‘The Fall Of The House Of Usher’ Review: Mike Flanagan At His Most Cynical
Director Mike Flanagan has taken on the Gothic tales of our nightmares with his series The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting Of Bly Manor. His adaptations of Shirley Jackson and Henry James, respectively, are heart-wrenching yet utterly terrifying tales of betrayal, love, and what lurks after death. However, Flanagan breaks this pattern with his latest for Netflix, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, his take on not just one work of Edgar Allan Poe, but the writer’s entire body of work.
For his final series for the streamer, Flanagan opts for a cold, cynical tale about how power and money corrupt not just you, but your entire bloodline. It is a slasher-like eight-episode series that, in trying to tell such an epic story, ultimately delivers a surprisingly hollow experience that seems more interested in having us understand the motivations of an evil white man than developing the rest of the Usher clan as more than fodder for the claws of Carla Gugino.
Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) is the owner of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the powerful painkiller Ligodone. On a midnight dreary, he invites old nemesis August Dupin (Carl Lumby)—who’s been trying to take down the Ushers for decades in court—to his old house. Inside the decaying corpse of memories and regret, Roderick explains that, in the wake of the death of all of his children, he’s ready to confess to everything. From there, he launches into his story, which jumps around in the past, from the recent string of tragedies to when he (Zach Gilford) and his sister Madeleine (Willa Fitzgerald) were trying to scratch their way to the top.
From here, we see the various shocking deaths of the Usher family, all seeming like accidents or suicide. But, as we learn, a strange woman named Verna (Carla Gugino) haunts the family’s footsteps, claiming what’s rightfully hers. Each episode, named for a short work of Poe’s, is a contemporary interpretation of classics such as “The Red Masque of Death,” “The Black Cat,” “Annabel Lee,” and, of course, “The Raven.” Flanagan and the team of writers (including staff writers Justina Ireland and Kiele Sanchez) did an incredible job unifying the works of Poe into one cohesive story about a crumbling family of children trying desperately to get their dad’s attention by whatever cruel or illegal means necessary.
However, the issues arise with how much this narrative is trying to juggle, between trying to be an admirable Edgar Allan Poe adaptation while also trying to unite different layers of the past with the present. It’s not an easy task and Flanagan does an admirable job, but trying to include all of this story makes the first half of the series feel slow.
While the pace does pick up with the final episodes, the first four episodes are repetitive, and formulaic in a way that’s distinctly not Flanagan. It feels like a paint-by-the-numbers eat-the-rich horror with two-dimensional characters that are just abhorrent. This is by no means a call for the rich to be empathetic, but merely a call for deeper examinations of these characters besides making them all seem like the same monster with just slightly different faces. Again, with so much backstory to cover, there’s less time to let us care about the Usher kids.
And that’s a shame because Flanagan does try to give us a diverse group of kids, using Roderick’s inability to keep it in his pants as an explanation for why there are so many Ushers. Plus, a lot of the Usher clan is queer, which is refreshing! However, let’s just say these queer characters don’t fare well in the early episodes. And look, I’m by no means saying it was on purpose or that queer characters can’t face horrendous deaths. I celebrate it. But it’s just hard to ignore how these characters are specifically used even as we see more and more queer representation in the genre. Regardless, I do celebrate the unabashedly evil queer characters in The Fall Of The House Of Usher, I just wish they had even more time to shine (I’m looking at Sauriyan Sapkota’s Prospero and Kate Siegel’s Camille).
There are two performances that steal the show and the first is Willa Fitzgerald as a young Madeleine Usher. Her cool, calculated nature makes me wish we saw more of her interiority and her journey rather than her brother’s. Fitzgerald plays the genius young woman with calm charisma and a strong command of her sexuality, knowing just what she needs to do to manipulate the men around her. She is robotic but fascinating, empathetic yet cruel. With more episodes or more of a focus, Fitzgerald would have had even more time to shine.
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Then, of course, there is Carla Gugino who I would absolutely let ruin my life. Gugino knows how to parade around the screen with quiet confidence, cat-like, and never afraid. She is gorgeous but terrifying, always aware she has the upper hand. Gugino needs more roles as a villain so she can tap into that downright sinister side that’s ready for blood. She chews up the scenery as she waxes poetic before enacting twisted death after twisted death. In short, Gugino has never made supernatural murder look so good.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is distinctly Flanagan, but Flanagan at his most cynical. There’s a chill to the series that didn’t permeate his previous series work for Netflix, which I suppose is fitting for his ultimate project with the streaming giant. Ultimately, while not all of the story elements land, such a tone is admirable from a director so often lauded for his deeply heartfelt storytelling. He’s throwing audiences a curve ball with a pissed-off series about capitalism, the monsters it creates, and the sins of the father.
But Flanagan stylistic flares, great performances, and sleek production design aside, this series is ultimately a story about a rich old white man and what he’s been through, which, honestly, is a bit boring. It’s a confusing note for the show to end on when most of the episodes are a practice of calculated cruelty towards those following in Roderick’s footsteps. The Fall Of The House Of Usher is cold and empty, and perhaps that is the point. But it never commits one way or another to truly reach its full horrific potential.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is streaming now on Netflix.
The Fall Of The House Of Usher is cold and empty, a cynical look at the rich with perhaps too epic of a scope.