Once the echoes of Netflix‘s iconic ‘tudum’ vanished, the sound-signature that accompanies the beginning of every title on the on-demand streaming platform, the voice of Roger Waters and the music of Pink Floyd, with the immortal ‘Another Brick in the Wall‘ from the legendary album ‘The Wall,’ arrive overbearingly. Then a very fast montage, lightning-fast images, a funeral, an eerie woman appearing as an angel of death, and soon after two characters sitting across from each other in the decrepit living room of a disused mansion. Two protagonists, we will immediately discover later, one Black and one White, as in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Sunset Limited’ found face to face to talk about their stories, their lives, good and evil and everything in between.
This is what level director Mike Flanagan is aiming for with The Fall of the House of Usher.. The latest TV show signed by the author for Netflix before the exclusive move to Prime Video (through which he may finally realize his dream of adapting Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels into live-action) coincides with one of the streaming platform’s highest peaks and coming full circle, for an argument about horror in the age of streaming, which, thanks precisely to Netflix, has seen this author reserved year after year, a space among contemporary masters of the genre..
We feel sorry for those who had torn their hair out over the mediocre The Midnight Club – the author’s previous TV series, again for Netflix and co-created with Leah Fong but half a misstep from previous works, such as Hill House, Bly Manor, and especially the masterpiece Midnight Mass (here is our review of Midnight Mass) – because The Fall of the House of Usher is bound to scale back what Mike Flanagan has done so far.
The Fall of the House of Usher: a new peak for Netflix
After the unsuccessful The Pale Blue Eye directed by Scott Cooper starring Christian Bale, Netflix returns to the world of Edgar Allan Poe for a revisionist adaptation of the well-known short story ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ which, thank God, in Mike Flanagan’s hands, it becomes clay, malleable and ready to adapt to the thematic and stylistic needs of the author.
The Fall of the House of Usher is not so much, as one might think, a transposition of the book of the same name, but The creation of an ‘Edgar Allan Poe Universe’ which aspires (succeeding splendidly) to shape a single coherent narrative that incorporates most of the most famous works of the master of American Gothic literature, on a model not too dissimilar from that of Penny Dreadful (itself coined by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).
Like HBO’ Succession but with a horror twist, the plot follows the patriarch of the House of Usher who, within a couple of weeks, has lost all six of his children, who died one after another in more or less ambiguous circumstances: the unraveling script tells us the story in flashback (Usher confesses to Auguste Dupin, historical investigator from the Edgar Allan Poe novels here reinvented as a district attorney who has been trying for years to nail the Ushers for their wrongdoings in the pharmaceutical industry) with each episode devoted to a particular death, itself inspired by a specific Edgar Allan Poe short story (as well as the titles of the episodes: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The The Gold-Bug,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ and so on).
Like it was Mike Flanagan’s Avengers: Endgame, The Fall of the House of Usher becomes an omnibus of the author’s themes and poetics, combines in itself practically all the cast members of all the previous works the director has made in his Netflix course (even the resounding Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino of the movie Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of the novel by Stephen King which is explicitly mentioned in one scene as an easter-egg) and inserts them into a coherent narrative world that takes shape through storytelling (the long monologues that characterize his work here return more powerfully than ever, indeed the whole series if you want, is told as if it were a long monologue).).
Less ancestral and universal than Midnight Mass but more directed toward current events, The Fall of the House of Usher has on its side a contemporaneity that makes it vital (the role of artificial intelligence is even mentioned, and in general the episodes seem to want to intersperse the most common topics of our daily lives) without, however, this its wanting to be present in the contemporary sacrifice in any way the black gothic soul of the tale..
Mike Flanagan knows how to play with fear and the clichés of cinematic fear; he knows how to set the scene to push the viewer’s gaze and expectations to one side and then catch him by surprise on the other; knows how to create characters that are alive as people and how to handle them one after another and all at once without judging them, just by telling them, just by looking at them. A masterful non-adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, which also stands out as the only adaptation possible.