Netflix horror series does great justice to Edgar Allan Poe classic

Director Mike Flanagan goes out with a bang with 'The Fall of the House of Usher' as the eight-part horror show using Edgar Allen Poe’s story and poetry shines a light on the darkness of the human spirit in its pursuit of power.

The Fall of the House of Usher
Credit: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
The Fall of the House of Usher

Netflix horror series does great justice to Edgar Allan Poe classic

Over eight captivating episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher, his last to stream on Netflix, the writer and director Mike Flanagan gave us one of the most highly-anticipated shows of 2023, just before Halloween.

Known in part for his previous hit series Doctor Sleep, Flanagan’s newest project cements his name as a master of the horror genre, as he cleverly adapts an eponymous and haunting 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, a 19th-century American writer and poet whose central place in Gothic fiction has long been assured.

A compelling blend of literature and visual artistry, the show’s intensity is palpable from the very first episode, set in a church, as a priest delivers a sermon to Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), and his granddaughter for the funeral of Roderick’s six children.

As the priest wonders in his sermon why people die, Roderick appears to know his fate and waits for destiny to finally reach him after a lengthy pursuit that took all his children. Soon after, Roderick tells us the whole story as he meets a detective.

Borrowing from the original

A black raven, which first appears at the church, represents destiny and is an ominous recurring presence. This is a nod to one of Poe’s poems about a raven who pays a midnight visit to someone mourning the loss of their lover.

In Flanagan’s hands, this interprets Poe’s idea of the inner mind and his understanding of punishment and death.

Credit: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
The Fall of the House of Usher

The raven appears at each character’s death, not as a cause but as a sponsor, adding to the poetry and theatre.

Set between the 1960s and the present, The Fall of the House of Usher effortlessly juggles contemporary themes with classic elements.

The main plot takes a backseat as the characters’ individual stories unfold, intertwining with the appearance and demise of each.

The raven appears at the moment of each character's death, not as a cause but as a sponsor, adding to the poetry and theatre.

In Poe's original story, the House of Usher literally cracks and cleaves in two before collapsing into a lake, taking the tormented remaining members of the Usher family with it.

In Flanagan's retelling, Roderick and his sister are co-founders of a powerful pharmaceutical company that stops at nothing in the pursuit of power and control, even experimenting on humans and animals to test their highly addictive drugs.

A plague on your house

The stylised deaths of his children unfold as the family pays a heavy toll for its pursuit, battling the pain and darkness that accompanies their ruthlessness.

Unlike in Poe's original, in which the narrator is a friend of Roderick Usher's, Flanagan here uses Roderick's perspective to tell the story as a wracked patriarch confronting the twisted legacy of his company, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals.

Credit: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
The Fall of the House of Usher

The audience soon learns that Fortunato's profits are derived from the cruel and exploitative nature of its work, with illicit and illegal experiments conducted on people and chimps as the firm seeks to roll out its addictive drugs and opiates.

This web of cruelty, exploitation, and legal cover-ups unravels, however, when an informant within the family helps a prosecutor who has been trying to prove the family's guilt for decades.

Soon, damning evidence is brought before the court, including proof of medical experiments and their fatal results, both on people and the environment.

This is a horror, first and foremost, and — having established early on that they all die — the scene is set. Accusations fly. Tensions rise. Terror prevails.

Each character reveals a deep-seated hatred towards others. The father's desperate offer of a reward for help in discovering who the traitor is only heightens the suspense.

Credit: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
The Fall of the House of Usher

Roderick invites the public prosecutor, the family's nemesis, into the old house where he and Madeline grew up, to confess the truth.

The symbolism that Poe bestowed upon the Usher mansion in his novel is present here too, with secrets buried in its tombs.

Having established early on that they all die, the scene is set. Accusations fly. Tensions rise. Terror prevails.

Sure enough, a series of freak accidents befall the children. The perplexing failure of both the priest and the investigator to establish a cause of death for Roderick's offspring helps keep viewers engrossed.

The enigmatic raven — a manifestation of each character's inner thoughts, sins, and whims — becomes a kind of confessional seat and arbiter of reward and punishment, leaving those who see it unable to escape their fate.

The deaths of the various characters lead us deeper into their histories, ultimately revealing how desire and arrogance propel them to their destiny.

The father is punished through his children, and the unyielding cruelty of Roderick and Madeline is exposed by their determination to endure the escalating tragedies.

Lessons not learned

Inspired by Poe's distinctive writing style and narrative approach, Flanagan has destiny deliver its gory judgement without delay in a series that highlights the destructive power of the mind.

This is done by showing the father's cruel and controlling nature, raising his kids to be monstrous beings driven by greed, arrogance, and exploitation, and by showing them surrender to their evil whims and inclination to manipulate others, which ultimately leads to abuse and control.

Flanagan is fairer than Poe, however, by offering each character a redeeming quality, one that offers them all the chance to avoid their own demise with the aid of a friend, lover, daughter, or even animal, yet none take it. All play an active role in their end.

Credit: Eike Schroter (Netflix)
The Fall of the House of Usher

The cameras follow Roderick, his sister, and his first wife through a generation and up to the present, as he sees his bloodline diminish one by one, yet the family never learns from its mistakes. It never learns that redemption is possible and easier than it seems.

Even true emotional connections are twisted, such as Roderick's affection for his granddaughter, who he tries to preserve by creating a machine that resembles her.

The series explores the space between life and death, a favourite theme of Poe's.

The idea of death and the responses it evokes are ingeniously crafted by the director, drawing inspiration from the prolific author, who died in 1849, aged just 40.

Much like Poe's approach to the escalation of events, the show's storyline increases in dramatic intensity. Death is depicted through the destruction of the surroundings, such as crumbling buildings, or shards of glass protruding from walls.

Flanagan portrays death and its causes head-on, emphasising the darkness that comes from selfishness, financial and sexual overindulgence, the pursuit of power and reputation, and a willingness to experiment with human lives. This is all inspired by Poe's storytelling and is the crux of the horror genre.

Imagery and symbolism

The series goes further than merely illustrating the images and perceptions penned by Poe, delving deep into the intricacies of each character's personality, perceptions, and relationship with the world as they face their innermost struggles.

The work is based on the imagery and symbolism that Poe employed, from the titles of the episodes (each is inspired by one of Poe's works) to his perceptions of man's internal struggles and moment of truth.

The show's storyline increases in dramatic intensity and death is depicted through the destruction of the surroundings.

In each episode, the audience learns more about the characters, including their history, the approach they take to their actions, and their consequences.

For each one, a dense chain of events eventually leads either to a biological death or to a poetic death in which they stand alone before their sins and its impact.

Dramatic twists are undeniably Flanagan's, yet the characters' ideas and personalities, not to mention the overall story-line, is 100% Poe's.

American author Edgar Allan Poe in a photo taken circa. 1849, the year he died.

This results in a mesmerising fusion of subject, character, direction, language, and poetic destiny.

With verses from Poe's works recited verbatim by Roderick and the raven, the director transports us into Poe's imagination, giving the series a clear literary dimension.

In the hands of others, this poetry could easily have jarred or appeared out of context, yet it doesn't. It fits comfortably into its scenes, as a hand would in a glove, amidst the theatrical monologues and powerful cinematography.

With a dramatic twist to the principle of causality, and with epic horror filmography, The Fall of the House of Usher mixes aesthetics, poems, and imagination to illustrate the actions and composition of each character in the face of life's horrors.

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