Fall of the House of Usher Netflix Review
Siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher have built a pharmaceutical company into an empire of wealth, privilege and power; however, secrets come to light when the heirs to the Usher dynasty start dying.
Program creator: Mike Flanagan
Adapted from: The Fall of the House of Usher
Composer: The Newton Brothers
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Mike Flanagan takes us on a roller-coaster tour of life in the exclusive upper elite (where sex, drugs and power are taken as given) and then proceeds to show us that charmed life crashing down around the ears of the Usher family. There’s blood and butchery, there’s obsession and control, and above all, there’s a pact that’s going to come back and bite you in the ass. If you’re not squeamish and like the one-story-per-episode formula, this is a great little series.
Brother and sister Roderick and Madeline Usher run the Fortunato pharmaceutical company, the profits of which are enjoyed by Roderick’s six children: Frederick, Tamerlane, Camile, Leo, Victorine, and Perry. However, the series opens with the company facing a criminal trial for the deaths of patients of the drug, both during testing and during use. Leading this crusade against the Ushers is Assistant District Attorney C. Auguste Dupin; defending them is the inimitable lawyer Arthur Pym.
I really enjoyed Flanagan’s previous “adaptations” of The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor. I put “adaptations” in quotes because my main problem with those shows was this: they bore little or no resemblance to the original story. I thought they were exceptional pieces of TV drama, but I didn’t feel that they deserved the association with Shirley Jackson or Henry James. Of the two, Bly Manor retained more elements of the original story because it centred on two children and their governess/nanny as well as the ghost haunting them. The little bookending sections were quite apt too. But when it came to Hill House, there were only passing references to Jackson’s original work, and I didn’t think it works as an adaptation per se (which is different, of course, from being an entertaining series – which it very definitely was).
So, for me, a huge plus to The House of Usher was just how many of the original Poe stories they managed to slot into their adaptation. Admittedly, some of them were a bit of a stretch – for example, episode six had very little resemblance to Poe’s story ‘The Goldbug’ beyond the name and a search for treasure (which is something associated with all of the family members in the series, who are all trying to prove their monetary worth to patriarch Roderick). However, some of the other tales are interwoven among the main stories in such a seamless way that you wouldn’t necessarily identify them as a Poe story unless you know the details (such as ‘The Cask of Amontillado’).
Overall, this was an engaging watch, and if you enjoyed Flanagan’s previous work – or if you’re a Poe fan with a strong stomach – you’re going to get a lot out of this series. But before I launch into my favourable review, let me detail the two major flaws in this series.
Firstly, the episodes were very formulaic. Each one chartered the death of an Usher child. You start the episode knowing that the character is charging hell-bent on their own destruction. You know there’s going to be a point when the individual encounters Verna who will offer them a chance, if not for redemption, then at least for an easier way out of the mess they’ve made. But each of them turns her down and is left to face a brutal, if poetically justified, fate. I was drawn into each story, and there were plenty of subplots to keep the episode from being just a straight line from A to B, but I did find that they felt a little predictable after a while. In contrast, both Hill House and Bly Manor had various subplots and twists going on in each episode, so you never knew what you were going to be watching next. With The House of Usher, that’s very much not the case. Yet while I found that feature a drawback to my own enjoyment, that won’t be the case for everyone. Some people find that kind of plotting to be incredibly satisfying and so will relish the chapter-by-chapter approach of the series. It does mean that you can go back and just cherry-pick your favourites to rewatch.
Secondly, something I’m seeing mentioned in a lot of other reviews is that the series lacks heart, and I certainly concur with that analysis. It’s hard to feel empathy for any of the characters when they are all so objectionable. While family remains front and centre in The House of Usher as it did in Hill House and Bly Manor, this time Flanagan chooses to portray a family that no one wants to root for. You tune in to see them fail. I didn’t have the edge-of-my-seat, you-can-overcome-this feeling that I did with characters from either Hill House or Bly Manor. I didn’t really root for any of the characters and I certainly didn’t get attached to any of them. As glitzy and glamourous and brutal as The House of Usher was, none of the episodes even came close to sticking in my mind the way the final episode of Bly Manor did, where I really cared what happened to Dani’s character.
Despite feeling that some of the earlier episodes were a bit trashy and predictable, I have to say that the final episode was exceptional. While I wouldn’t necessarily rewatch the whole series, I can imagine myself indulging in watching this final episode another time, as much for the performances as the denouement. It’s hard to do the episode justice without too many spoilers, so I’ll try and stick to generalities rather than specifics.
The predictable nature of The House of Usher means it’s clear from episode one that Roderick and Madeline have made some kind of Faustian pact with Verna, and the only questions remaining are: what price did they pay, can the family escape it, and who is Verna really? Only two of those questions are answered by the series, and I liked the mix of providing satisfying answers while maintaining ambiguity.
While the previous episodes had been taken up with the death of the children, episode 8 is tying up loose ends. We learn the terms of the deal and we see Verna encounter other members of the cast, offering deals and collecting debts. The scene where Verna collects her final bloodline debt kicks about in my mind more than any of those that precede it, and I sort of wish that more of the death scenes had been like this just to break up the monotony a little. It was beautifully written, well-acted, and had me tearing up. Verna offering a deal to a non-Usher character is another scene that stuck with me; the performances were understated yet powerful, and it honestly ended differently from how I had anticipated, which was a pleasant surprise.
There is a lot to be enjoyed in this series. Top of the list are the amazing performances turned in by all the actors. There are obviously plenty of familiar Flanagan faces in there, but I particularly enjoyed the addition of Mary McDonnell as Madeline Usher and Mark Hamill as Arthur Pym. In fact, I had to do a double take in Hamill’s case as the sour and dour lawyer is so far from the Hamill characters I already know. Pym’s quiet yet ruthless presence works really well as a counterpoint to the brash and extroverted nature of the other characters.
Alongside McDonnell’s performance, I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Carla Gugino chew up the scenery as Verna. Each incarnation is unique and interesting. Despite her clearly supernatural nature, I liked that she showed up on security cameras and other devices, leaving a visible trail that non-Ushers could follow. Something ethereal and unseen has the capacity to be dismissed, but Verna’s presence in the real world firmly cemented her as a definite threat to all who encountered her.
And like I said above, while I found the episode format to be formulaic at times, the storytelling of each instalment was still excellent, and it did mean that you got to the end of an episode feeling like you’d just watched an entire story.
While there is a central mystery to unravel, The Fall of the House of Usher is basically like watching several car crashes in a row: well executed (excuse the pun) and even balletic, but car crashes all the same. Yet the astounding and varied performances raise the bar, and Carla Gugino in particular steals (almost) every scene she’s in. An excellent and enjoyable addition to Flanagan’s portfolio.
Charlotte is an author, ghostwriter, freelance editor, proofreader, reviewer, and podcaster. Under her own name she has written within the genres of horror and dark fantasy. Her horror collection The Watcher in the Woods was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Society’s Award for Best Collection in 2021.
She is a co-host of the podcast, Breaking the Glass Slipper, which was longlisted for a Hugo in 2018 and in 2019 won the BFS award for Best Audio.
She is represented by Alex Cochran, and the first of her dragon novellas The Fireborne Blade is due out from Tordotcom Publishing in May 2024.
You can buy The Watcher in the Woods here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Watcher-Woods-Black-Shuck-Shadows-ebook/dp/B08HSM9SS4/
You can preorder The Fireborne Blade here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fireborne-Blade-Charlotte-Bond-ebook/dp/B0CGRWM7PF/