House of Usher

Director: Alan Birkinshaw                 
Oliver Reed, Donald Pleasence, Romy Windsor

Note: The following review was written three weeks before Reed's death.

Suddenly, homelessness is becoming more attractive. When you're homeless, you get to be in a lot of cool movies; there's Street Trash, a look at vagrants' daily struggle with melting bodies, fat people expanding and exploding into bloody pieces, and playing "Keep Away" with severed penises; Surviving the Game may have been a rip-off of The Most Dangerous Game, though it was professionally made, briskly paced, gory enough, as well as fun to see a great B-movie cast make fools out of themselves; and Midnight Cowboy was good enough to win the Oscar for best picture. Besides, there's nothing to come home to; that's because for two weeks I've been subjected to two bad movies about homes. Last week I reviewed Amityville Dollhouse, and now this week I've had to force myself to get all the way through House of Usher, a dismal modern retelling of the classic Edgar Allan Poe story.

Previously, South Africa has been used to pass itself off as the Caribbean, Turkey, and America in American Ninja 2, Survivor, and Steel Dawn respectively. (Most recently, From Dusk Til Dawn 2 used South Africa for its Mexico set story.) Here, South Africa is used here to pass itself off as England. Now that might not sound like it could work, but in the few brief scenes outdoors at the beginning of the movie, when engaged couple Ryan and Molly (Windsor) rest and relax, the scenery does pass itself off as the London area. And the anonymous South African mansion used to play the Usher mansion as seen from the outside is convincing as well. It's actually the scenes inside the Usher mansion, which take up the bulk of the picture, that are unconvincing. The walls look like uncovered drywall given one coat of paint, the rooms have a minimum amount of furnishing, and when the slowly sinking house crumbles, the falling masonry and support beams bounce on the floor as if they were made with Styrofoam or some other similar material. There's also a suit of armor that supposedly falls to the floor because of one of these housequakes, though I did see a prop master's stick poking out from the side of the screen against the suit of armor, as if it was giving the armor some help in falling down.

That bit with the armor is one of the few bits of interest in House of Usher, intentional or not. This is one boring movie. It's so boring, that even the more ludicrous bits in the movie come off as boring. And there are a lot of ludicrous touches here. When Ryan and Molly, driving to the Usher mansion swerve off the road to avoid hitting two children on the road (with Ryan getting injured in the accident), Molly sees their portraits later in the house, and the screenwriters have the audacity to reuse a clichéd old exchange very familiar to horror buffs:

"Those are the kids I saw on the road earlier," exclaims Molly.

"That's impossible," answers the butler. "They've been dead for over 100 years."

It's not just bad that they've reused something so painfully familiar, but there's not even an acknowledgment they're using something old - it's treated like it's original. An undercurrent of humor might have made it amusing, but the director makes the exchange sound even flatter and dead as it appears in print. Oh yeah, about those ghost kids (obviously inspired by the child ghosts in The Shining)....not only do they not really do a thing for the story, but their presence is never explained. House of Usher also rips off a scene from Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II, with a scene when a mass of hands pokes out from a black wall and grab a character standing in front of the wall. (Actually, it looks like a few arms covered with blackberry jelly ripping through a stretched out black Hefty garbage bag.) Oh, I guess there's some original material in this movie. Donald Pleasence shows up later as a half mad member of the Usher family who has an electric drill permanently strapped to one of his hands, which you can guess what he eventually does with it. Pleasence overacts so much here, that I was very embarrassed to see this distinguished and respected actor humiliate himself in a movie where it seemed no one gave a damn. But he is overshadowed by Oliver Reed, who plays Roderick Usher, inviting his nephew and his girlfriend over for his secret ulterior motives. I'm sure some people still wonder today why Reed, after the 1970 critical and financial success Women In Love, found himself six years later doing crappy major studio junk like Burnt Offerings, and then in the 80s awful made-for-video movies like this. Watching one of those movies, including this one, would answer their question. Reed is terrible in this movie, achieving a level of hamminess I never thought possible. With almost all of the rest of the cast walking around in a daze, his acting actually seems worse than it really is. Not only that, he has to go through some scenes where it would have been more appropriate if he'd worn a clown costume. The lowest sequence is during a dreamy wedding sequence, where he is shot dancing in slow motion (You need to lose a few pounds, Reed.) Then he shoves a piece of cake into the bride's mouth with the palm of his hand, immediately giving her a big French kiss. This is done in slow motion as well.

If you're wondering what this has to do with Edgar Allan Poe, so am I. The events in this movie bear little resemblance to the famous short story, just taking a few elements like a crumbling house and someone being entombed alive. Most of the movie has the camera making slow pans from left to right (or in a fit of imagination, right to left), while someone walks slowly across the room in a daze. The heroine is especially dazed, because she falls for the, "Would you like some (drugged) hot tea?" routine three times before she finally catches on. When she does catch on, she doesn't act that differently, even when she learns her fiancé died in the car accident, that she was later raped, and other things that would cause a normal person to considerably freak out. When she makes repeated attempts to escape from the house, and she gets recaptured, she reacts to the recapturings with the equivalent of a shrug. Why even give a movie that kind of gesture if no one in it is as interested in what's going on, like we are? Rent the 1960 Roger Corman version instead. It might be almost 30 years old, but it's well written, well acted, and chilling.

UPDATE: Eric C. Cotenas sent this along:

"Just came across your review after coming across this film as an ex-rental (along with the simultaneously produced Masque Of The Red Death).

"In the review, you say "And the anonymous South African mansion used to play the Usher mansion as seen from the outside is convincing as well."  That's actually a British location (the house was also featured in The Legend Of Hell House, Burton's Batman, and several other films) so they actually sent a unit out to the UK to grab some exteriors (they also went to Germany to grab some exteriors for Masque Of The Red Death - the castle exterior there is one of the ones built by mad King Ludwig).  House Of Usher is dire beyond defense but Masque has some fun moments (and the same interiors look a bit more convincing in that film)."

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Also: Amityville Dollhouse, Terror House, Sorority House Massacre