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Film / The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, USA)

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The Fall of the House of Usher is a 1928 American 13-minute short film dramatizing the story by Edgar Allan Poe.

A man wearing a top hat arrives at the titular house of Roderick and Madeline Usher (although their names are not mentioned in the short, which has no title cards). Madeline seems to go into some sort of trance, and then die. The visitor and Roderick put Madeline in a coffin and bury her—but it turns out she isn't really dead, and she climbs out of her coffin to have a word with Roderick.

This version of the Poe story was an amateur film directed by writer James Sibley Watson and his partner Melville Webber. It is one of many film adaptations of the short story, including a French feature version by Jean Epstein and Luis Buñuel also made in 1928, as well as a Vincent Price feature made in 1960. This film is remarkable for its bizarre avant-garde imagery, which bears an obvious debt to German expressionism.

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Tropes:

  • Adaptational Villainy: This version implies that Madeline was poisoned, possibly by the visitor. The visitor brings her food on a plate, which causes her to coil in fear. She goes into one of her catatonic trances afterwards.
  • All There in the Manual: Anyone who hasn't already read the Poe short story might not have any idea what the hell is going on. There is a procession of surreal imagery, but little attempt to present the story as a coherent narrative.
  • Bizarrchitecture: The weird angles and high, slanted walls of the Usher mansion certainly apply.
  • Buried Alive: Turns out Madeline wasn't really dead.
  • Camera Tricks: A prism was put in front of the lens to create the many weird, fractured shots that are seen throughout the movie.
  • Chiaroscuro: Used throughout the film, like the scene where a ghostly Madeline is walking through a dark hallway.
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  • Collapsing Lair: The House of Usher collapses at the end of the story, although like much else this is hard to glean from the oblique imagery at the end of the film.
  • Dutch Angle: Used several times, like when Roderick and Madeline are having a confrontation at dinner.
  • The Faceless: The visitor arriving at the Usher mansion never shows his face. For most of the movie he is shot from behind, or only his hands appear. At one point his face is shown out of focus as he flips through a book.
  • Follow the Leader: The Bizarrchitecture, the Looks Like Cesare characters, the general spooky atmosphere and Chiaroscuro lighting—the makers of this film were obviously familiar with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In this case however they did not bother to mostly tie up the loose ends as the German film did, but instead simply present thirteen minutes of bizarre, surreal imagery.
  • Idiosyncratic Wipe: A shot of a door sort of splits down the middle to reveal Madeline on the other side.
  • I Love the Dead: Implied by a shot of the visitor caressing what he believes to be dead Madeline.
  • Le Film Artistique: A tilted camera, the use of a prism to create weird fractured shots, superimpositions of coffins floating across the screen...
  • Looks Like Cesare: Roderick has pale skin and dark eyes and looks appropriately creepy.
  • No Ontological Inertia: The collapse of the house for no discernible reason.
  • Written Sound Effect: A rare use of this in a live action film when letters that spell out "CRACK", "RIPPED", and "SCREAM" pop up onscreen when Madeline exits her coffin.
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