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Home > ‘The Fall of the House Usher:’ Is This Mike Flanagan’s Best Series?

‘The Fall of the House Usher:’ Is This Mike Flanagan’s Best Series?

"The Fall of the House of Usher" falls short of the dark and dreary. The Usher family home.

The Series Fails to Capture the Macabre Tone of Poe’s Work

Mike Flanagan’s career has been on a chthonic rise for the past few years, culminating in what many believe to be his pinnacle work in the Netflix Horror Anthology The Fall of the House of Usher; every episode of the limited series, a contemporary reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous works of gothic horror all framed against the larger narrative of Roderick Usher’s life and his titular fall. But if viewers expect something dark and dreary, they will be left wanting. Beware, spoilers ahead!

Light in the Darkness

While The Fall of the House of Usher underwhelms as a horror anthology, let’s start with the many things that the show does incredibly well. Firstly, Poe is a perfect vehicle for Flanagan’s well-known love of monologue; every character is a walking soliloquy. Monologues aren’t as prevalent in film as in other mediums, and it’s nice to see writers planting their flag on this particular hill and allowing their characters to richly exposit their worldviews in admittedly indulgent ways. 

Secondly, Flanagan and his scribes do an excellent job of bridging these curated and well-known works of Poe into a thoughtful, complete narrative that makes sense. The intention is evident, and the goal is admirable. It’s amazing when one considers how different each of Poe’s stories was and tries to wedge them all together under one tableau. It is challenging to adapt just one story, but to adapt all of them? One must admire the panache shown by the story team. As one of the more underwritten characters in the anthology, Roderick Usher helps in this regard, letting the other stories flesh out his otherwise blank slate of backstory. 

Finally, the show does a thoughtful job of contemporizing the gothic horror through a modern lens. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a particularly difficult story to place in a current context, but placing it at the feet of the animal pharma testing industry gives it relevance for modern audiences. Likewise, using the stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” to explore the medical industry as well as the unregulated third-party market and the clever reimagining of “The Pit and the Pendulum” to consider real-estate development helps to broaden the reach of the powerful Usher family. The show is doing a lot, and it’s doing it all at once, and that is part of the problem. 

Underwhelming Horror

It’s hard to talk about horror without talking about tone – the lens through which the piece is viewed. The tone in horror is a spectrum – it can be campy like Cabin in the Woods, or it can be deeply unsettling like Seven, but it’s challenging to be both, and Fall of the House of Usher fails in that regard. The show never seems to settle on its tone, waffling back and forth between broad comedy (such as Usher asking Pym to enhance video footage) and a dark satire about familial madness. It’s hard to know how to feel about these characters when the tone vacillates so wildly, as one never knows if they should laugh or be scared or both. As such, the viewer can be left feeling more confused than on edge. Poe’s work was somber and maddening, something the series never quite captures over its eight episodes.

Rather than the dark, long past their grandeur estates haunted by the characters of Poe’s work, the Ushers live in brightly lit penthouses and well-maintained estates.  Everything is clear and visible. Even scenes set in abandoned buildings and old decrepit mansions feel so well-lit that they leave nothing lurking in the shadows. When compared to something like The Haunting of Hill House, the shadows were rich and full of hidden dangers, leering faces, and looming specters that entire videos were devoted to discovering all the hidden ghosts in the show! Not so here. There are very few lurking terrors found in the dark corners of the Usher estate.

While jump scares can be a useful tool in horror, the jump scares here are entirely predictable, as we consistently realize that each new story will bring a newly dead Usher family member forth to tell their tale, pun intended. The brooding Usher clan even looms around a boardroom table at one point, as though waiting to vote on some important matter, in clear view and less scary with every passing second. There’s something to be said for holding back in horror and letting our imaginations do the work for us, but in this particular case, the horror is on full display, paint-by-numbers style.

Part of the problem might be Netflix as a hosting service. Between the decision to make the Usher’s dope sick-like drug lords down to the decision for Lenore to be a baker in a not-so-subtle nod to Is It Cake?, the show seems almost trying to remind us of Netflix’s other offerings.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" fails the dark and dreary of Edgar Allen Poe's works. Roderick Usher sits in the Usher family home.

