The Fall of the House of Usher review: Edgar Allan Poe adaptation is Succession with gore
Edgar Allan Poe and Mike Flanagan prove to be a match made in both heaven – and hell – as the new Netflix adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher manages to put a very modern spin on a series of classic horror tales.
Mike Flanagan has been one of horror’s go-to guys for the last decade, and since both writing and directing Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game for Netflix in 2017, Flanagan has crafted a quartet of spin-chilling shows for the streamer.
Kicking off with The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Flanagan progressed to The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), Midnight Mass (2021), and The Midnight Club (2022), each featuring complex interweaving stories, high production values, and the ‘Mike Flanagan players’ – a talented cast that he returns to time-and-time again.
The Fall of the House of Usher is his final effort for the streamer before absconding to Amazon Studios to make more Stephen King. But his departing shot is Flanagan’s best work since Hill House – the series that this most resembles – doing justice to Poe’s works through contemporary stories about real-world issues that are clearly on the writer-director’s mind.
Mining the best of Edgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that was first published 1839. Revolving around the twisted relationship between twins Roderick and Madeline Usher as their house crumbles around them, it deals with themes of illness, madness, and unhealthy family ties.
This adaptation certainly features those plot points, and delves in the very same themes. But it’s much more than that, being a sprawling tale that plays out over more than five decades, as the show charts the rise – and fall – of generations of Ushers.
Roderick and Madeline are at the head of the family, with the overarching narrative concerning goings-on at their shady pharmaceutical company Fortunato. Which has made millions by marketing a powerful – and ultimately lethal – painkiller called Ligadone.
But each episode focuses on a different Usher child, as Roderick had six children by five different women through the course of his life. And each of those stories is connected to a different Edgar Allan Poe story, meaning we get installments inspired by ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘Murder in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Masque of Red Death.’
What is The Fall of the House of Usher about?
There are multiple mysteries at the heart of the show. Episode 1 features court case ‘The U.S. vs Fortunato Pharmaceuticals and the Usher Crime Family.’ During which it becomes clear that America has an informant inside said family. So there’s intrigue as both the Ushers – and the audience – try to figure out the whistleblower’s identity.
But the major question at the heart of the show – or the “mystery of mysteries” as one character calls it – is who’s killing the Usher children, and why.
That’s because Episode 1 – titled ‘A Midnight Dreary’ – also begins with a funeral for multiple Usher offspring, who have been dropping like flies for days. Meaning installments don’t just focus on the life of Roderick’s children – they also feature flashbacks to their respective deaths. Oftentimes in graphic and grisly fashion.
If audiences are familiar with the various source materials, you can frequently see what’s coming. But Fall of the House of Usher is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a blast seeing how Flanagan and his talented team of writers get to where we know they’re going.
Who are the children of Usher?
There’s also sick satisfaction to be had watching all this unfold, as the Ushers are a pretty horrible bunch. Which is where Succession comparisons can be made.
Roderick Usher – much like Logan Roy – is a cruel patriarch who starves his children of love, while taking pleasure from pitting them against each other.
The result is that the Usher clan is just as miserable, cruel, and emotionally stunted as the Roys. And this being horror, they’re even more monstrous, lacking any kind of ethical or moral code as they vie for both their father’s affections, and his money. Taking no prisoners in their own efforts to succeed.
Like the Roy offspring however, when their stories aren’t tragic, the Ushers are also hilarious, their back-stabbing and double-crossing the stuff of jet-black comedy. Meaning it’s a blast watching each privileged billionaire narcissist get their comeuppance.
Re-introducing the Mike Flanagan players
Sauriyan Sapkota is spot-on as the debauched Prospero Usher, whose siblings call him ‘Gucci Caligula,’ and whose hard-partying ways might be his undoing. While Samantha Sloyan delivers a slyly satirical performance as Tamerlane, the head of a wellness company that has shades of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Gloop.
Rahul Kohli is clearly having fun as drug-addicted gamer Napoleon. As is Henry Thomas as Frederick, who is just as addicted, but even more of a mess. Katie Siegel isn’t given much to do as media magnate Camille, though she achieves a lot with a little, and her gaudy outfits are to die for. While the weakest of the bunch is probably T’Nia Niller as Victorine, though that might be down to her storyline also being the least interesting.
At the top of the tree, Bruce Greenwood is outstanding as Roderick, capturing both the dark and light of a complicated character. While Mary McDonnell is also superb as Madeline, the power behind the power, and Roderick’s own Lady Macbeth.
Credit should also go to Zach Gifford and Willa Fitzgerald, who do sterling work as young versions of the twins. While special mention is reserved for Mark Hamill as attorney Arthur Pym, creeping in and out of scenes like a cockroach, while earning his nickname “the Pym Reaper.”
What is The Fall of the House of Usher really about?
On the surface, Fall of the House of Usher is about a family reaping what they sow, told through the lens of stories that are nearly 200-years-old. But the show also concerns terrible things happening in the world today.
The opioid crisis – so deftly covered in dramas like Dopesick and Painkiller of late – is something of a centrepiece here, with the Ushers promising “pain erasure” through their drug Ligadone. Even though they – like we – know that “a world without pain” is a lie.
Addiction is also at the heart of the action, with Ligadone the main culprit, but cocaine and heroin destroying Usher lives, in the same way that alcohol took down characters in Poe’s stories. While storylines also tackle animal testing, sexual harassment, corruption in the wellness industry, and the dangers of tech and AI.
All of which give House of Usher social, economic, and political dimensions that bring the stories bang-up-to-date. Giving audiences food for thought when the screams die down.
The Verdict: Is The Fall of the House of Usher good?
The Fall of the House of Usher is a minor miracle. The show takes old stories and gives them a smartly satirical modern spin. Plays out over five decades, but effortlessly segues between generations through clever cuts and transitions. And features a huge ensemble, yet – a couple of characters aside – gives pretty much everyone a satisfying arc.
The themes aren’t new, dealing as it does with greed, sex, violence, crime, and punishment. Yet as serious as proceedings get, Mike Flanagan and fellow director and longtime collaborator Michael Fimognari never lose their sense of fun, wallowing in the camp, decadence, and sleaze of the family Usher.
The series is a little light on scares, considering the names involved, but makes up for that deficiency in other ways. A love of language bleeds through the screen, via wordy dialogue and elaborate speeches that hark back to Poe’s literature. While the series is filled with Easter Eggs from the stories and poems, some cleverly hidden; others hiding in plain site.
If you know those original yarns, the narrative becomes more predictable as proceedings progress. While inevitably, some stories are stronger than others, with ‘Tell-Tale Heart,’ and ‘Goldbug’ the weakest of the bunch.
But even those episodes have their moments, and otherwise, the standard is consistently high, with Usher providing chills and provoking thought through its series of spine-chilling cautionary tales.
The Fall of the House of Usher Score: 4/5
Mike Flanagan and his frequent collaborators have done it again, with Fall of the House of Usher eight hours of fun-filled horror that brings Edgar Allan Poe’s work to life in delightfully dark and exhilarating fashion.
The Fall of the House Usher hits Netflix on October 12, 2023. Find out more about the series here.