Immediately after the title, The Fall of Usher pops up a second, title card. This one looks like something from a silent movie and informs us that what we are about to see is “Told in the Style & Substance of A.E. Poe by one William W. Usher”. The film then cuts to William (Riker Hill, The Sentinel Chronicles 2023: Tears in the Snow) looking directly into the camera as he addresses us. It’s a modern setting, but he talks in the style of one of Poe’s characters. His narration, as well as more title cards, will be a continuing part of the film, giving it an odd, anachronistic streak that is constantly at odds with the main story.
The Fall of Usher’s story concerns William, who is taking care of his terminally ill father (Michael R Mcguire). Anna (Savannah Schafer, Beasts of the Field, Hell Night: Devil’s Pass) is sent to check on his condition, and deliver pain medication, “I’m not here to make him better, I’m here to make him comfortable”. William falls for her, and when she’s replaced it kicks off his decline into madness.
Writer/director Brian Cunningham (Overtime, Monsters Wanted) obviously isn’t doing a straight adaptation of Poe’s works or even an updating of them. He’s more interested in capturing the feel and the themes of the author’s works and weaving them into a story centred on the family at the heart of his most famous work.
And to a certain degree, The Fall of Usher does capture them. Murder, suicide, madness and substance abuse all find their way into the story. There are also more direct references, the sound of a music box haunts William even after it’s been smashed and thrown out. Just like the beating of the victim’s heart haunted the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart.
The problem with this is that while his writings were certainly macabre, Poe rarely managed to actually be scary. He wrote great mood pieces that dripped with atmosphere and Murders in the Rue Morgue helped invent the modern detective story. Even stories like The Pit and The Pendulum evoke horror by way of a dreaded outcome rather than shocks and scares.
Similarly, The Fall of Usher is more of a dark, moody drama than outright horror. It shifts between past and present as we see and hear how the declining health of his father dragged William’s mental health down with it. And how his interaction with his estranged brother Wilson (Spencer Korcz, Retribution, Marvelous Mandy) after his death preyed on what sanity still remained.
The film’s limited sets and extremely small cast are a problem, however. Scenes of William walking the house’s dark hallways help to show his mental condition at first. But it’s a small house and seeing the same thing repeatedly gets tedious. Similarly, his almost constant narration started to get to me after a while, its use needed to be scaled back. And apart from the opening, the scenes of William looking into the camera and delivering soliloquies, dispensed with entirely.
By the time it starts riffing on The Cask of Amontillado The Fall of Usher has delivered few shocks, but a lot of atmosphere. Like Lady Usher and The Bloodhound, it’s an offbeat take on Poe’s works. One that will, I’m sure, find a much more receptive audience in the author’s fans than general horror fans. Brian Cunningham’s film won’t appeal to everyone, probably not to a majority of them. But if you’re in the mood for a quirky slow burn, it’s worth a look.