All the lessons I learned from those series [The Haunting of Hill House; The Haunting of Bly Manor] came to a head as I told Netflix I wanted to tackle some of the most important and iconic horror fiction ever written: I wanted to do a series based on the collected works of Poe, and I didn’t want to pull any punches. I wanted to tap into that feeling I had as a child reading his work for the first time; I wanted the show to fly without a safety net. I wanted to make something dark, beautiful, mad, and dangerous.
–Mike Flanagan, Foreword (The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories That Inspired the Netflix Series)
Titles such as Hush, Gerald’s Game, and Doctor Sleep have established Mike Flanagan as a preeminent horror-film director. But his latest streaming effort, Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, furnishes further proof that Flanagan does his best work in the limited-series format.
Perhaps the more apt heading here would be The Rise and Fall of the House of Usher, as the series tracks the changing fortunes of a contemporary American empire–a family that has grown filthy rich from hawking a dubious opioid dubbed Ligodone. Much like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, The Fall of the House of Usher presents a fractured storyline. The series jumps deftly back and forth between time periods: the year 1979, when fledgling schemers Roderick and Madeline Usher plot to wrest control of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, and attend a fateful New Year’s Eve celebration at a Manhattan bar; the present day, when assistant U.S. attorney C. Auguste Dupin has been called to the crumbling childhood home of Roderick Usher to hear the ailing, grieving patriarch confess his criminal trespasses at last; and the weeks just prior, during which all six of Roderick’s heirs perished, each in spectacularly tragic fashion. This achronological narrative approach naturally builds suspense, raising several mini-mysteries: Which of the Usher offspring is the alleged informant working with the Feds to take down the family? What became of Roderick’s beloved first wife Annabel Lee? How exactly did the ambitious Roderick and Madeline execute their hostile takeover of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals? Which hapless character is entombed behind a brick wall in the bowels of the company headquarters? Why is the ominously opportunistic Verna carrying out a vendetta against the Ushers?
Apropos of Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher combines the grotesque and the arabesque, the gory and the ornate. In this modernized-Gothic adaptation, the setting shifts from glossy offices and glamorous New York City apartments to abandoned factories and derelict domiciles (the stormy-night scenes of Roderick’s confession in a candlelit parlor–while Madeline bangs curiously around the basement–are the height of chiaroscuro ambiance and nerve-wracking tension). These locales form arenas of tremendous drama, as Flanagan offers clever updates of a host of traditional Poe motifs: premature burial and postmortem haunting, murder and madness, romance and bereavement, intemperance and terribly reflective doppelgangers.
The series boasts a terrific cast of actors (including recurring Flanagan players such as Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, and Samantha Sloyan), who give uniformly superb performances. Bruce Greenwood excels as Roderick, a modern-day Gothic hero-villain, at once debonair and debauched. Mary McDonnell, meanwhile, isn’t outshined when it comes to revealing dark depths of character: she utterly convinces as the cold and conniving Madeline. Carla Gugino, who adopts various disguises/personae as she stalks the Ushers, is a joy to watch operate. She complexly embodies a sinister supernatural figure whose portrayal could have slipped to the simply campy. Perhaps the standout of the whole ensemble, though, is Mark Hamill as the gruff and gravelly-voiced family attorney/enforcer Arthur Pym (a.k.a. “The Pym Reaper”). Much like the protagonist of Poe’s only novel, this Pym has quite an intriguing personal history, one (had Flanagan not severed ties with Netflix) that would make for a compelling spinoff series.
Undeniably, the source material incorporated here has long since been entrenched in global pop culture, yet The Fall of the House of Usher still manages to give fresh twist to the familiar. The audience has a pretty good idea where episodes with titles such as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Pit and the Pendulum” are headed, but surprises nonetheless abound (the series also benefits from unexpected combinations of Poe works–e.g., “The Gold-Bug” and “William Wilson”; “Morella” and “Berenice”). And the fun inheres in the journey as much as the destination: the setup of the episode-concluding set piece kills, which are stunningly visualized. The show consistently serves viewers grim fare, but it is seasoned throughout by a delightful sense of black humor. Poe lovers will be enraptured by the profusion of allusion (and explicit quotation), and fans of Flanagan’s series adaptations of the classics will cherish this masterful mashup of a horror legend’s macabre oeuvre.