Silent Movie Watchalong: The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

Welcome to the latest installment of Silent Movie Watchalong! I’m doing a short one this time, but really, it shouldn’t matter much because this one is just excellent, and I’m sort of baffled at how it doesn’t get as much attention as some of the other films of the period.

Clocking in at a little over thirteen minutes long, this loose 1928 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. It’s visually stunning, utilizing a lot of cool prism and silhouette effects to give the whole thing a gloriously gothic look that suits the story very well.

After the title cards, we open onto a neat effect of the pages of Poe’s story overlapping across the screen, which soon fades to a striking shot of a huge gray sky with a castle and a man on horseback silhouetted against it. Then there’s one of those kick-ass prism shots of overlapping staircases, which are then pierced by a crack going down the screen which splits to reveal the inside of the house, with a woman sitting in a chair at the end of a shadowed hallway. So far this whole thing is just stylish as fuck, and I’m having a little gothgasm over it already, so you’ll have to excuse me. Ahem.

The woman, obviously Madeline Usher, gets up from her chair and goes into the dining room to join her brother Roderick. Both of them are wearing outfits and makeup I would kill for, with Roderick’s eyebrows being particularly impressive and drag-queen-like. Madeline has brought some flowers that she puts in the vase on the dining room table, and Roderick pulls her chair out for her, and it’s all very genteel, dontcha know. Madeline pushes her wine glass toward Roderick, all BE A DEAR AND HOOK ME UP WITH SOME BOOZE, BRO, and he has the black-gloved servant pour her some, after which she looks at him lovingly, thinks to herself IMMA DRINK THE HELL OUT OF THIS WINE, and proceeds to do exactly that, getting a little wistful expression on her face, like that’s a damn good vintage. Maybe it’s Amontillado, yes? It was certainly Fortunato’s favorite.

Then there is an odd shot of a black screen, with a covered silver dish floating in the center. It opens, and I can’t quite tell, but it looks like maybe a coffin goes in there and then the lid comes down on the dish. So someone put a teeny coffin on the plate in lieu of Madeline’s dinner, and this is a way bigger deal than just replacing her coffee with Folger’s Crystals, I think. The servant puts the covered dish in front of her, and she already looks anxious about it, like she knows there’s gonna be something in there other than the kale and tofu salad she ordered. The servant (who we don’t see, other than his black gloves) sorta waves the tray around weirdly before setting it down, and Madeline lunges toward it to open it, all STOP MOVING THE TRAY AROUND, DIPSHIT, I’M FAMISHED, and then the servant opens it a little to show her, even though we in the audience can’t see it. Madeline’s all WTF, WHERE’S MY SIDE OF CURLY FRIES, and she puts her hands to her cheeks in shock and the camera angle goes all askew.

Then we fade to a closeup of Madeline with her eyes closed, looking like someone dropped some roofies in her wine, and the covered dish is prominent in the foreground. Then it looks like she falls asleep, and there’s a shot of Roderick, wine in hand, looking at her like WHAT ARE YOU UP TO NOW, MISS CRAZY PANTS, and then he approaches her very slowly, pretty much leaning right into her face. She opens her eyes and stands up, lookin’ all hypnotized and shit, and Roderick is just looking at her all the while, like HUH. There’s a floating effect of what looks like that coffin again, and I guess only Madeline can see it, because she just zombies out of the room while Roderick watches her retreating back. I’m left to wonder if this is a common occurrence at the Usher dinner table, Madeline spacing out after the first course and wandering off like that. Maybe she never liked the food that was being served but didn’t have the heart to say it, so she got into the habit of faking a fugue so she could sneak out later for a sack of White Castles. Just speculating here.

Next is a nicely atmospheric shot of rain falling into a puddle, and then the horse-riding silhouette guy arrives in the most expressionist manner possible. He rings the doorbell, and there’s a shot of a bunch of bells ringing crazily (tolling of the bells bells bells bells, y’all), and then there’s Madeline walking through the darkened house, presumably to answer the door, but I can’t tell where she is in relation to anything else because everything is dark. The door opens by itself, I think, and the silhouetted guy comes in, only now he’s not silhouetted and there’s two of him like one of those high school band photos from the eighties, where he’s full length in the background and then there’s a faded closeup of his face at center frame. He’s wearing a rad top hat, and at first I thought he was also wearing war paint, in the form of a black line bisecting his face, but I think that’s just the background coming through the fade. He enters, gothically, and sees Madeline as she walks down a hallway away from him.

