Edgar Allen Poe is one of those great horror authors that’s hard to adapt to the screen. Since the horror is all interior (as in happening inside the protagonists’ & narrators’ heads) it can be especially hard to adapt without drifting into camp–looking at you, Roger Corman. Poe is hard to resist, though, because in addition to many of his stories being well and truly horrific they’re also public domain. Lady Usher offers a contemporary adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe’s 1839 story about an unnamed narrator visiting twin siblings in a decaying, ancestral mansion that *literally* collapses (the “fall” of the title being both literal and metaphorical).
Roderick Usher (John Tupy) is happy at college, dating Morgan Segal (Billie D. Merritt), but must leave her to return to his ancestral home to be with his dying father. Morgan, after an odd phone call with Roderick, decides to visit him, uninvited, to show support and help him through this difficult time, as her mother died when she was young. The house of Usher, a southern plantation style mansion is indeed disturbing. They have a butler (Michael Gibbons) and a live-in physician (Kim Titus), and while home Roderick wears only the finest 19th century fashions. The family is overly formal and ruled with an iron first by the eponymous Lady Usher (Theresa Santiago), Roderick’s mother (among other things), who is cruel, terrifying, charming, and elegant, all within a ten second span.
Faster than you can say, “Mom always liked Oedipus best,” Lady Usher and Morgan passive-aggressively and aggressive-aggressively fight over control of Roderick. The writer/director has added an additional element to the familial horror not found in Poe, which will not be revealed here, but which fundamentally changes the story. Usher Pere (John Ferguson) is a century old, delusional, and not dying fast enough for Lady Usher. Morgan stays for a very strange dinner and then a pair of linked, disturbing sex scenes. The middle third of Lady Usher is awkward and disturbing, and often the audience is not certain what is real and what is not. Sections of the original story are recited by mom & dad Usher, and, eventually we get through the ick factor scenes to some odd and improbably comical bits.
At its best, Lady Usher is phantasmagoric and sinister. At its less-than-best the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. The budget obviously isn’t huge, but the ideas and effort are there. Tupy offers a strong performance of the weak and twisted Roderick, while Merrit and Santiago provide yeoman service as the women battling for his love in ways I never want to see again. Not for the fear-and-jump-scare crowd, but for an odd slow burn it has its moments.
The other issue I had is its inconsistent style and odd choices for a Poe-inspired thriller. For instance, the opening credits are in the style of a student film or home movie for some reason. Later, when Morgan questions the age difference between Roderick’s parents he says “Do the math” and text appears on the screen–for the only time in the film–subtracting his mom’s age from his dad’s. Finally, the end credits feature a music video of a secondary character dancing around as the band performing the end credits song plays in her presence.
4 out of 10