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Fantastic Fest 2023: The Fall of the House of Usher Review

September 22, 2023 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Fall of the House of Usher Mask Image Credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix
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Fantastic Fest 2023: The Fall of the House of Usher Review  

When it comes to horror television, Netflix has had an unstoppable weapon in Mike Flanagan. The horror maestro, known for films like Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Doctor Sleep, has been putting his stamp on the television format at the streamer with some of their most buzzworthy shows. The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor were both well-deserved critical and commercial successes, but Flanagan was just getting started and he kept his hot streak going with Midnight Mass and the criminally underseen The Midnight Club.

Flanagan’s potent mix of family dynamics and supernatural terror is put to strong use in his latest Netflix series as well. The Fall of the House of Usher is perhaps the writer-director’s most audacious show to date, a limited series that explores the dissolution of a powerful family by their own ends. As evident in the first two episodes premiering at Fantastic Fest 2023 ahead of the series’ October 12th launch date, Flanagan takes inspiration not just from the titular Edgar Allen Poe story but the rest of the horror writer’s bibliography for his darkest tale to date, albeit one that will challenge those who have a hard time watching unlikeable characters – even if they’re getting what’s coming to them.

Image Credit: Netflix

Fall of the House of Usher brings several themes of the 1839 short story to the modern day, casting the Ushers as industry giants at the head of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals. Fortunate is a company under fire for its contributions to the opoid epidemic; several members of the Usher clan are under indictment from C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), who has been trying for years to nail Fortunato and the family to the wall for their crimes.

Still, even as they sit in court on the first day of trial the Usher clan isn’t worried. Patriarch Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) listen calmly and stoically, as do most of his children – eldest son Frederick (Henry Thomas), the loyal scion; eldest daughter Tamarlane (Samantha Sloyan), who runs a wellness company with her trophy husband; Victorine (T’Nia Miller), who is developing a new heart medical device with her doctor partner; gaming magnate Napoleon (Rahul Kohil); the family PR expert Camille (Kate Siegel), and the degenerate youngest son Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota). None of them are particularly concerned, nor is Roderick’s young new wife Annabelle (Katie Parker) – they have power and money, and one of the most vicious lawyers available in Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill).

And yet, while the Ushers aren’t worried, we know they have every reason to be. As the first episode begins, even before we flash back to the trial, we’ve already learned that all six of the Usher children have died in, from what the flashing newspaper stories state, are a combination of freak accidents, suicides and other assorted tragedies over the course of just over a week. And Roderick has called for a meeting with Dupin in a desolate house far from his estate in order to finally tell him everything.

Image Credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

From there, Flanagan alternates between the present recounting by Roderick, the horrifying recent events that tore the family asunder, and the more distant past when Roderick and Madeline began their ascent from siblings with nothing to become a fantastically wealthy and powerful dynasty. Along the way we see the rise and fall of this powerful clan, and exactly what the mysterious Verna (Carla Gugino) has to do with it all.

It will go without saying to anyone with even a passing familiarity of Poe’s work that, considering the above description, Fall of the House of Usher takes a very loose inspiration from Poe’s story. Flanagan is more interested in looking at the themes of a house rotting from the inside and what that might mean in the modern day.

Of course, that’s not a particularly new subject matter for television. Just in the very recent past we’ve had Succession and Yellowstone that have all delved into similar conceits. But Flanagan isn’t satisfied with just looking at what happens when a powerful family breaks bad; he wants to get his hands bloody doing it and pay homage to America’s great gothic horror writer at the same time. Flanagan and his writing team litter the series with Poe allusions and use the topical elements as a chance to get vicious in terms of both the horror and the characterizations.

Image Credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

And make no mistake – when it’s time to unleash death or invective, Flanagan and his crew don’t hold back. The family is pitted against each other early on when the prospect of an informant rears its head, which sets the stage for sibling rivalry and worse to unfold. Flanagan’s cast delivers in top form; Greenwood and McDonell capture the essence of their ruthless, monstrous family heads while keeping them from being caricatures of evil. They’re helped along with strong performances by Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald as younger versions of the characters in the 1970s.

Similarly, the Usher children come across well thanks to the adept work of a host of Flanagan regulars. Siegel stands out the most as the heartless, snarky Camille, but there isn’t a bad performance in the entirety of the cast. Mark Hamill gets to delve into a very different kind of dark side, tamping down his manic energy to play the terrifyingly gruff and low-key lawyer and heavy. And Carla Gugino gets to cut loose as Verna, a role she sinks her teeth into in the best ways.

Flanagan has never shied away making his horror projects gnarly when it’s appropriate, and Usher may be his peak from a gore perspective. One early death sequence in particular, even telegraphed in the preceding moments, is absolutely jaw dropping. The Ushers may be human monsters, but they’re not ready for what they’re going to face and Flanagan rips and shreds with gusto. Suffice it to say, fans of bloody horror will be more than satisfied in that capacity.

Image Credit: Eike Schroter/Netflix

If there’s a flaw to be had in the series, it may come from how openly Flanagan wears his heart on his sleeve here. The show makes no illusions about some of its references, and the more familiar you are with Poe the more a couple of the plot twists may become obvious. A few topical references are sure to go over like a lead balloon with certain audience members, but there’s also a power in how clearly Flanagan doesn’t mind putting it all out there. This show leans into Grand Guignol theatricality, and there’s nothing subtle about that classic shock horror style.

This will also be a hard watch for people who don’t like prolonged focus on reprehensible characters. The vast majority of the characters, particularly the main cast, are irredeemable by just about any measure. The Ushers are almost to a person some combination of callous, abusive, manipulative, violent sociopaths who have little regard for the people around them – including their own immediate relatives. But then, that is the point. And it’s a lot easier to stomach when we know in the first few minutes that, at the very least, karma will be ripping through them in short order.

All that is to say that Fall of the House of Usher won’t be for everyone, even among those who liked the Haunting Of shows or Midnight Mass. This is likely to be Flanagan’s most polarizing series; it’s absolutely batshit nuts at times and it never pulls its punches. It’s often darkly hilarious, and that kind of humor doesn’t hit everyone the same way. But for those who appreciate Flanagan’s sensibilities and want to see it taken up several notches – and appreciate more literary references than you can shake several Poe-sized sticks at – it’s a series you really have to see to believe.

The Fall Of the House of Usher premieres on October 12th on Netflix. Fantastic Fest runs from September 21st through the 29th.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
Netflix has scored another resounding horror success from Mike Flanagan with The Fall of the House of Usher. Flanagan holds little back in his bloody exploration of power and privilege in the context of Poe's stories. A fantastic ensemble cast brings life to the repugnant family at the center of the tale, and Carla Gugino is at the top of her game as the mysterious Verna. There’s plenty of horror-laced comeuppance to be had in this show, which stands tall with Flanagan’s other Netflix series as a must-watch for horror fans.