Edgar Allan Poe’s most representative tale, crammed with madness, disease, incest, and characters grimly clinging to memories of a faded past, always had a European sensibility, and has spawned several movie versions from this side of the Atlantic. Jean Epstein’s avant-garde 1928 La Chute De La Maison Usher, animator Jan Svankmajer’s 1981 Zanik Domu Usheru, and dear old Jess Franco’s El Hundimiento De La Casa Usher from 1983 may all be eclipsed by the rarely-seen British take on the story, made in 1948 by Ivan Barnett for his G.I.B. production company.
Book-ended by hilarious scenes set in a gentlemen’s club, where the upper-class members while away their idle afternoons sipping scotch and swapping ghost stories (one dour-faced fellow unbelievably claims to prefer a bit of a laugh, but his sour demeanour and excruciatingly slow delivery make this an unintentional comic highpoint!), Barnett’s film rattles along at a frantic pace, and whilst not entirely faithful to its source, emerges as a genuinely unsettling exercise in fright. All the elements which Poe brought to the party are present, with Gwen Watford as a suitably doom-laden Madeline making a striking impression, but it’s the previous generation of the family which give this film its true impact - at the ‘temple’, a folly in the grounds of the mansion, we find a creepy-looking severed head which is shown in frequent close-up and which is suggested to be manipulating the events presented before us. The Usher family realise they must burn the head in order to lift the curse threatening to destroy their line, but Roderick and Madeline’s ancient mother dwells within the temple - though frail and elderly, her gradual descent into insanity has left her with the strength to tear a man to pieces, and she’s pretty handy with a carving knife too. This demented figure, with her straggly black hair, blank staring face, and murderous intent, is an utterly terrifying presence, and if the movie were better known, I’d swear her to be a major influence on the nightmarish Sadako from the Ring series fifty years later.
So, the Usher curse remains in place, Madeline is prematurely nailed into her coffin (the scene in which she grapples her way out is supremely executed, images of a loud ticking pendulum and hefty bolts being pounded into the coffin lid dominating the mortified thoughts of her sickly brother), everyone dies and the house collapses after being spectacularly struck by a flash of lightning. And off we return to the club for a final round of whiskies and an absurd discussion between the hooray Henries as they debate what it all meant!
1940s British horror has been a grossly neglected topic among film historians - everyone should be familiar with Ealing’s classic Dead Of Night, but plenty of other disturbing Brit chillers emerged during the immediate post-war era. The Dylan Thomas-scripted Three Weird Sisters, poltergeist-ridden comedy Things Happen At Night, and Norman Lee’s edge-of-your-seat adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw are all well worth seeking out, though Fall Of The House Of Usher might just top the lot in terms of sheer dread. An undeservedly obscure gem.