Madeline stops before a staircase, which is moving like an escalator, and she looks at it like FUNNY, I DON’T REMEMBER LIVING IN THE MALL OF AMERICA, and then there’s a creepy shot of top hat dude, and I guess he DOES have war paint on, because he just came from an Adam Ant cosplay party. Madeline walks past the stairs and does a dramatic JUST CAN’T EVEN kinda gesture, and then on the wall behind her is a huge shadow of a hammer or gavel banging, as though it’s hitting her. She’s all crouched down between more moving staircases that are presumably carrying invisible passengers to housewares, and then she faints and disappears into the shadows. There are more shots of staircase looking things moving and heaving, and this is actually a pretty cool-looking effect, very disorienting and indicative of the unfolding madness. There are shots of other moving things that I can’t tell what they are, though they sorta look like UFOs.

Then Madeline is reaching toward a wall, and either Roderick or top hat guy are standing near her, and the camera goes all skewed again as she reaches out. Then there are more UFOs, because this is clearly a whole invasion of craziness, you guys. Then there’s a close-up of Madeline’s face, and she has a black cloak and a black veil, and a black-gloved hand lifts the veil away from her face and then puts his hand on her chin and closes her mouth, because she was attracting the flies, y’know, standing there with her mouth hanging open that way. But then her mouth just falls open again, so I’m not sure what he thought he was accomplishing with that. He then closes her eyes, though, and that seems to stick.

Then we just see Madeline’s chest, and a black glove copping a feel over her clothes. Then a hammer comes down a whole bunch of times against a black backdrop, and then the hammer falls to the floor, followed by two black gloves. Then there’s Roderick looking at something and seeming all wigged out, but we don’t see what he’s looking at.

Then there are a bunch of prismic shots of Madeline’s sleeping face, and then Roderick emerges through one of those crazy expressionist doors that’s all jacked and crooked, and he looks every inch a life-sized ventriloquist dummy. He sees some shadows in the hall, and swipes his hand across his eyes, and then he sees that the hall is doing all that weird prism shit again, and at this point he must be thinking that the servant must have dosed them both. There’s a couple shots of Madeline’s big ol’ hand reaching for him, and more hammer shadows. And then Roderick is coming down the stairs swinging his arm as though he’s using the hammer, although he isn’t holding anything. Then he sees a shadow of a big top hat on the wall beside him and is all WTF, and then he sees an actual top hat and coat set on a table or something, and he just looks at it like OH, WE MUST HAVE A VISITOR, BUT DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THAT, TOO BUSY PRETENDING TO HAMMER. Then Madeline is walking around with both her arms raised, still in her trance, and then there’s like ghosts of her lurking around, and Roderick is all looking at them like WHUT, and then he sees like piles of books floating around in front of his eyes, and at this point I kinda feel like maybe the Ushers might benefit from having their house checked for a carbon monoxide leak, because shit’s getting weird in here.

Roderick sees the top hat bouncing off the floor in a backwards-running shot that makes it look like it’s kinda floating, and then there’s a prism shot of blank book pages, and then there’s Roderick looking like he’s about to blow chunks, while in the foreground, someone turns blank pages in one of the books. Then white letters begin swimming in and out of the screen, and it looks like they spell BEAT, or maybe BETA, as in, these hallucinations are still being beta-tested, so all features may not be available. Then the book floats and turns pages, with the top hat guy floating behind them. Then there’s another word swimming around, and this time it’s CRACK, so I guess now we know what substance the Ushers have been ingesting, so that’s nice.

Then there’s a shadow of Madeline appearing to lift up the lid of a coffin, or maybe a grand piano, and then there’s more letters, RIPPD and SCR followed by EAM. More shots of Madeline, more moving stairs, more Roderick with white letters floating around his head that I can’t decipher this time. More prisms, shots of Madeline’s feet. Then the top hat guy is sneaking up behind Roderick, perhaps so he can inquire where on earth they obtained the really quite fantastic drugs they both appear to be on, and then Roderick suddenly points, and Madeline is up there, looking all ghostly and shit, with black hollowed out eyes.

She tackles him and they both go down, and then top hat guy runs over there and appears to wrestle with someone for a second before noping the fuck out of the joint, leaving only his wee silhouette behind. Then there are shots of masonry falling, and water splashing, and what seems to be a blurry shot of a moon reflected in the water. Then, fade to black.

Now, you may have noticed from this frustratingly vague recap that if you had never read Poe’s story (and I don’t see that as being a problem for anyone who would be reading this, frankly), then you wouldn’t have the slightest inkling what in the Samuel Langhorne Hell was going on in this movie. In that sense it wasn’t a straightforward adaptation of the story at all, but more like a visual poem exploring its themes. I thought it was beautifully done and very effective, with some really eerie shots, but those with less esoteric proclivities may find it a tad pretentious, and that’s okay. I really dug it, though, and was surprised how fabulous it looked for being nearly a century old. Check it out, if you’re so inclined, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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