'The Fall of the House of Usher' review: Flanagan’s gothic horror series eats the rich
Courtesy of Netflix
Dramatizations about the opioid epidemic, from Hulu’s Emmy winning “Dopesick,” Netflix’s forthcoming “Pain Hustlers,” to Peter Berg’s “Painkiller,” have been everywhere to the point of oversaturation. Now it provides a refreshing dose of inspiration for Mike Flanagan’s latest chiller, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or, as I like to call it, “Succession” with a gothic tinge. Flanagan loves exploring family dynamics, be it with the “The Haunting of HIll House” or the unforgettable “Midnight Mass,” and “Usher” follows a similar path. Except it uses the works of Edgar Allen Poe as the foundation for judging the moral and ethical prowess of the Usher dynasty, who are glorified stand-ins for the Sackler family, and goes as far to suggest a deal with the devil is how the wealthy elite avoid accountability for their actions.
Sluggish in parts, but nonetheless invigorating overall, the 8-episode limited series follows the exploits of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals CEO Rodrick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), his six children (whom he had with five different women) and their immediate downfall. When the show begins, all of the children are dead, and Rodrick, sitting across from an old friend turned foe Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), a prosecutor who has tried unsuccessfully to bring down the Usher’s for several decades, relies the whole narrative via flashback. Slowly, we’re given crucial context and key insight into what exactly led to each child’s death. Some are more painful than others.
As for the roster, there’s the dim-witted eldest child Fredrick (Henry Thomas), the ambitious Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), struggling medical engineer Victorine (T’Nia Miller), lazy, video-game and drug fueled Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), the family’s crazy publicist Camille (Kate Siegel) and the youngest Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota). Their names, like other characters introduced throughout the show, serve as easter eggs to some of Poe’s works, while other ideas, including a subplot involving the development of AI, serve as an homage to the poet’s fascination with immortality.
Poe had an unhealthy obsession with life and death, and enjoyed writing about people who were essentially responsible for their own downfall, like how greed and paranoia were gateway drugs into the afterlife. For the Usher clan, the primary objective is to live a beneficial lifestyle no matter how much pain it will cause others. There’s a reason the Usher’s have lived a cushy lifestyle, however, and it may or may not involve Carla Gugino’s Verna, a mysterious entity who seems to show-up each time a family member, either via madness, mutilation, or paralysis, meets their ugly demise.
Each episode is dedicated to someone from the Usher clan and the build-up to how and where they bite the dust, which makes for an interesting episodic structure. Flanagan enjoys leaving traces (some obvious and not so obvious) throughout the installments to let audiences guess where they’ll end up. For example, one episode begins with the adoption of a cat and you can certainly place money someone is going to die at the hands of this furry, feline companion. And that’s probably only the third or fourth best decimation in the entire series.
This approach doesn’t leave much room for character development, but Flanagan still manages to flesh out the Usher’s beyond the limitations of the medium (it won’t take more than 15-minutes to understand how vile these people are). And that’s because the performances, made up of Flanagan’s usual Netflix collaborators (and newcomer Mark Hamill who is having a riot playing ruthless family lawyer and ultimate fixer Arthur Pym), do such a great job establishing the framework, the climatic result of each hour long episode is nothing short of euphoric.
That mystery produces enough juice to keep viewers on the hook and the final nail in the coffin lands with a massive crescendo. Solidifying Flanagan’s artistic instincts, especially in the horror medium, rarely misses the mark. Some could see the recontextualizing of Poe’s works for modern audiences as a zero sum game, but you can tell Flanagan relishes the character driven challenges and how the scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls.
All episodes of THE HOUSE OF THE FALL OF USHER stream on Netflix Thursday, October 12th.