Like all the best horror, Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of the macabre are morality tales. In his short story The Tell-Tale Heart, it’s not the victim’s heart beating under the floorboards that give away the murderer to the police, but the scoundrel’s guilt pounding in his chest. In The Masque of the Red Death, a rich prince thinks his station can keep a ravaging plague from touching him before he’s proven wrong by a specter crashing the party. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the physically and mentally ill Roderick Usher buries his sick sister Madeline alive because he presumes that she’s already dead. His haste hastens his own demise as Madeline escapes her tomb to snuff out her would-be killer.
Such morality is also a key attribute in the wonderfully dark new Netflix miniseries entitled, appropriately enough, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. The eight-part show chronicles the demise of a big pharma company and the elite family who owns it, turning a twisted tale of horror into a scathing editorial about amoral business folks who prey on the afflicted. Any relation to such families like the Sacklers seems to be purely intentional. In fact, at times, this miniseries plays like a pharmaceutical version of SUCCESSION, albeit with more bloodletting.
Series creator Mike Flanagan has always displayed a penchant for taking famous horror tales and giving them a modern twist. With THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, he updated Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel about a dysfunctional family. He did the same with THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR in 2020 when he adapted Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw. And his new take on the Ushers is based not just on Poe’s story, but on the entire canon of Poe’s poetry and prose. The results are a complex and compelling series, a veritable cornucopia of homage, dark comedy, and revenge fantasy.
The story already starts with the Usher brood already in a downward spiral. Their company is battling the US government in federal court for peddling unsafe drugs. And, simultaneously, the Ushers are forced to deal with members of their own family meeting untimely and unseemly deaths. Is someone bumping off the privileged heirs sired by company CEO Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) to exact revenge for all of the patriarch’s sins throughout his lifetime? It seems the case.
Such stakes are laid out in the very first minutes of the first of eight episodes that premiered yesterday on Netflix and those deaths have driven Roderick to drastic measures. He summons his adversary, the Fed’s attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), to his childhood home to confess all of his transgressions. There, as Roderick tells his tale of debauchery and corruption, the events play out in flashbacks. We see Roderick’s childhood with his twin sister Madeline, the early part of their careers in pharmaceuticals, and the problematic lives of Roderick’s six grown children.
It’s a lot of narrative, and the series demands avid attention. Flanagan fills the screen with all kinds of allusions to Poe, some rather obvious and others incredibly subtle. Flanagan is interested in scaring us, for sure, but he also is interested in examining what makes people tick, and how they self-sabotage their very lives and livelihoods. Each episode highlights the death of one of the six heirs and even though you know their demise is coming, the tension is palpable over just how it will occur. There’s a FINAL DESTINATION quality to the kills in all of their twists and turns. Adding more fun to the howdunnit is the fact that each gruesome death is a riff on some Poe poem or story.
Roderick’s grown heirs, all of them deliciously awful, are eldest son Frederick (Henry Thomas), eldest daughter Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), and illegitimate children Victorine (T’Nia Miller), Camille (Kate Siegel), Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), and Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota). Prospero, like his namesake prince from THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, is the first child whose death is shown in the series and it echoes that of Prince Prospero in the original tale. Flanagan, however, finds a fiendishly clever way to update the desicration of all of the partygoers’ flesh. It’s grisly, but imaginative for sure. (Move over, Jigsaw!)
Perhaps the most intriguing character in the mix is Verna (Carla Gugino), a mysterious figure who will end up playing a key role in each of the Usher heirs’ deaths. Her name is an anagram for Raven, of course, and indeed, like that bird in Poe’s most famous poem, she represents Death, one who assumes many personas. We first meet her in the guise of a New York bartender on New Year’s Eve in 1980 where she strikes up a friendship with the young Roderick (Zach Gilford) and his twin sister Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald). Mary McDonnell plays Madeline in her later years, but Fitzgerald makes the part her own, stealing scene after scene and giving one of the three best performances amongst the uniformly terrific cast.
The other two standouts are Greenwood and Gugino, two Hollywood veterans doing their best work ever here. Greenwood is incredible in the lead, essaying both the vicious cruelty and roguish charm of his character in equal doses. He replaced Frank Langella in the part, but it’s impossible to see anyone else in the role after Greenwood’s masterful portrait. And Gugino manages to make her spectral character not only eerie, but sensual, likable, and at times, hilarious. When she shows up as an animal shelter owner in one episode to help trigger the death of an Usher heir that pays homage to the Poe short story The Black Cat, she is both sweet and salty, earning a laugh with almost every line.
The direction by Flanagan and Michael Fimognari is superb throughout, never rushing a scare and always placing the characters firmly in the context of their surroundings. Laurin Kelsey’s production design instills a sense of doom in almost every scene, as does the sound design throughout. Kudos too to the insinuating score by the Newton Brothers. And while you don’t have to be a Poe aficionado to appreciate all the Poe “Easter Eggs” contained throughout, it’s all the more fun to try to count as many as you can find.
Over the past decade, Flanagan has proven himself to be one of the best horror auteurs working today. He’s sly and smart, a superb visual and aural storyteller, and he’s an expert at building character and giving them pithy banter to bat about. Mike Flanagan is our new Rod Serling, giving us thrills and chills, and plenty of social agenda to chew over too. Here, he indicts our drug culture, entitled youth, and the shallow media…he’s putting America under the microscope, not just the Ushers. And in some ways, their fall from grace echoes that of our nation on so many fronts. It’s strong work and scary not just in its thrills and chills, but in how accurate a picture it is of our country today.