Filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, is a deliriously gory and ghoulish seasonal offering that adeptly straddles the line between the silly and the smart. While there are a few narrative stumbles along the way, Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass) creates such a fabulous, relentless, and gleefully misanthropic house of horrors that genre buffs – and even some literary ones – will effortlessly get caught up in the playfulness of it all. This is Flanagan swinging for the absolute fences with every pitch, and as such, the Poe inspired The Fall of the House of Usher is a nasty bit of fun.
Roderick (played by Bruce Greenwood as an old man and Zach Gilford in flashbacks to younger years) and Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald, old and young, respectively) oversee an untouchable pharmaceutical empire that has made untold riches off an opioid painkiller that’s being dragged into court by a relentless prosecutor (Carl Lumbly). (Sounds familiar, right?) While their creepy, gravelly voiced lawyer (Mark Hamill) does his best to keep the family’s courtroom record unbeaten, deadly mishaps begin happening to the six children Roderick has sired from five different mothers. It’s all tied into a mysterious encounter on New Year’s Eve 1979, the very night that Frederick and Madeline laid the foundation for their future corporation.
It gives nothing away to say that the Usher offspring will be meeting unfortunate ends. Flanagan makes that known seconds into The Fall of the House of Usher. It also gives nothing away to say that these loathsome, jealous, and supercilious people range from “mildly intolerable” to “absolute scum of the earth” in terms of likability. Roderick’s two “legitimate” children with his ex-wife Annabel Lee (Katie Parker) are Frederick (Henry Thomas), a dubious, high strung family man that’s been groomed to take over in dad’s footsteps, and Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), the arrogant founder of a Goop-esque lifestyle brand built around the airhead fitness influencer husband (Matt Biedel) that she doesn’t even love in the slightest. Neither have much of anything nice to say about the pill addicted, vastly younger woman (Ruth Codd) their dad has taken to be his latest wife.
The other four “bastards” aren’t much friendlier, although video game entrepreneur Napoleon (Rahul Kohli) probably emerges as the most likeable simply by being a lying, hard partying cheat. Victorine (T’Nia Miller) is running the company’s unethical research division, and is keeping a lot of secrets from her business and romantic partner (Paola Núñez). Hot-headed youngest Prospero (Sauriyan Sapcoda) is content to waste his share of the family fortune by opening a chain of ultra-exclusive nightclubs that speaks to his lecherous, hedonistic image. And Camille (Kate Siegel) is a PR spin master who works tirelessly to keep the family business out of the papers and treats her terrified underlings like trash.
Those looking for likeable, relatable human beings won’t find much to cling onto here outside of a trio of side characters who are trying to do some good, but those who wished Succession was more like an early 80s soap opera crossed with a slasher film will find a lot to love about The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s the kind of show where characters give grand speeches about how amazing they are, profanity laden diatribes about how everyone is stupid, and all have lists of vices that would give Caligula pause. Flanagan has built this house on a foundation of greed, arrogance, and unrelenting excess. It’s a gross world to spend any amount of time in, let along in the company of awful human beings, so Flanagan makes sure the comeuppance for these characters is equally unnerving and grotesque, complete with buckets of gore, top notch make-up work, and a cathartic does of literary based irony. Debased people meet debased ends.
Flanagan and his fellow writers crank up the debauchery to purposefully comedic levels throughout. The Usher clan is dripping in sex, drugs, and illegal deeds, but instead of glorifying the lifestyle, Flanagan uses his platform as a chance to poke fun at people who take whatever they want and always get away with it. The antics of the Ushers are sometimes shocking, often tragic, undeniably icky, and frequently amusing in the darkest ways possible. There’s a lot of fluid and progressive sexuality in The Fall of the House of Usher, which is admirable, but it also backhandedly comments on just how greedy the family has become over the years. And whenever these people resort to violence, it’s often as a result of petty things that could easily be figured out if they had some patience and ingenuity. As an indictment of a type of personality who demands everything immediately and without question, The Fall of the House of Usher is reasoned and sharp. Even when Flanagan starts to incorporate the kind of tragic sentimentality that made his previous series so resonant with viewers, this time it’s dripping in blood soaked irony and a pleasing sense of inevitability. Flanagan knows his audience, and this time, he lets them all in on the tricks ahead in advance and hangs back with the viewer as they watch it all unfold.
