On the fifteenth day of Halloween: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (2023)
From his incredible take on Shirley Jackson’s work in The Haunting of Hill House to his epic takedown of Catholicism in Midnight Mass and stupendous Stephen King adaptations (Gerald’s Game anyone?!), Mike Flanagan’s work in the horror genre was already approaching unparalleled.
And then came The Fall of the House of Usher, which is a whole different vibe than his other work. Edgier. Grimier. Meaner. Which makes sense given the subject matter: The Usher family here are pharmaceutical magnates who have made billions in attempting to rid the world of physical pain through their patented drug. Social commentary is cranked to maximum, and Flanagan and Company’s judicious use of empathy only serves to highlight the horror of this monstrous family and their wide-reaching damaging effects on humans everywhere. A modern take on Poe that’s stunning on so many levels. This could very well be the best adaptation of Poe yet.
And arguably best of all, this is the queerest of Flanagan’s works to date. It made me so happy to see a multiracial queer Asian couple in Rahul Kohli’s Napoleon Usher and his partner Julius (Daniel Chae Jun).
But besides the many layers of inclusion and representation — there’s a Nepali American actor Sauriyan Sapkota in the cast! — I’m going to focus on the scalding criticisms of the global ruling class embedded in this adaptation of Poe’s work in the most relevant way possible.
Here’s one of my stream of consciousness notes on The Fall of the House of Usher: How profoundly unwell the excessively wealthy are. The lack of empathy. The greed. The shameless privilege and entitlement. Deeply sick people who happen to rule the world like apex predators, eating and destroying the world from top to bottom at their desires and whims. Capitalism as a corrosive force. Excess wealth as a toxin, a soul killer.
And another: This is the opposite of Succession where it ends without consequences for these people destroying the world. House of Usher is a scathing critique of the ruling class, with the payoff of revenge and no sympathy. As they deserve. There’s a touch of the later Saw films in this one that’s so well placed.
Yes, I really do write notes like this to myself. I’ll never apologize for being a pop-culture nerd. Because Mike Flanagan is one too: House of Usher is chockablock full of homage to Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Clive Barker and Hellraiser in particular, 90s erotic thrillers, Radiohead, even Mad Men, and much more, as well as moving intertextual references to his own work. Calling back to The Haunting of Hill House, watch out for the many ghosts hidden in the background. It’s just the right amount of jump scares to be effective before getting irritating This tapestry is rich in the best way.
Flanagan is known for the heartwrenching currents of empathy in his stories. But that narrative perspective is absent here, as it should be given the subject matter, and these irredeemably horrible people. However, he activates empathy at just the right moment toward the end, leaving me bawling, and perfectly serving to bring home the abject horror of everything else in this narrative.
I want every member of the millionaire/billionaire ruling classes around the world watch this and see themselves reflected in these hugely unflattering visuals. This is not a story filled with antiheroes. These are awful people, and the narrative is well aware. But Flanagan has taken care to preserve what little humanity they still possess. I hope it gives the real-life Ushers a massive jolt. Karma is a brutal bitch in The Fall of the House of Usher, and it was satisfying to watch her work consequences in real time. Sadly, that’s the next best thing to actual change in economic disparity in this world.
✨Annabel Lee/5 stars. Highly recommend taxing the rich.✨