Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Microreview: The Fall of the House of Usher

Be still, my tell-tale heart


It's a tricky business, adapting books (I think it was Gandalf who said that). Up until recently, that pretty much came in the form of movies, which frequently missed the mark when adapting novels - after all, a lot of nuance of 100,000+ words gets lost when shoved into a 2-hour box. I've long maintained that short stories and graphic novels are the best media for movies to adapt.

But the medium has changed, and for the better. Miniseries can tackle works of any length, and feed them to us in bite-sized chunks, which we then consume all at once anyway, and I am here for it

The Fall of the House of Usher caused both trepidation and excitement in me - that tricky business of adapting things, not least of all Poe. Tackling the Usher story itself is, on its face, simple enough - but Netflix bit off a lot by choosing to package all of it in one miniseries - and set it in 2023. I approached it the same way I approach most horror - peeking out from behind a pillow. Not because I was afraid of the show*, but because I was afraid of what they might do.

I love Poe for a myriad of reasons, but he is the author I have grown the most in my love of. There is such a tremendous weight to every word, nothing is fluff or wasted, and every line delivers so much. There are definitely filmmaking equals to this - Kubrick famously calls "every frame a painting", Denis Villeneuve is the best director working today, David Fincher delights in small, meaningful details, and I think a lot of younger filmmakers are informed by the need to embrace detailed, punchy filmmaking. 

But lifting meaningful words off a page and making them meaningful on a screen is much, much easier said than done. So hats off to Mike Flanagan for having the ambition to tackle this project, and even more impressive... I think he nailed it. 

If you read my lambasting of Zach Snyder linked up there, my feelings going into this are pretty much identical to going into Watchmen. Coming out, however, is a completely opposite feeling. What we walk away with is a modernization of all the subtext and irony that Poe brought to his writings - a stirring critique of not just capitalism, but our modern, disposable culture, filled with characters who are unlikable in the best way. You know they're going to die, in creatively grotesque fashion, and you can't wait to see it - not because you just want to see some Final Destination-style death*, but because the way they happen is so perfectly married to how that terrible person lived.

Which is by design - Poe's horror comes, not from gore, torture, jump scares, or the like, but from an overwhelming sense of foreboding inevitability. Indeed - in many of his stories, the worst has already happened. This is quite possibly where the adaptation shines the brightest - the flashbacks to the Usher twins meteoric rise is littered with corpses and broken enemies; we know this, and yet when those flashbacks occur, there is still that sense, the gloom and fear that is Poe's hallmark. 

Poe often tells the story by the story being told to a narrator, or narrated by someone who is likely unreliable. We do have a narrator, Roderick Usher narrating to his old frenemy, a modern Dupin (brilliantly portrayed by Carl Lumbly). But it's the addition of Verna (an anagram of Raven) that brings all the disparate threads of Poe's stories together. Not death or fate, but amoral and immortal, making deals with driven individuals - I don't want to say too much, on the chance you haven't watched it, but it's a hefty swing to add something to such classic tales, and have that addition fit seamlessly - and in fact, enrich it. 

There isn't a whole lot to nitpick here - the performances and directing are both brilliant, and details down to the sound design are spot on (with the possible exception of Another Brick in the Wall. A touch on the nose for my taste). The finale drags on, and gets preachy, even for having messages I 100% agree with. It's a little too cheeky for its own good on a few occasions - the reason the Rue Morgue is called that in the show leaps to mind - but it's also very self-aware. It doesn't take itself too seriously, so those moments it tries to be overly-clever work in a satirical way.


The Math:

Baseline Score: 9/10


+1 for the all-star cast delivering brilliant performances

+1 for... not screwing it up? I was fully prepared for this to be so bad, and it went above and beyond.


-1 for the over-long, preachy finale. You have to work hard to lose me with an anti-capitalist speech, and it did.

-1 for shoehorning The Raven into it. I get it, but it felt forced. 

-.5 because I kind of wish it wasn't set in modern times

Nerd Coefficient: 8.5/10. It's just not quite a nine to me. Brilliantly done, and it definitely works in the modern age, which speaks to the creative team behind it. It has very few flaws, and is a must-watch.

*Also that

Dean Smith-Richard is the author of 3204AD, loves to cook, play baseball, and is way too much of a craft beer nerd. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, and likes the rain, thank you very much.