As one can guess from the title and from Flanagan’s past offerings, The Fall of the House of Usher is steeped in classic literature, predominantly the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but a few other nods are mixed in (Fitzgerald, Keats, Shakespeare), to enhance things. Flanagan weaves his familial crime epic around the bones of the titular story, but each episode takes inspiration from a specific work of the author and repurposes those concepts as part of greater whole. Flanagan never tries to hide or obscure these stories, but instead trying to pull off Poe’s most noteworthy twists and turns in new, refreshing ways. Even if viewers know before each episode starts how things are going to end, the joy of watching The Fall of the House of Usher comes from going along and seeing how Flanagan is going to pull that off. One of the episodes later in the series kind of stumbles with this structure – largely ignoring the story it’s supposedly based on and offering up something underwhelming in its place – but all the rest work gangbusters. It’s kind of like a Final Destination movie writ large. You know they’re going to die, you’re pretty sure what’s going to kill them, but the entertainment lies in watching the steps it takes Flanagan to get there.
This adherence to a sort of connected anthology style format does occasionally back Flanagan into a corner, especially when it comes to employing some of his other directorial and screenwriting trademarks. Once again, Flanagan imbues his work with a healthy does of timely content and religious overtones, but only the latter feels unforced, with the former representing the easier road the story takes throughout when it comes to depicting the evil deeds of the Usher clan. It’s impassioned, but has also been done better before. Flanagan’s reliance on time shifting narratives also causes some trip ups along the way, leading to some revelations and reveals coming earlier or later than would be advisable, or in some cases making them border on being nonsensical and convenient.
But in terms of pacing, staging, and performance, The Fall of the House of Usher represents the kind of large scale entertainment Flanagan is capable of producing at his absolute best. Even with the constant shifts between past and present and the different characters in play, The Fall of the House of Usher never stagnates and becomes boring, which is great when one considers that a lot of viewers will be going into this waiting for one of Poe’s signature moralistic punchlines at the end of each episode. Flanagan structures each of his instalments as if they were a rock opera, where the titular story at the heart of each episode and the character built around it is the chorus, and everything else running concurrently in the larger narrative is the rest of the song. Flanagan has created a large world for the Ushers, and smaller, different, ones that each character inhabits in their individual lives, which leads to a show where there’s always something fascinating to look at. Flanagan’s frequent cinematographer Michael Fimognari not only shoots much of the show, but also takes on directorial duties for half the series, ensuring that there’s always a consistent visual tone every step of the way.
Flanagan’s cast is stacked with faces familiar to his past works, and all of them eagerly return to play in a new, blood-soaked sandbox. By now, Flanagan knows how to use his collaborators in their best possible ways, and there isn’t an unmemorable one in the bunch. Thomas’ jittery, cowardly wimp and Miller’s increasingly desperate scientist might make the biggest overall impression, but The Fall of the House of Usher is stacked with fascinatingly drawn characters that any performer would love to take. But the show largely belongs to Greenwood’s towering lead performance as a titan of industry desperately trying to cling onto his power, health, sanity, and whatever trace of humanity he might have left after all his years of doing people dirty. It’s no secret that Greenwood is one of the best character actors in recent memory, but it’s wonderful to watch him get such a sprawling and commanding role to sink his teeth into.
While some plot developments and pivots are more successful than others and the overlapping timelines are sometimes awkwardly crashing into each other, The Fall of the House of Usher remains a fun and multilayered watch. There’s always something fascinating to look at and the strength of the flowery, sometimes purposefully prosaic dialogue and the performers delivering those lines is practically unbeatable. This is an example of Flanagan firing on all cylinders, and proof that it is possible to make old classics feel new again by staying true to the spirit of something and making some major cosmetic tweaks. If he hadn’t before, The Fall of the House of Usher solidifies Flanagan’s status as the reigning king of horror television at the moment.
The Fall of the House of Usher is streaming on Netflix starting Thursday, October 12, 2023.
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