyan Sapokta), and Frederick (played by Henry Thomas). The show picks up as members of the Usher family, characterized by immense success and wealth, begin to die in mysterious ways and the patriarch Roderick reveals why this is happening to attorney Auguste Dupin (played by Carl Lumbly).
Tonally (and, strangely, narratively), The Fall of the House of Usher is surprisingly more akin to HBO’s Succession than it is to Flanagan’s other Netflix horror shows. In many ways, the series unfolds much like a spooky remix of Succession, one in which corporate greed and corruption are coupled with the occasional ghost or jump scare. Identifying this comparison isn’t necessarily identifying an issue with the series, as some of the series’ strongest moments come from the tension that is created within the family and business as a result of the supernatural events. That being said, viewers seeking a more traditional horror story like Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House may come away disappointed by how relatively tame The Fall of the House of Usher is. There are certainly striking visuals and certain moments that evoke true horror, but it’s never as downright scary as Flanagan’s previous works.
Nor is the show as ominous. The likes of Midnight Mass and The Haunting of Hill House were powerfully atmospheric, supported by emotive production design and sharp cinematography shrouding the frame in darkness and shadows. Conversely, The Fall of the House of Usher is a story primarily told in boardrooms or offices in the daylight. Again, in isolation it’s not a criticism, but is worthy of pointing out for viewers expecting another Haunting of Hill house.
Narratively, Flanagan’s employs an unconventional non-linear story-telling approach that makes for plenty of suspense, while never becoming confusing or convoluted. The crux of the story is told as a flashback as Roderick Usher recounts the rise of his company and the downfall of his family to his longtime rival Auguste Dupin. The flashbacks are layered, however, across different eras with certain key events being revisited every so often to gradually get a better peek behind the curtain. Perhaps most surprisingly about the narrative structure is that it reveals right off the bat that all six Usher children are dead. What could be misconstrued as an unnecessarily early reveal ultimately makes for an extremely intelligent story-telling decision, one that creates a menacing curiosity as the episodes progress. Many of the characters fates are sealed at the very beginning of the show, but the depths of the story, its supernatural elements, and the reasons why everything is happening remain a mystery.
Similarly unconventional is Flanagan’s approach to adapting the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Although sharing the same title of Poe’s iconic Gothic short story from 1839, Flanagan’s series creatively adapts elements and characters from other works, including “The Raven,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Tamerlane,” “The Premature Burial,” “The Spectacles,” and “The Masque of Red Death.” But these are far from word-for-word adaptations of Poe’s works and even a far cry from the Roger Corman and Vincent Price adaptations of Poe’s works from the 1960s. Flanagan seamlessly fuses different stories of Poe’s into a single, cohesive narrative that is firmly grounded in the contemporary era. It’s true to the spirit of Poe’s work and the themes the famous author explored while taking great liberties in bringing radical changes to key characters and plot threads. As far as adaptations of Poe’s works goes, The Fall of the House of the Usher is certainly among the most innovative.
More mixed success is found in the series’ ensemble cast. Bruce Greenwood plays the head of the family Roderick Usher after taking over the role of Frank Langella (who was fired from the project mid-production due to disciplinary problems). Greenwood is firmly the star of this ensemble and commands the screen from the beginning of the first episode until the end of the eighth episode. So much so that it’s difficult to envision how Langella would have tackled this role on a comparable level as Greenwood. Roderick’s six children are portrayed by a host of Flanagan regulars reprising their roles from the likes of Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and The Midnight Club. The Usher family is composed of children from various marriages and mothers all united under the patriarchal reign of Roderick Usher. The cast is generally solid, but there’s a few performances that warrant particular praise.
Mark Hamill plays Arthur Pym, whose nickname The Pym Reaper comes from the character’s trademark brutality as a ruthless attorney. Hamill has excelled as villainous characters over his filmography and yet is given something entirely new to do with Pym here. Hamill is ominous and terrifying in equal measure and is a captivating presence every time he appears on screen.
Also successful in the series is Henry Thomas as the eldest Usher son Frederick. Thomas, like Hamill, delivers a performance unlike anything found in his filmography to date. As the episodes progress and more is revealed about the nature of Frederick, Thomas’ performance grows in nuance and depth, ultimately making him one of the more intriguing and disturbing characters of the series.
Unfortunately, the non-linear storytelling necessitates the use of younger actors to play chronologically earlier versions of characters…and this just doesn’t work that well. Zach Gilford, another Midnight Mass alum, plays a young Roderick Usher, who navigates his way to the top of a massive pharmaceutical company. Gilford is a fine actor and delivers a solid performance, but it feels too incompatible from the performance Greenwood delivers as an older Roderick. Similarly, Willa Fitzgerald plays a young Madeline Usher in a good performance, but one that feels like a different character than the older version of Madeline played by Mary McDonnell. Fortunately, the younger version of Auguste Dupin played by Malcolm Goodwin delivers a believable performance that is compatible with Carl Lumbly’s performance as an older Dupin.
Ultimately, The Fall of the House of Usher captivates throughout despite losing steam toward the end. When the dust settles and the plot begins to wrap up, there’s somewhat a sense of feeling underwhelmed and that the events of the show were leading up to something a little gargantuan. It’s not an entirely botched ending by any means – just one that could do with a little more emotional punch.
The Fall of the House of Usher, Mike Flanagan’s latest horror series for Netflix, is an innovative amalgamation of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Lacking the spooky and ominous atmosphere of Flanagan’s previous works, his new series plays out like a supernatural take on HBO’s Succession. Strong performances from Bruce Greenwood, Mark Hamill, and Henry Thomas shine among a solid ensemble cast that struggles to make the transition from flashback to present seamless. An intelligent and creative narrative structure, however, creates a series that continually attracts one’s attention and fosters investment in the Usher family. Viewers seeking another horror series like The Haunting of Hill House may come away disappointed, but The Fall of the House of Usher is nonetheless a compelling family drama infused with interesting threads of the supernatural.