Thank Heaven! The crisis—
The danger is past,
And the lingering illness
Is over at last—
And the fever called “Living”
Is conquered at last.
– Edgar Allan Poe, For Annie.
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most influential and vital voices in horror, penning some of the most influential works of the genre in his short 40 years of life. His work drips with emotionality, love, loss, regret, fear, and longing. He helped establish the damp, decaying tone and mood that we now understand as gothic horror.
Mike Flanagan is one of the best horror filmmakers working today. This seems like a bold claim, but after The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass, and Doctor Sleep, it’s hard to see how someone could argue otherwise. There’s a prominent influence in his work from Poe, as well; whether it’s the titular abode in Hill House or the doomed romance of The Haunting of Bly Manor, there are throughlines too definite to ignore.
It makes sense, then, that the latter would adapt the work of the former. The Fall of the House of Usher is that adaptation, but it’s much more ambitious than it seems at first blush. Not content to adapt one story, Flanagan has adapted seemingly all of the classic poets’ work and remixed it into something that is both recognizably Poe and very distinctly his own. The 8-episode series takes its name from one of Poe’s most famous stories, but it is merely a jumping-off point for something more expansive.
As the series opens, Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), a billionaire pharmaceutical magnate, calls investigator and prosecutor C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly) to his home. The two are bitter adversaries, but it’s also immediately apparent that their relationship goes much deeper. Sitting across from one another in Roderick’s childhood home’s rotting, firelit front room, Usher offers Dupin the one thing he has always wanted: a confession.
You see, Roderick is the head of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals (a name that will ring a bell for Poe fanatics) and, along with his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), they have marketed a pain killer called Ligadone for the past several decades. Despite promising to end the world’s pain, the drug has killed millions and ruined the lives of countless others. Meanwhile, Roderick and Madeline have avoided any responsibility or consequence. An obvious analogue for Purdue Pharma with the Usher siblings standing in for the Sackler brothers, Roderick tells Dupin the story of his life, his sister, and his six adult children, all of them terrible people in their unique ways.
Each episode takes its name and inspiration from one of Poe’s stories or poems. Flanagan does not adapt the stories whole cloth, though, taking many of the major and minor elements and fashioning something new. This means that, even if you are an avid Poe-phile, you won’t see every twist and turn coming. Each character featured gets their comeuppance though, and some of the ways Flanagan has reimagined Poe’s imagery are deliciously macabre.
Another aspect of Flanagan’s work is his cohort of performers. It speaks volumes about the kind of director he is that so many people return to work with him again and again, and The Fall of the House of Usher is like an all-star game of his regular collaborators. Greenwood, already a well-known character performer, digs deep for his turn as Roderick, a man desperately trying to maintain his persona as the untouchable patriarch but also emotionally bombarded by the ghosts of his past. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance and one of his best. The same is true of Lumbly, who makes the best of scenes where he’s listening but steals the ones where he speaks.
Six Flanagan regulars play the Usher children: Henry Thomas, Samantha Sloyan, Kate Siegel, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, and Sauriyan Sapkota. Each get their time to shine as their character’s pasts and presents are plumbed to reveal the depths of their depravities. Kohli in particular, whose Napoleon Usher is driven mad by a tormentor, does some of his best work to date, bringing his performance right up to the line but never going over into caricature.
Mark Hamill and Mary McDonnell are both newcomers to the Flanagan team, but when you hire two seasoned character actors to deliver meaty monologues, you end up with two great performances. Tying the whole together is Carla Gugino as Verna; it would be a disservice to discuss her role in any detail, but suffice it to say her story interweaves with all the rest and she gets many of the series’ most memorable lines.
Flanagan is sharing directorial duties with his regular collaborator, Michael Fimognari. They have worked together for so long now that they seamlessly create a visually consistent experience. All their trademarks are there, including ghosts in the background and simultaneously open and claustrophobic environments.
It is in the writing where the series excels, though. Some say that Flanagan’s writing is full of monologues, which is true. Whether you are a fan of that or not, you are in for a treat. Not only does the series have some of his best monologues to date (keep an ear out for the one about lemons), but also recitations of Poe’s poetry. Not since James Earl Jones read The Raven on The Simpsons has readings of these works been so effective, and both Gugino and Greenwood have exactly the voices you want reading them.
Poe is one of the fathers of gothic horror and Flanagan is the inheritor of that mantle. This adaptation of the former’s work by the latter bares both of these facts. Flanagan has created something that is all at once uniquely Poe’s and his uniquely his, both classic and contemporary, and an exciting new addition to the horror canon.
All eight episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher premiere October 12, exclusively on Netflix.