The ultimate ‘home movie’? Shot in the director’s back garden over a six-month period on an infinitesimal budget, The Fall of the Louse of Usher ought to have disciples of one-time ‘enfant terrible’ Ken Russell salivating, producers flinging open their chequebooks and showering the great man with millions, and the arts world in general besieging parliament and demanding that Ken be given a life peerage. What will really happen is that this camcorder masterpiece will be ignored by most, and dismissed as trash by 90 per cent of those who do manage to see it. If you’ve got the slightest interest in movie mavericks, outrageous visual style, Edgar Allan Poe, or fighting against adversity, I urge you to seek out Salvation’s DVD release of Usher wherever you can.
Russell’s approach to Poe mirrors that of Dario Argento’s Black Cat segment from Two Evil Eyes - colloquially renaming a central figure (here, ‘Roddy Usher’), positioning the character at the heart of the creative world (Russell’s Usher being a successful rock star), and tenuously alluding to various Poe tales throughout. James Johnston, of ace swamp-noise merchants Gallon Drunk, makes a creditable acting debut, following in the footsteps of Russell’s previous music industry collaborator Roger Daltrey, and finds himself caught up in a demented nightmare world, suspected of murdering his wife and trapped within the asylum of the crazed Dr. Calahari (Russell, enjoying himself immensely in the role!).
That’s the set up, but it doesn’t really matter, as Ken randomly flings in bits and pieces from Poe’s Ligeia, Facts in the Case of Monsieur Valdemar, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Premature Burial, and Annabel Lee; whipped into the heady brew are naughty nuns, a sexy nurse, copulating spirits, possessed children, and a remote-controlled gorilla known affectionately as ‘Gori’! There’s a Pit and the Pendulum set-piece which somehow involves a whitewall tyre and a massive dose of Viagra; Valdemar dissolves into the usual pile of goop, but not before Calahari has attempted revival via the use of an economy defibrillator consisting of two domestic irons; one of the film’s most effective scares has a post-coital Usher discovering the nurse’s fake body parts strewn about the adjacent bathroom, leaving him to ponder precisely what he’s been romping beneath the covers with; sex toys, party hats, and Halloween masks contribute enormously to the sense of fun and general don’t-give-a-damn spirit of the production; you’ll discover why Snow White’s little-known 8th dwarf was called ‘Choppy’; and as for the House of Usher itself, the doomed property here happens to be represented by Ken’s garden shed! Indeed, the titular ‘fall’ is a colourful, ridiculous, wild and utterly delightful sequence which stands comparison with anything Russell has previously presented on screen, proof positive that although his financiers may have deserted him, his talent certainly has not.
All this, and I’ve not even mentioned the rubber room orgy sequence in which a couple of dozen blow-up sex dolls are defiled by inflatable Godzillas!
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.