'The Fall Of The House Of Usher' Series Review: Netflix Gothic Horror Sells A Deadly Lie
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Showrunner duo Mike Flanagan (also a director and editor) and Trevor Macy's new show The Fall Of The House Of Usher certainly isn't afraid to dig graves and take some of the rich down a notch as you'll be able to see. This gothic horror miniseries based on several works by Edgar Allan Poe introduces us to Fortunato, a rotten pharmaceutical company known for its opioids, as well as its filthy rich sibling owners Roderick (Bruce Greenwood as older, Zach Gilford as younger version) and Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell, Willa Fitzgerald). We meet Roderick as he's about to confess his personal sins and the company's dirty secrets to his old acquaintance, attorney Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly, Malcolm Goodwin), much inspired by Roderick's kids all having died recently.
Other notable characters in the series are the children; Perry (Sauriyan Sapkota), Leo (Rahul Kohli), Victorine (T'Nia Miller), Frederick (Henry Thomas), Camille (Kate Siegel) and Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), Frederick's daughter Lenore (Kyliegh Curran), Fortunato's lawyer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), Roderick's new wife Juno (Ruth Codd) and the mysterious Verna (Carla Gugino) who seems to always be present when one of the children die.
Is it that you can only attain this kind of wealth, privilege and power by selling a product with harmful, evil tactics or is it also about selling your soul, moral compass or legacy? Whatever any of those things might mean to someone who's willing to be a king or queen of ashes isn't really the point but the big question is still the one that stands. Flanagan and fellow writers (such as Kiele Sanchez) manage to dig rather deep with said narrative as their adaptation creates a cohesive entity with characters and archetypes from different source materials whilst also drawing from real-life figures, such is the case for Fortunato and Roderick in particular. There are plenty of distinct characters, effective reveals and interesting conflicts which combined often make for delicious screenwriting.
What ''Usher'' most importantly gets right, though, is its consistent, forlorn mood that delivers creepy or even gruesome horror moments (look out for episodes two and five) that don't get annoying while keeping the central mystery pulsating but not turning the show into a mystery box. To maintain that, it helps to have scintillating performances like one from Greenwood who smartly balances ambition and a fake-it-until-you-make-it attitude, Lumbly who acts as Greenwood's counterweight or Miller who perhaps best portrays the terror that her character endures. On the other hand, not every performance is as radiant when Codd is often performing to the last row of a stadium, Hamill relies on a shtick that quickly gets tiresome and Sloyan isn't able to do much with her extremely hollow character as she's also carrying the series' weakest episode, that being the sixth one.
Flanagan, DoP and fellow director Michael Fimognari and production designer Laurin Kelsey up their game significantly for the most part from their previous horror drama when it comes to the presentation as they use architecture strongly to influence compositions, break down sets to reflect characters' loss of sanity and guide horror sequences with great quality of light. Sometimes scenes are hurt by Flanagan's deadly insistence of using long monologues since you can sense editing rhythms (contributions also from Brett W. Bachman) becoming a casualty and other actors disassociating but at least this time the sound mix isn't as intrusive or aggravating during those weaker moments. You can forgive pacing issues here and there when your sound and score (by The Newton Brothers) preserve some of the eerie ambience.
There's also a rare sequence or two where a visualised body count probably sounds great on the page but looks terrible when you have to do it with CGI stick figures, an actor reacting to a blue screen and awfully executed stormy weather—which indicates yet again that Hollywood filmmakers need a serious intervention when it comes to using thunder, lightning and sound design involved in those—but fortunately (Fortunatoly?) the style and aesthetics of the show mostly mirror the complex writing, clearly conveyed themes and powerful lead performances. The title is a promise and the series delivers on it with a story that makes you want to see what's under the rubble and characters' skins.
Smileys: Atmosphere, writing, story, Bruce Greenwood
Frowneys: Some issues with acting and pacing
DJ got us fallin' and drowning in acid.