Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Fall of the House of Usher: the 1928 Silent Films

Amidst his bibliography of classic tales, The Fall of the House of Usher is one of Edgar Allan Poe's best known and most frequently adapted. First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September of 1839, it is a masterful Gothic short story about a sinister house and its woe-begotten inhabitants. Poe's narrator introduces us to Roderick and Madeline Usher, last in the long line of the Usher family.... A venerable clan beset with the maladies of aristocracy: physical, mental, and moral degeneracies. Madeline is seen but once before her apparent death by cataleptic seizure. It is Roderick who must live with the constant deterioration of his body and spirit within the confines of the oppressive manor that imprisons him. The titular house is a bleak one, crumbling from centuries of mold and decay in an unrelentingly melancholy swamp. Such visually and psychologically arresting subject matter begs for cinematic adaptation. The Fall of the House of Usher has been brought to film over a dozen times, not counting crypto-adaptations like Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015). Perhaps the best known of these is the 1960 version directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price, which kicked off an entire series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. The earliest were two films released in the same year of the silent era, one in France and the other in the United States. 

The 1928 French version, La Chute de la maison Usher, was produced, directed, and co-written by French Impressionist filmmaker Jean Epstein. Also dubbed "Narrative Avant-Garde," French Impressionist film rejected the standard paradigms of commercial film-making, primarily through the modes of subjectivity and "photogénie." Subjectivity is the quality of depicting the internalized state of a character above and beyond recording events that happen to them. The concept of photogénie is even more abstract, and there is not even agreement among film critics about whether this "inherent poetry of the cinema could be harnessed, and developed in a revelatory manner by the auteur" is actually a thing. That stands to reason, as some historians debate whether French Impressionist film was actually a movement in any meaningful sense of the term, as it lacked any real consistency of technique.

What Epstein sets out to create with La Chute de la maison Usher is an impressionistic work that captures the foreboding feeling of Poe's mansion, with its lingering effects on the psyche of everyone caught within. It still intelligible as a story, and hews fairly close to the text. His most original innovation in the narrative is a painting that Roderick is creating of his sister, which seems somehow spiritually tied to her. It is upon completion of the painting that Madeline has her fatal cataleptic seizure. Though part of a coterie of filmmakers who rejected the tropes of commerical production, Epstein nevertheless uses ones that would become common in horror films of the Thirties. La Chute de la maison Usher opens, for example, with the narrator entering a pub whose fearful occupants speak in whispers of the House of Usher. 

The French version.

The 1928 American version, directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, dispenses with narrative formalities altogether to create a thoroughly abstract expressionist vision. Whereas interpreting the French version would be difficult without having first read the original story, understanding the American one would be impossible. Rather than condensing the story into 13 minutes, Webber and Watson parade a series of avant garde images (often filmed through prisms) that represent the tale's events and emotional impacts. It is an illustration of Poe's story more than an adaptation

The American version, with new score written by 
Jean Hasse and performed by Counterpoise.

It is a fascinating cosmic convergence that not only should two film adaptations of the same story come out in the same year on two different continents, but that both should see in Poe's story of madness and decay the fruitful soil of wild artistic expression. Both films are daring experiments in film-making beyond the styles already becoming dominant in the wider industry. Though neither one is heralded as a classic of the caliber of a Nosferatu or Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, what they experimented with would leave its impression on cinema for decades to come.  

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