31 October, 2007


Roger Corman, the most dangerous director alive, takes aim at Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale in his 1960 AIP production, HOUSE OF USHER.

It's Halloween evening and I'm watching Roger Corman's HOUSE OF USHER on TCM with a recent viewing of Jess Franco's 1983 version of the same story fresh in mind. It must have been quite a shock for Corman's fans, if he had any back in those days, who were familiar with such B minus fantasy entries as NOT OF THIS EARTH, THE UNDEAD, BUCKET OF BLOOD and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, all b&w no budget wonders filled with compelling images and ideas. They were unusually inventive trash, delicious exploitation. But HOUSE OF USHER is almost Art, with an emphasis on the "almost."

I don't think this film, or his subsequent Poe titles, would be as fondly remembered without the spectral presence of Vincent Price, who seemed to have been waiting his entire life to fit into the haunted shoes of Corman's Poe protagonists. He certainly dominates and finally obliterates the rest of the cast in HOUSE OF USHER.

Beside the intelligent, bold use of color, which may have influenced such later horror directors as Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda and Dario Argento, the element I like the best about HOUSE.. are the cracks in the house. Small cracks suddenly apparent, and a huge fissure revealed by shock cuts to the looming exterior of the mansion.

Jess Franco's USHER has more stones and rocks than cracks and replaces the final conflagration with a earthquake represented by shaking the camera (Jess operated his own system) and showing a few said rocks tumbling. Hmmm.... Well, it's Jess Franco.

And I must admit that I prefer Antonio Mayans to pretty boy Mark Damon as the young intruder, named Dr. Alan "Hacker" in the English language export! I guess they meant Harker, and there's a "Dr. Seward" [Daniel J. White] involved, a frequent name in many Franco horror films. Damon's hair is done up in a lavish wave slicked by the lights of Floyd Crosby. Mayans looks ready to burn out. Speaking of Floyd Crosby, Franco wanted to make an Expressionist homage to F.W. Murnau but Corman actually had Murnau's cameraman onset, a distinct advantage. And, as is often quoted, Corman understood that the house was the monster, something that Franco also comprehends. The Spanish castle in the Franco film seems to absorb Hacker like a giant, stone amoeba, only to spit him out at the end.

Roderick Usher (Vincent Price) suffers from a "...morbid acuteness..." to just about everything, but especially sound. "I can hear the scratch of rat claws within a stone wall." Reminds me of a stay in a very shaky hotel in Saltillo, Mexico over thirty years ago. In any case, Howard Vernon can be considered the Euro counterpart of Price, especially in terms of physique and vocal recognition. Compare the opening of Corman's version with Franco's. Both consider, in long shot, the lonely ride of the protagonist through blasted landscapes toward Usher. Corman emphasizes dead trees (New England, Hollywood style) while Franco makes no attempt to disguise or alter the desolate terrain of southern Spain. Both directors use color and camera movement as an equivalent of Poe's interior prose.

Franco's self proclaimed Expressionist experiment, EL HUNDIMIENTO DE LA CASA USHER exists in at least three different versions. Usher (Howard Vernon) drinks fresh blood (or rather licks it fresh off knives) compared to Vincent Prince, whose Roderick Usher resembles a drink of blood, tall, thin and glimmering in his crimson smoking jacket.

The Spanish version of this project is radically different than the export version, known as REVENGE IN THE HOUSE OF USHER on US video and DVD [NEVROSE, from IMAGE].
Try to avoid watching it in English language, the voice casting is painfully poor. In fact, see this alternate version if you can. I know of no English language version but it runs under 80 minutes, a definite bonus considering the tedium of the overlong export version [made worse by Eurocine added sequences featuring Francoise Blanchard as Usher's daughter and Olivier Mathot as a new Morpho and the use of stock shots from GRITOS EN LA NOCHE-1961). The stock footage goes on and on but illustrates an interesting contrast and demonstrates how Franco's cine-Expressionism developed over several decades. And Howard Vernon is an even more chilling obsessive 20 years on.
I must admit, seen in Spanish, I can't make much of Franco's USHER. I don't know what the hell is going on outside of the fact that Vernon is a blood drinking, murdering fiend. It's overwrought, but in a way I really appreciate, like Roderick Usher in Corman's HOUSE OF USHER.
And Jess Franco's Spanish USHER really does need an R1 OAR DVD presentation in decent video quality, with English subtitles available. Produced by Madrid's Elite Films, it doesn't appear to be owned by Eurocine. The DVD-R I have doesn't have a main title and is in pretty poor condition in terms of image and sound. Alain Petit notes that there was an earlier version, never released, which Franco had to change (adding several violent murder scenes) at the request of the Spanish producer.
Thanks to Francesco Cesari.
(C) Robert Monell, 2007


mike said...

I watched the US export version the other night (with French language/English subtitles) for the first time and was actually quite pleased with it. I was ready for it to be ultimately tedious after how much flack it's taken on internet forums and in reviews, but I found it both beautiful and moving, with both Antonio Mayans and Howard Vernon perfectly on the spot in their acting.

Also, despite the fact that the GRITOS EN LA NOCHE flashbacks tend to go on and on, I found it totally fascinating how Franco (or I guess the producer? could you clarify this) totally re-contextualized the footage into the film, sort of in the same way that in Alain Robbe-Grillet novels he would often take "poems" or shorter prose fragments found in his collaborative works (such as those with David Hamilton and Irina Ionesco) and reshape them into a larger narrative context. I think it's a great, easily recognizable example of Franco's intertextuality that lends support to the idea that Franco is intentially reworking and subverting earlier themes (and films) instead of just running out of ideas. It was also totally beautiful to look at!

ecom said...

The Spanish version I have is only missing its title card. The rest of the credits are intact. Its an interesting title sequence in that its not rushed like Eurocine titles are. There's a sense of weight behind each of the technical credits as if their contributions mattered. Though Franco is credited as both "operador jefe" and director, Enrique Diaz is credited with "camara" so Franco either operated or he lit the film (I'm thinking the former even though operador jefe seems like it should be the equivalent of cinematographer like "chef operateur" in French).

Douglas A. Waltz said...

I have the big box VHS of this with the power drill on the cover. I thought it was fun to watch. Are you telling me there is a different, more coherent version of this somewhere??

Robert Monell said...

Mike: Very perceptive comparison with ARG's intertextuality. That's where they are indeed very similar, and the fact that they deal freely with eroticism and pulp mythology. USHER is indeed beautiful in terms of color compositions. The pace is slow but it is rewarding. Franco has claimed in his OBSESSION interview that the ORLOFF flashbacks were his idea. But I think it's a strong possiblity that EUROCINE strongly suggested this and Franco agreed to go along. It does work on that level you mention. I don't like the Olivier Mathot scenes at all, though and think they clash. They may have brought in another director for them. But I'm not sure whom.

Robert Monell said...

ecom: I think I have the same version. I wish the video quality were better. Franco often operates his camera as well as being DP, sometimes uncredited, like Mario Bava. He has said this film had one of his smallest crews. I would like to see his original CRIMENS DE USHER.

Robert Monell said...

Doug, that's a fun cover. I remember it from the old extinct video stores of the late 1980s. Yes, the Spanish version is radically different. It loses the ORLOFF footage and the footage with Olivier Mathot and Francoise Blanchard, that's two less subplots/backstories. It's all about Vernon murdering women and drinking their blood. There are several extended and graphic murder scenes not in REVENGE. It's really work checking out and much closer to Franco's original intent.