For whatever reason, at this moment in the zeitgeist, it seems like every other show is about the Opioid crisis. The fictional Usher family could have made their fortunes in anything, from the stock market to corporate slumlords, but choosing to make them yet another big pharma family just feels like low-hanging fruit in an already oversaturated market full of, well, big pharma families. 

Lack of Narrative Drive – A Character Study This is Not

Each episode is bloated with bland characters, selfish and indulgent, who are impossible to root for. Worse, having seen these very actors in other Flanagan anthologies, viewers know what they are capable of, and the show seems content to squander their time and talents on underwritten tropes and on-the-rail arcs. To the writer’s credit, Poe’s work is full of characters struggling with madness and lost to their own delusion, but adapting these characters for a modern audience requires a bit more depth than the characters are given. Because of the number of characters involved, no one character gets enough screen time to make their arcs either compelling or tragic. 

As a whole, their motivations and drives are surface-level and rarely do the characters plumb the wellspring of human emotion. Case in point, Camille, the sharp-tongued public relations head of Fortunato, played by Kate Siegel, is presented as a sociopathic influencer who indulges her carnal vices with her assistants. And that’s about the depth of the character. There isn’t enough time to ask deeper questions about who she is or how she turned out this way because, well, there are six other kids to get to in as many episodes, so character development is a low priority. Even at the moment of Camille’s death, her collective realization of her life’s purpose boils down to “Well, I got mine.” Is that a statement the writers are making about our current world, or perhaps the Usher family motto? Maybe both.

The Ushers languish in indulgent misery, commiserating over venal pursuits like fashion, luxury, or pleasure, all framed around life without consequence. Roderick gets the most screen time, but even then, we rarely see past the thin veneer of his desire. Deep down, what really drives Usher? Sadly, nothing, just more greed. When presented with a Faustian pact for power at the expense of his then-unborn scions, Roderick and Madeline are quick to agree and, for the most part, never look back. 

Beyond staring out of windows, Usher does little true soul searching, and his lamentations are lost as he swings a khopesh around his office like a child with a toy sword. Usher can’t be bothered with introspection lest he faces his personal demons. Yes, it could be said that his confessions to Dupin are a sort of admission of his guilt, but they’re really just a narrative framing device. This isn’t a treatise on lamentation or a man weighing the pros and cons of wealth, and as such, the work is weak and weary, not dark and dreary.

Again, to iterate here, the narrative is drowning in characters. With only eight episodes and twice as many named characters, any show would be pulled under by its own weight. What we are left with is more premise than promise, more window dressing than a mirror of introspection, and while fully satisfactory as a cursory adaptation, it fails to capture the deeply troubling madness that Poe’s synonymous works were so well known for. So, while it is easy on the eyes, it’s more like popcorn for the soul than a steak dinner that can be bitten into, though perhaps that was the goal all along.

Nevermore

These days, viewers are spoiled for choice when it comes to content, with hundreds of new shows produced each year. But with so many new shows coming and going, it was inevitable that many of the shows suffered from the perils of mini-rooms, rapid development, and being rushed to shooting before they were lean and ready. The Fall of the House of Usher is just one more show in a long list that while it did find a niche in the market, will likely not stand the testament of time as a great and enduring work.

Not knowing what went on behind the scenes with The Fall of the House of Usher, it’s impossible to say if this is the show Mr. Flanagan intended or the show he left on his way out the door, but the show we got was far from his best work. But still, audiences will be chomping at the bit for the next Flanagan project. 

The Fall of the House of Usher is streaming on Netflix now.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" fails to deliver the dark and dreary of Edgar Allen Poe's work.

The Fall of the House of Usher (2023) Official Netflix Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Caleb aims to write high-concept genre pieces that focus on broken families. His works have been recognized by the Nicholl's Fellowship, the ISA, Screencraft, Launchpad, and Nickelodeon.When not writing Caleb enjoys video games and tabletop RPGs, camping, and is a connoisseur of fine bourbon.

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Elke Simmons' writing portfolio includes contributions to The Laredo Morning Times, Walt Disney World Eyes and Ears, Extinction Rebellion (XR) News/Blog, and Dead Talk News.