Movies: “The Fall of the House of Usher” … early examples of pushing cinematic techniques

1 11 2010

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The fall of the house of Usher” has been filmed several times. Two very early examples show how –what then were new — visual techniques are used. Only for the the cinema historians.


The Edgar Allen Poe short story “The fall of the house of Usher”  (1839) is about two twins — Roderick and  Madeleine Usher — who live in an ancient castle. An old friend of Robert’s is asked to come, to help Robert as he does not feel well. Madeleine is getting successively weaker, and finally dies. Robert is distressed, not sure that his sister is really dead, but finally agrees to her burial. Some time later, one night, a storm breaks loose. Madeleine (or at least her apparition) appears, and Robert and Madeleine fall dead to the floor. The visitor flees the castle, and the castle falls apart and sinks into the lake.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - front cover


It is definitely a story in the Gothic tradition. Death, maybe-death, nights, storms, strange signs and indications. Now, Poe is really not a Gothic writer, but it is easy to reinterpret some of his stories as horror stories.

This has been done by the movie industry several times, with different kinds of results. A version quite well-known in its time was the 1960 Roger Corman production, which helped type-cast Vincent Price as “evil man”.

Here we have two early examples of cinematic rendering of the Usher story. They were both produced in the same year (1928), one on each side of the Atlantic,  and with different approaches and fidelity to the original story.

The American film

The American film  “The Fall of the House of Usher” was directed by Watson and Webber, and is a short film (13 minutes) that really does not bother with the story itself. It just picks up a few components (the Usher twins and the visitor; the death of Madeleine; the psychic breakdown of Roderick, the return of Madeleine (dead?, alive?), and the physical disintegration of the House of Usher).


Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior

Watson&Webber: "...House of Usher" -- interior


What the movie does is to offer a portrayal of the psychic breakdown of Roderick, expressed entirely in visual images. Madeleine plays a minor role, as does the visitor. It is all about the state of mind of Roderick. A tormented mind … the pressure that it is subjected to and that it puts on itself … how it looks upon itself and the surroundings … All such things concern mental states, and this is where this film is using novel means to express mental states in images. It has obvious correlations to early German expressionistic cinema in the first half of the 1920s — e.g. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Golem (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Phantom (1922), Schatten (1923). The horizontal and vertical dimensions are twisted. Corners and angles are unnatural, visual patterns break our expectations, and so on.


Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


But there is also a second relationship, namely to European surrealistic cinema as started in the mid 1920s — e.g. Entr’acte by René Clair (1924), La Coquille et le clergyman by Germaine Dulac (1928), Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1929), L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray (1928), L’Âge d’Or by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí (1930).

As indicated, this film is not telling a story in the traditional sense. It can be understood in two ways. Either as an attempt to find cinematic means to express mental/psychic states, and just using one perspective on Poe’s story as basis. The other way is to see it as methods looking for an objective. Devising novel cinematic methods that break with traditional cinema techniques, … how can I put them to work, more or less as a piece of art? Yeah, perhaps as in this film. So we could equally well  look at it as a technology/technique demonstration, intended to impress with its novel ways of using camera and supporting optical tools and tricks.


Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Watson & Webber: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


At IMDB there are only three cinema items associated with Watson and with Webber, so what we see here was not carried much further by them into the context of movie production in the US. An interesting example, but not much more.


This film is of interest to those who want to see examples of the evolution of cinema … specifically what happened at the “artish bleeding edge”. Could be shown at the museum of modern art as an early example of what we now call “video art”. Now you know what this work by Watson & Webber looks like 😉

The French film


Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover

Epstein: "...House of Usher" - Front cover


The French movie — original title “La chute de la maison Usher” — is directed by Jean Epstein, a French director that directed movies from 1922  to 1948. The mise-en-scène we look at here is more faithful to the Poe story. Not that it is a literal transcription of the written story to the screen. No, there are many adaptations made, like turning Madeleine into the wife of Roderick instead of a sister. But most literary sources are tweaked when remade for the silver screen, so this is not a criticism of Epstein.

Is it a horror movie? Yes, and no. There are the typical ingredients of the horror movie, like fog, rain and lightning, unpleasant landscape, trees that look threatening, etc. But the film is not about an outer threat. There is no werewolf or such thing. Even the dead (?) Madeleine is not something that really frightens us. It is, again, a question of how we can frighten ourselves, how we may strain our mind so that it breaks.

The starting point of the storyline is that Roderick is obsessed with painting portraits of Madeleine. He is so focussed on these evolving portraits that he does not really notice how Madeleine is physically deteriorating. The portrait is more important … more true. “There is life in this portrait”; “This portrait is life!”. When Madeleine dies, Roderick is devastated, and not sure whether she is really dead. In the 19th century there was much worry about “like death” bodily states, where some such not-really-dead person was nevertheless  buried … so buried alive. This is the concern of Roderick. Is Madeleine really dead? He becomes more and more distressed, and then the stormy night happens, and Madeleine comes back, all goes “asunder”.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine


The visual rendering in this film is quite good for its time. The selection of camera angles sometimes surprises. The positioning of the entites within the rectangular view-port is innovative. But still, much of this film feels aged … a representation of what silent features of its day looked like.

Interestingly enough, Luis Buñuel has writer’s credit for this film. He soon became known (or , rather, infamous) for Un chien andalou and L’Âge d’Or, and much later for his provocative pictures in the 1950s and 1960s. The film “La chute de la maison Usher” is not a Buñuel film. He probably had only minor influence on the final result. But, most likely, Buñuel learnt a lot by being part in the creation of this movie.


All in all, this film succeeds in balancing the Gothic elements with traditional drama elements, and the result is a quite enjoyable experience, if you are willing to ignore a few outmoded acting techniques.


Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin

Epstein: "...House of Usher" -- Madeleine's coffin



(1) “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928). Directed by: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber. Story by E.A. Poe. Starring: Herbert Stern (Roderick Usher), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline Usher), Melville (a traveller). (Movie at IMDB)

(2) “La chute de la maison Usher” (“The Fall of the House of Usher“) (1928). Directed by: Jean Epstein. Written by: Edgar Allan Poe (story), Luis Buñuel, Jean Epstein. Starring: Jean Debucourt (Sir Roderick Usher), Marguerite Gance (Madeleine Usher), Charles Lamy (Allan, The Guest), Fournez-Goffard.  (Movie at IMDB)

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