The Fall Of The House Of Usher review: The guy who does horror with heart takes on the heartless

Horror is inherently psychological. That ghost, monster, or indestructible serial killer? A stand-in for some mental or emotional problem. Through tension and release, scary stories serve a kind of therapeutic function. Too often, though, the humans in horror seem shallow (with some notable exceptions). Maybe there’s a limit to how much inner life the genre can bear before story machinery must—jump scare!—take over. That’s why writer-director Mike Flanagan is so refreshing: He honors the supernatural imperatives of ghost stories or vampire tales, but ensures they happen to people we care about, heroes capable of getting sober or overcoming generational trauma. In his latest—and lastNetflix series, The Fall Of The House Of Usher (out October 12), Flanagan torments six horrible children of wealth and privilege, testing our capacity to empathize with them. Here, the guy who does horror with heart takes on the heartless.

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From the title down, Edgar Allan Poe is the touchstone for this eight-episode gothic family thriller, just as Shirley Jackson and Henry James were jumping-off points for The Haunting Of Hill House and The Haunting Of Bly Manor. Flanagan fans (Fanagans?) are familiar with his formula: modern riffs on classic weird lit strewn with Easter eggs from the particular author’s oeuvre. Character names (Annabel Lee, Dupin, Prospero, etc.) are lifted from Poe’s tales or poems; episodes titled “Murder In The Rue Morgue,” “The Black Cat,” and so forth tip us off as to who dies by the end of the installment.

Fear no spoilers. The very first scene of “A Midnight Dreary” is a funeral for the last three children of CEO and patriarch Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), who broods in the pew as a priest intones lines from the Baltimore bard’s elegiac “Spirits Of The Dead.” Leaving the church for his limo, Roderick, who suffers from vascular dementia, collapses on the sidewalk and sees a raven perched ominously on top of a gate. Stick a pin in that black birdie, the fatal thread that links Roderick’s rise as head of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals alongside his driven, brilliant sister, Madeline (Mary McDonnell), and the violent destruction of his clan. The series unfolds as a string of morality tales in which the sins of the father are visited upon the equally corrupt heads of the offspring.

Given the ultra-rich family and Big Pharma context, one assumes that Flanagan was taking notes on Succession and Dopesick. Fortunato is the manufacturer of Ligadone, a fictional painkiller that has caused an opioid epidemic, prompting a lawsuit leveled by D.A. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly). When Dupin announces in court that the prosecution has an informant inside the Usher circle, waves of recrimination and paranoia sweep the backstabbing siblings. Cue family lawyer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), a scowling, rasping fixer who hands out ironclad NDAs around the family dinner table.

Framing the season is Roderick’s post-funeral dialogue with Dupin, who has been summoned by the six-time bereaved pop to the Ushers’ crumbling family home one night. Sitting across from his legal adversary bathed in candlelight, sipping on million-dollar cognac, Roderick agrees to plead guilty to state charges in exchange for someone hearing his confession. Given the original Poe tale, and the fact that we hear Madeline is banging around in the basement, this isn’t going to end happily. Roderick’s dementia means his narration is frequently interrupted by sudden (and effectively spooky) hallucinations of his deceased progeny—melted by toxic waste, stabbed through the heart, or mauled by chimpanzees.

Once you get the death-per-episode, anthology-like setup, there’s not a lot of mystery to Usher, as Flanagan and his writers knock each character off and fill in backstory through flashbacks. It’s generally enjoyable seeing the puzzle pieces come together, especially with Carla Gugino woven throughout as Verna, a demon ex machina who pops up in everyone’s storyline (crucially in Roderick and Madeline’s early years), tempting them to the precipice of their own vice, madness, or egomania. The always magnetic Gugino gets to flaunt her range: One minute she’s a masked temptress at an orgy, then a bored security guard; and next she’s a Southern lady with a failing heart in need of cutting-edge medical tech. Who is this sinister, ubiquitous spirit? Death? Karma?

As usual, Flanagan works with the same actors in project after project, giving his work the unity and warm familiarity of a repertory theater troupe. Kate Siegel (also his wife) turns in another ice-cold, cutting portrayal as one of Usher’s “bastard” offspring, Camille, a cynical PR flack who sleeps with her two assistants. The two other illegitimate spawn are dissipated playboys: drug-addled gamer Leo (Rahul Kohli) and sadistic party boy Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota). The older kids are represented by Victorine (T’Nia Miller), a desperately ambitious medical researcher who wants to pioneer a “smart heart mesh.” Tamerlaine (Samantha Sloyan) runs a Goop lifestyle knockoff and suffers from chronic insomnia. And then there’s Frederick (Henry Thomas, drolly effete), a useless elder boy just waiting for the old man to die already.

As their reptilian aunt Madeleine, McDonnell is a hoot, matching a contemptuous drawl to her deadpan façade, sizing up enemies to methodically bring them down. Greenwood, a sturdy if rarely exciting performer, brings the requisite gravitas and flashes of remorse, even if his character’s reputed womanizing and foul-mouthed corporate swagger feel hollow. (Frank Langella, originally cast as Roderick, was fired after misbehavior on set—and he would have exuded more menace and hedonism than the too-wholesome Greenwood.)

More than Flanagan’s previous outings at Netflix, Usher is stuffed with sex, drugs, and ostentatious swearing. It’s also his queerest work, with half the Ushers gay or bisexual and apparently insatiable. Perry aspires to be an orgy entrepreneur; Tammy pays sex workers to dine with and screw her husband while she watches; Victorine sleeps with her heart-surgeon business partner. For all the decadence, nudity, and pop-culture name-dropping, Flanagan and his team don’t neglect the writing, which has always been his strong suit. Camille has an especially vivid speech in which she catalogues the fecklessness of her family members, ending with herself as a soulless publicist: “I just spin. Dad decided that I belong in a room of smoke and mirrors, and I’m like a ceiling fan and I spin and I spin and I spin and I don’t go anywhere. Ushers don’t make stuff. None of us.”

Campy, acted with flair, and boasting lush, operatic death sequences (bravo Michael Fimognari), Usher is sparkly but not deep, more box Merlot than Amontillado. It never achieves the narrative momentum or emotional resonance of Flanagan’s finest: the extraordinary Midnight Mass and most of Hill House, not to mention the elegant bridging of Kubrick and King he engineered in Doctor Sleep. Nearly every episode could be tightened; several flashback scenes drag; and the ending is too pat. Since there’s hardly a likable Usher here (except for an ethical granddaughter), and the vitriol’s not nearly as baroque as Succession, these snakes can wear out their welcome. (Poe’s advice from the grave: keep ’em short!) Still, it might serve as a Halloween binge with fellow Fanagans. Gather your nearest and dearest, pour cheap cognac (or fruit juice), and hear the raven croak its dreadful message.

The Fall Of The House Of Usher premieres October 12 on Netflix

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