1928 saw the release of two film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One was a French feature; the other was an American short. Poe’s story is told by an unnamed narrator who arrives at his friend Roderick Usher’s house, after getting a letter mentioning illness and asking for help.
Roderick is suffering from what we now call hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, smells, sounds, textures, and tastes), severe anxiety, and hypochondria. His twin sister Madeline is ill too, and frequently falls into death-like trances. The twins are the only surviving members of their family line.
The narrator loves Roderick’s paintings, and agrees to listen to his impromptu musical compositions for the guitar. The narrator also reads with Roderick. After Roderick sings “The Haunted Palace,” a 48-line poem, he says he believes the house is alive, and that his fate is connected to the house.
Roderick later says Madeline is dead, and insists she can’t be buried until she’s been in the family tomb in the house for two weeks. The narrator notices her rosy cheeks as they’re putting her in the tomb. During the following week, both of them become very agitated for no apparent reason.
When a storm strikes, Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, right above Madeline’s tomb, and opens the window. The lake around the house glows in the dark, just as it does in Roderick’s paintings.
The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading The Mad Trist, a novel about a knight named Ethelred, also set during a storm. When Ethelred breaks into a hermit’s home, he finds a piece of gold guarded by a dragon.
Cracking and ripping sounds are heard as the narrator reads about Ethelred breaking and entering. When he describes the dragon’s shrieks, a real shriek is heard in the house. Finally, when the narrator reads about a shield falling off the wall, a hollow, metallic reverberation is heard.
Roderick becomes more and more hysterical, and claims Madeline is still alive. Even more horrors follow, as the promise of the title becomes reality.
The American film (which I can’t find the release date for) runs 13 minutes, and was directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Melville Folsom Webber. It stars Webber (the narrator), Hildegarde Watson (Madeline), and Herbert Stern (Roderick). In 1959, composer Alec Wilder (a friend of Watson and Webber) wrote a soundtrack.
The film was shot in a very avant-garde style, with its lighting, shadows, reflections through prisms, movement of objects, and letters and words floating across the screen. There are no intertitles. As someone who’s seen a lot of silent avant-garde films, I know this is an acquired taste for most people.
In 2000, the Library of Congress deemed it a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film,” and preserved it in the National Film Registry.
The French version, released 5 October 1928, was directed by Jean Epstein, and stars Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt (Roderick), and Charles Lamy (Allan). The screenplay was co-written by Epstein and Luis Buñuel. Like the American film, it’s very avant-garde.
Allan gets a letter from Roderick, urging him to come to the House of Usher. Allan’s companions are horrified when he asks if anyone can give him a ride, but he eventually gets a volunteer.
Allan’s driver refuses to take him all the way to the door, so terrified by the spectre of the gloomy, horrific house.
In the film, Madeline is Roderick’s wife. He’s holding her in the house in a derelict manner, dominated by his tyrannical nervousness. Scientists and doctors are baffled by her illness, and Roderick is driven to painting her portrait.
Allan notices Roderick has a fever, which Roderick brushes off. Roderick plays his guitar for awhile, until he’s absorbed once again by the thought of painting Madeline, and how to dismiss Allan. He tells Allan he’s touched by his concern, but begs Allan not to trouble himself. Roderick suggests he take a walk before retiring.
Like a magic wand, Roderick’s paintbrush makes Madeline’s image grow ever more vivid, while she herself grows weaker. The portrait draws from her vitality.
Roderick is stunned and in disbelief when Madeline expires. He insists she not leave the house, and forbids his servants to nail the coffin shut, but his orders aren’t obeyed.
Days and weeks pass in monotony, as Roderick waits, on-edge, for any little sign, exacerbating his nervous condition.
Then the night storm hits.