The corrupt CEO of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) sits in a decrepit house, a shell of his former self. Across from him is police investigator C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly). Usher finds himself bereaved of all six of his children, and with nothing else to lose, he’s ready to confess to all of his misdeeds. If that description makes you sit up in your seat, then be advised – The Fall of the House of Usher is a Gothic horror experience that’s simply unmissable. Based on the short story of the same name and a variety of other classic tales from Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher may be horror auteur Mike Flanagan’s last original miniseries for Netflix following signing a first-look deal with Amazon, but he goes out with a darkly comic, bleak, and utterly captivating bang.
Bruce Greenwood’s Roderick Usher is a steady anchor for a story that spans decades. His cadence suggests a calculated, cold man but behind his eyes lies regret and beyond that… terror at the secrets that will soon be unraveled. Greenwood and Lumby play off each other decadently, their conversation itself a mask for unresolved tension over an as-of-yet undisclosed slight in the past. Speaking of the past, it’s a gamble to have a series with so many main characters that the audience knows are going to pass away by the show’s end. Flanagan takes this as a challenge, his remedy characterizing the Usher children – both legitimate and illegitimate – vividly and distinctly.
Actors Henry Thomas, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, and Samantha Sloyan all make a welcome return after appearing in previous Flanagan shows like The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Midnight Mass. Thomas’ kiss-ass failson Frederick, dubbed “Froderick” by the other children for his transparent attempts to follow in Roderick’s footsteps as his true heir, is another surprising showcase for the actor’s talents, whereas Miller’s ambitious-to-a-fault mad scientist of sorts Victorine serves as a nice counterbalance. Siegel’s buttoned-up PR rep Camille and Kohli’s off-the-rails “former” addict Napoleon once again solidify their valuability to Flanagan’s cast, as does Sloyan’s slowly spiraling businesswoman Tamerlane. Meanwhile, a new addition to the repertoire, Sauriyan Sapkota as the youngest and wildest Usher child Prospero, makes a case for himself becoming a permanent fixture in Flanagan’s future works.
So too does a quartet of astonishing supporting characters. Mark Hamill’s shady family lawyer/fixer Arthur Pym deserves a series unto himself. A man of few words, he manages to convey a ghoulish presence that sucks all the air out of any room he walks into. Roderick’s twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) is his calculating, decisive shadow. Carla Gugino – who may as well be the most iconic Flanagan collaborator – portrays the most vital character of The Fall of the House of Usher, a seemingly omnipresent character named Verna whose ties to the Usher empire of wealth will come to be revealed. And finally, one can’t forget about the heart of the show: Kyleigh Curran’s empathetic granddaughter to Roderick, Lenore. In a series this bleak, she is the faint spark of hope.
And let there be no ifs, ands, or buts about it – The Fall of the House of Usher is incredibly bleak. Mike Flanagan and his former cinematographer Michael Fimongari split up directing duties on the season, manifesting a Gothic tone that never leaves. Not only in spaces like Roderick’s rickety mansion where he gives his lengthy, eight-episode spanning confession to investigator Dupin but also in the sterile boardrooms, dank nightclubs, and austere apartments that still manage to feel claustrophobic. Darkness invades every corner of this show, the titular Fall of the House of Usher a cataclysmic car crash in slow motion bolstered by yet another score from the Newton Brothers that burrows deep into the viewer’s core.
Dealing with such a pitch-black tone, and a conceit that could make this series feel more like a shooting gallery than an act of smart horror storytelling, Mike Flanagan’s scripts pull off a delicate high-wire balancing act. Weaving together various Edgar Allan Poe short stories, such as, of course, “The Fall of the House of Usher” amongst other classics like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven”, Flanagan and his co-writers form a sprawling tale that, of course, includes massive horror set pieces that we’re explicitly prevented from talking about. All that can be said is that they’re glorious and push the boundaries of what can be seen on a streaming series, with a tinge of gallows comedy. That comedy extends to a pervasive satire, jabbing at big corporations and the family dynasties that exert control over the populace.
What makes Flanagan’s scripts, and The Fall of the House of Usher, so harrowing is not that it makes fun of the characters, it’s that it actively pities them. The specters of past sins haunt the Usher family, destroying them one by one in a process that simply can’t be stopped and forces them to consider their misdeeds. By the time we reach the series’ bravura finale, Flanagan ties everything together in a neat bow designed to leave audiences not scared, nor empty, but utterly heartbroken.
Whether or not The Fall of the House of Usher is a good adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing is a question best left to scholars of Poe’s work. But as a piece of Gothic horror, it is beyond divine. Outstandingly defined characters, direction with a tight grip on a bleak tone, scares galore, and a hell of a remarkable story to tell fill up the House of Usher. What a perverse joy it is to see it fall. The Fall of the House of Usher is a work designed to haunt, and it’s safe to say this has the right stuff to be a staple in the genre. Moreover, this isn’t just great for a horror television series or great for the genre, it’s one of the finest Netflix original series we have ever seen. What a loss Mike Flanagan and his regulars will be to the streamer.