For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
Premiering Thursday on the streaming service, The Fall of the House of Usher is quite an exit from Netflix (Netflexit?) for Mike Flanagan. The writer / director behind Netflix’s best and most memorable series — the gothic, cathartic hauntings of both Hill House and Bly Manor as well as the more presciently haunting Midnight Mass — sends himself and his recurring family of actors out with a vicious, nerdy bang in this eight-episode remix of Edgar Allan Poe’s best scares.
English majors and horror aficionados alike can rejoice and Leo-pointing-meme the hell out of practically every name, every descent into madness, every implausible but Aligherian death that befalls the eponymous family. Even if Usher doesn’t quite stand up to Flanagan’s previous work (and really, this is the tiniest of knocks), it’s great October fare — wickedly delightful and delightfully wicked.
Flanagan, his co-director and longtime cinematographer Michael Fimognari and co-writers Emmy Grinwis, Justina Ireland, Matt Johnson, Dani Parker, Rebecca Leigh Klingel, Jamie Flanagan and Kiele Sanchez tap into an extremely 2023 thirst for vengeance against the filthy rich in taking down the Ushers. Less of a family and more of an empire, the Ushers are under legal fire but remain armored with the obscene wealth they acquired from Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, their company, and Ligodone, the non-addictive painkiller it developed decades ago. For those counting at home, there are three Poe references and two lies in that sentence. The references you can Google (though one is more obscure) and the lies unravel themselves.
Much like the Targaryens, the only thing that can tear down the House of Usher is the Ushers. That’s the setup for you. To go much deeper into the plot would be a disservice to the experience of Usher, which is methodical in its non-linear storytelling and a true hoot in its gory execution of, well, executions.
It’s no secret that each Usher you meet is in for a grisly end, from patriarch Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and his icy twin, Madeline (Mary McDonnell), to Roderick’s legitimate children (Henry Thomas and Samantha Sloyan), his illegitimate children (Kate Siegel, Rahul Kohli, T’Nia Miller and Sauriyan Sapkota) and beyond. The fun is finding out which of Poe’s iconic horrors will befall which Usher — and yes, I say “fun” because, in their own ways, each one of them deserves it. Flanagan strikes a nearly impossible balance in making the Ushers compelling and watchable while never making them sympathetic. Each time you find yourself wondering if it’s fair for the children to pay for the sins of their father (and aunt), those darn kids remind you they’re paying for their own sins as well. Excessive sex and drugs, corporate espionage and weaponized NDAs, addiction and animal abuse, smiled-through lies and illegal medical trials, false faces and outsourced intimacy, paranoia and pliers … just to name a few.
Some sins are more simplistic than others. But in the end, the Ushers (with one notable exception in Doctor Sleep’s Kyleigh Curran) share more than just blood. They share that specific mentality of the very rich that they are invincible. That money makes their choices the right ones. “What’s the golden rule?” Roderick muses, remembering a lesson he taught each of his children. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” Keep throwing money at problems until they disappear. Even if those problems are people. Especially if those problems are dead people. (Or cats. Or chimps.) And at every turn, the choices the Ushers make from that mindset guarantee not just their demises but their manner.
There’s definitely an element of wish fulfillment at play in Usher. A very, very small percentage of people are responsible for the worst problems in the world. They all have more money than they need. They could ease the suffering of the rest of us with nothing but a keystroke and instead cocoon themselves with yes-men and fixers in the ugliest mansions imaginable and use their money to convince themselves they earned it. Money siphons good taste and good sense, and it suffocates empathy under a mountain of zeroes. It feels good to watch the Ushers get what they deserve. It only becomes tragic when the enigmatic, supernatural force that delivers the sentences (Carla Gugino, never sultrier) hints at what their lives could have been if only they had not sacrificed their humanity for gold.
Ultimately, however, the impishly perverse delight in watching the bodies pile up is also what makes Usher ever so slightly lesser compared to Mike Flanagan’s previous work for Netflix. Hill House, Bly Manor, Midnight Mass and the incomplete The Midnight Club all spent their limited runtime in establishing deeply flawed, deeply human characters with whom viewers can easily sympathize. Personally, I can’t rewatch Hill House or Bly Manor without bawling (which I do, at least once a year, sobbing harder every time), and Midnight Mass, while masterful, was so harrowing I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to rewatch it again. In the past, I’ve called Flanagan’s work sentimental horror because both the fears and the overcoming of them spring from deep inside the characters he writes. Through ghosts, Flanagan gives them catharsis. That element is missing in Usher, although certainly not by mistake. It’s a feature, not a (gold) bug. The Ushers won’t change, can’t change, even given the opportunity. They can only be punished.
And while that lack of humanistic quality risks characters becoming caricatures, this is miraculously avoided thanks to Flanagan’s stellar cast. New faces like Mark Hamill and Willa Fitzgerald fit in seamlessly with Flanagan’s recurring players. But for me, the standouts are Thomas (outrageously funny; you will never get the way he says “dad hole” out of your head), Kohli (possibly the most charming Usher, if you can overlook the cat thing); and Siegel (at her most caustic and stylish, a deadly combo). If anything is wrong with this show, it’s the baked-in lack of time with these characters; just when you start enjoying them, that’s when they get the ax.
But, again, that’s intentional. They may be entertaining but you’re not supposed to like them. The barest teases of who they were before the Usher money corrupted them also keeps them at a further remove, which is as frustrating as it is fascinating. Even Roderick and Madeline, with whom we spend the most time in flashbacks, suffer from this problem, at least structurally. They are a mystery until the very last episode, and while I understand the reason for that, I’m not sure if it works as intended. Flanagan, the only big name from the production team who can currently talk about Usher thanks to the strikes, has said that eight episodes felt right for the show, but I can’t help but wonder if one or two more would’ve allowed more time to answer questions that feel underdeveloped or unresolved.
Or maybe more time would have made the show too preachy. Or maybe it would have left time for more moments like when one character is inexplicably watching the Vincent Price The Pit and the Pendulum on Netflix, as if Netflix has anything made before 1970 in its bloated library (and let me tell you, that date is being generous). Either way, Flanagan and Co. managed to shoot their shot one last time at Netflix and, in doing so, put a whole lot of greedy capitalists in their crosshairs — including, no doubt, the very ones who paid to get this show made and with the poetry and prose of one of literature’s most unabashed sickos, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe himself.