When his wife Madeline falls seriously ill, Roderick Usher invites his only friend to visit. The house of Usher is isolated and partially derelict and the local villagers fear to go there. Roderick has been painting Madeline’s portrait and the more realistic it becomes, the more her health continues to decline.
French adaptation of Poe’s famous horror story from the last days of silent cinema. The tale has never been an easy one to adapt; it’s nearly all atmosphere and little plot and the absence of sound might also serve to lower expectations before viewing this effort. But we’re in the hands of producer-director Jean Epstein and assistant Luis Bunuel, who became famous in later years as the man behind ‘Le Belle de Jour’ (1967), ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’ (1972) and had created notorious surrealistic short ’Un Chien Andalou’ (1928). Together, the two of them deliver what is probably the finest visual realisation of Poe’s work in the history of cinema.
The house itself is simply staggering; a series of huge rooms that seem to have no ceilings and almost no end; vast spaces in which the main characters dwindle into insignificance. Curtains lining a passage billow in slow motion for no reason and floors are so highly polished they seem to burn with white light. There are no bannisters on the main stairway; just heavy chains strung between what appear to be artificial trees. It’s a triumph of production design and, if the external long shots are plainly a basic model, then we can forgive this surrender to the limitations of the time when so much else here transcends them.
The final disintegration of Usher’s psyche is brilliantly realised by various motifs; stretching guitar strings that break, the inner gears and workings of a clock, a pendulum that swings like the torture device from another of Poe’s most famous works. It’s an impressive sequence; heightened by leading man Jean Debucourt, whose high forehead and watery eyes dominate frame after frame. It does look as if tiny spotlights were shone into his eyes to enhance their appearance but that’s still a trick that Tod Browning couldn’t pull off with Lugosi in ‘Dracula’ (1931).
Debucourt’s performance may look a little old fashioned to some, but it’s a model of restraint for its time and still retains an unsettling power. There’s even a creepy sequence where the camera sweeps along at floor level, blowing leaves before it; a cliché now, of course, but a startling inclusion in a film of this vintage.
Yes, we’re lacking a story to get our teeth into (apparently Bunuel walked because of it) and the pace is rather slow, so dramatically it’s slight and not terribly gripping. But what the film does have is atmosphere; creating a heightened, almost hallucinatory state of reality that is quite extraordinary.
It’s surprising that the film is not better known, or celebrated. A strangely unique and haunting experience.