Netflix Fall of the House of Usher Review: Exquisite Poe Tribute

Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher isn’t an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. It is instead a reimagining of the entire Poe oeuvre, a resurrected corpus operis with all the bodies laid out on the table, given new, feverish life inside the framework of Roderick Usher’s legacy of doom.

Flanagan’s new Netflix series is framed around Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) confessing his crimes, and the crimes of his family, to C. Auguste Dupin. (Dupin, played here by Carl Lumbly, is another one of Poe’s famous characters, a detective that served as the precursor to the more recognizable Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.) In this series, Dupin is a prosecutor—a state’s attorney who has been a dog after Usher’s corporate crimes for decades. Dupin meets with Roderick at the Usher family home, and Usher, driven by a dark, malignant impetus, tells Dupin everything.

The series starts at the funeral of Roderick Usher’s child. It’s not particular which child, as they’re all dead. Each member of the family tree has been pruned back with vicious, brutal shears. His children—six, by five mothers—are Frederick, Tamerlane, Victorine, Napoleon, Camille, and Prospero. As their stories are re-told, from Usher to Dupin, the full force of Flanagan’s mastery comes to bear. Using the frame of Usher, he has crafted a story that stitches Poe’s work together like flesh on a battlefield, a gruesome, traumatic series that pulls out big knives and cuts itself apart over and over again. Through the obvert retellings are winks and nods to Poe’s work, a line from a poem here, a name there, a metaphor in the middle of a conversation, creating a pinboard of reference, beetles on backing, for keen observers to find as they watch the series. The result is a show that is a darkly mesmerizing, erotic horror-thriller, a supernatural gothic Succession, queering the work and writing an obsessive, ritualistic performance.

Many will recognize the Ushers’ names as characters from Poe’s various works—respectively: Metzengerstein, Tamerlane, The Premature Burial, The Spectacles, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, and The Masque of Red Death. Additionally, each episode of the series has a title taken from Poe’s work: A Midnight Dreary, The Masque of the Red Death, Murder at the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, Tell-Tale Heart, The Gold-Bug, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Raven. Flanagan is not hiding his reference material because he doesn’t have to; the series is so good because it embraces the material before putting it in a chokehold and forcing it into submission. The most masterful parts of it are when the little twists happen—when you realize that Roderick Usher is not just Roderick Usher, but a character stand-in for Poe himself. It’s a brilliant maneuver that will leave viewers like me, who have fully bought into the kayfabe, yelling at the screen.

Image: Netflix | Eike Schroter

Flanagan has, like many others before him, “broken into Poe’s gallery” and made use of every single skeleton he could get his hands on. But instead of a pale affair, the result is as if the skeletons were his to begin with, his bodies to dig up, dislocate, and put back together in a grisly marionette production of Poe’s greatest, weirdest, freakiest, most fantastic hits. It’s a show that knows and intimately cares for its inspirations but creates of them a menagerie of new terror. The end result: wonderful, horrific little chimeras of Poe’s work that are vividly rendered and ready to tear you apart the minute they’re let out of the cage.

As Roderick relates how his family has met their downfall, one child at a time, he is haunted by their corpses. There is no mystery about the supernatural here; it’s a clear and present danger, a haunting, a generational curse, passed down like trauma, hand over fist towards each family successor. He describes the trial against the family’s Fortunato company, led by Dupin himself, and the horrible spiral of madness that all began when one of the Ushers became a turncoat. Supposedly. This is the beginning of the end, and debts are coming due. As each episode relates one death, all the stories tie together, a tangled web of fucked-up childhoods, ambition, and tension, tied up in erotic shame and economic greed, hurtling towards an gruesome, terrifying ending. The entire series is no less than a masterpiece.

Some might remember The Midnight Club, another series by Mike Flanagan that adapted not only the titular Christopher Pike novel, but also combined additional short stories from Pike’s into a single series. While The Midnight Club didn’t quite live up to its ambitious premise, horror hanging onto its YA strictures like ill-fitting clothing, it clearly served as a stepping stone for Flanagan. The narrative structure of The Fall of the House of Usher is tailored in a way that The Midnight Club never quite managed. The ties that bind Poe’s stories together feel easier to pull out, and Flanagan’s use of these strings to create a new garment feels bespoke, rather than off the rack.

With such rich texts to draw from, and a master tactician behind the scenes, the actors are tasked with bringing these satirical caricatures to life, and every single one delivers. Many of Flanagan’s favorites return—Kate Siegel (Camille), Samantha Sloyan (Tamerlane), Rahul Kohli (Napoleon), Katie Parker (Annabell Lee), Ruth Codd (Juno Usher), Henry Thomas (Frederick), as well as Lumbly and Greenwood as Dupin and Roderick. There’s also Mark Hamill, who is unrecognizable as Arthur Pym, and is appearing for the first time in the Mike Flanagan Cinematic Universe. All of these actors deliver the artillery of Flanagan’s philosophic horror with a rat-a-tat tension that lands like gunfire at the scene of the crime. The phenomenal acting, alongside the shelling of Flanagan’s dialogue, creates craters out of soft landings.

As Flanagan creates this story, it takes over. It’s obsessive, ritualistic, it’s mean, it will cut your heart out and replace it with a new, better heart. A modern heart, with mesh and microchips and a pump that will make sure your heart never, ever, ever stops beating. The Fall of the House of Usher is a triumphant adaptation of Poe’s works, creating an exquisite corpse out of the corpus of horror that we know and love, but now made into a timely, biting satire of legacy, immortality, and all the themes that Poe, and Flanagan, do best.

All eight episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher will be available to stream on October 12.

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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