Wednesday, June 26, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1928)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Dir: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber

Scr: Melville Webber

Pho: James Sibley Watson, Melville Webber

Ed: N/A

Premiere: 1928

13 min.

Avant-garde filmmaking was sparse in America, at least to begin with. A lot of experimental cinema was created in Europe, almost from the birth of the movies. The United States, however, stuck on the idea of providing entertainment for profit, largely colored inside the lines.

Still there were Americans who knew what was going on in Europe and wanted to replicate those efforts. Watson and Webber were two of these. Together, they created a unique visual poem on the theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

A traveler comes to an isolated mansion in the middle of a lake. He meets the brother and sister who live there together. The sister dies and is entombed; she rises again and confronts her brother, killing him with shock. The house disintegrates and falls into the black waters around it.

This is by no means a faithful explication of the plot of the original story. Rather it is a visual meditation on the story’s themes; much of it would be incomprehensible to those not familiar with its source. Using an Expressionistic set, makeup, and acting style, indulging in double exposures, work with prisms, skewed camera angles, and shadow play, the filmmakers ape the efforts of their European colleagues. The result is a moody, surreal journey through layers of darkness and light.

(Please note: this film is not to be confused with a French feature film on exactly the same topic, made in the same year, by Jean Epstein.)

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: The Last Command.

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