Every October since 2018, the world has watched to see what Mike Flanagan’s latest work will be for streaming giant Netflix.
The acclaimed horror savant has captivated audiences with adaptations of Shirley Jackson, Henry James, Stephen King, and now Edgar Allen Poe in The Fall of The House of Usher (★★★★★), a wide-ranging descent into the terror of wealth.
Armed with Poe’s bibliography and his cast of regulars, Flanagan uses Usher to show everything he has learned and assert himself as one of the best directors in horror.
House of Usher is based on practically every Poe short story — from The Tell-Tale Heart to The Pit and the Pendulum. Its overarching story concerns Roderick and Madeline Usher (Bruce Greenwood and Mary McDonnell), two illegitimate twins who become the creators of Ligidone, a “non-addictive” opioid that ends up making them wealthy beyond belief.
We meet the Ushers at a funeral for three of Roderick’s children, three others having died a week before. Their ghosts — and a woman wearing a raven mask (Carla Guigino) — haunt Roderick as he decides to spill the entire story to Assistant U.S. Attorney Dupin (Carl Lumbly).
House of Usher wouldn’t be a Flanagan production without the inclusion of his regulars, including Henry Thomas, Katey Siegal, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, and T’Nia Miller playing the doomed Usher children, while other regulars like Annabeth Gish, Zach Gilford, and Willa Fitzgerald also make supporting turns.
Almost all of the children become infected by the loss of humanity that comes with extreme wealth, and they all being well-suited for the horrific behavior they demonstrate. Out of the cast, the most surprising is Mark Hamill’s turn as Arthur Pym, the Usher’s lawyer/fixer, who shows a level of talent that feels too rare for him.
There are many ways that Poe’s work manifests in this modern adaptation, but the most effective by far is the searing amount of dread infused into every scene. It is not an if but a when will the kids die, often with foreshadowing of their deaths and aptly named episode titles.
Each episode picks apart one of the Usher kids and displays all the gruesome ways they could kick the bucket but instead lets it simmer and lets you guess before going all in.
The second episode, in particular, features an extended death scene so gruesome, it will haunt you. Even when the series makes no effort to hide its conclusion, it keeps you gripped until it decides to let the horrors begin.
The show swings between a level of wealth and pomp akin to Succession, at times making it hard to truly root for any of the characters, and to a profoundly unsettling look at the harsh realities of our world. The show’s central parable is in its thinly veiled opioid roots and how close it is to reality.
House of Usher constantly asks us to look at these wealthy, apathetic people and the wrongs they commit, and then ask what’s scarier, the monsters on the screen or the monsters in our world?
It does verge on being didactic and ostentatious with not only its inclusion of Poe’s work but also how heavy its plot goes to illustrate its cautionary tale.
At times, the story allows the delirium and madness of its plot to force overcorrection on the narrative side, making the characters’ demise often have a hint of “this is happening because you are a bad person, and let me tell you why.” As the narrator, Greenwood serves the part well, even if his random spiral into endless Poe quotes causes some confusion.
Regardless of its imperfections, it’s clear that House of Usher is the culmination of everything Flanagan’s Netflix works have taught him. All his regulars are cast perfectly, often to thrilling effect. The pacing and tone are pitch-perfect despite constantly changing and allowing every character to get their moment in the bloody spotlight.
In the grand scheme of Flanagan’s works, this one ends up a close second to The Haunting of Hill House. Both contain some of the best horror television of perhaps all time, but ultimately, House of Usher lacks the amount of heart present in Hill House.
House of Usher shows a thrilling command of horror, Poe’s work, and television itself. It isn’t afraid to reveal its cards early on because it knows that you will follow through to the conclusion, no matter what.
Flanagan, who will soon be making a Universal film and Amazon TV show, clearly used the show as a farewell to a chapter in his horrifyingly brilliant Netflix history — with all of us to benefit from it.
All eight episodes of The Fall of The House of Usher are currently streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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