Jul 6, 2013


Beginning his eclectic life in subtextual Poe-esque cultish camp horror with the black-and-white 8mm short The Fall of the House of Usher (1942), a work based on the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name that the director created in high school at the youthful age of 14 and would later describe as mere “juvenalia” but would set the tone for all of his work to come, criminally underrated American auteur Curtis Harrington (How Awful About Allan, What's the Matter with Helen?) would conclude his unparalleled filmmaking career by coming full circle with Usher (2002), a less than 40 minute remake of the very story he adapted as a teenager. In his unfinished, posthumously released memoir Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013), Harrington describes the influence of Poe’s short story as follows, “”The Fall of the House of Usher” was the story that gripped me, held me in thrall as no other story ever had. By the end of it, I was almost gasping for breath and leapt from my chair in an attempt to relieve the pressure on my brain. The horror of the story’s final revelation of the returned corpse totally engulfed my mind and senses. My memory was seared with it, leaving a scar that I would never lose. It was as if I had discovered my soul mate in the world of literature.” And, indeed, as a personal friend and collaborator of cine-magickian/Crowleyite Kenneth Anger who was responsible for some of the cinematography in Puce Moment (1953) and played the character of somnambulist Cesare from the German expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), as well as documenting the art of Thelemite and ‘Scarlet Woman’ Marjorie Cameron (who later appeared in Harrington’s first feature-length film Night Tide (1961) as a 'Water Witch') in the short documentary The Wormwood Star (1956), among various other occult connections and directing occult themed films, Curtis Harrington was certainly someone who had found solace in the darkness and Usher is certainly no exception to his life of glistening in the shadows. Partially founded by the brokering of his signed copy of Aleister Crowley’s The Book of Thoth : A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians by ex-Church of Satan members/occultist Zeena (daughter of CoS founder Anton LaVey) and Nikolas Schreck, Usher was Harrington’s first film in nearly two decades since directing the quasi-skinflick Mata Hari (1985) starring Sylvia ‘Emmanuelle’ Kristel and produced by Menahem Golan after suffering a lifetime of having his cinematic works be deleteriously defiled and butchered by sociopathic Hollywood producers and studios, thus the final celluloid work also acts as his last pure artistic statement. Like his original 1942 adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, Usher features Harrington playing both leads as the twin anti-heroes, including in drag as Madeline Usher, thereupon expressing his innate ‘femininity’ and homosexuality, a theme he embraced in a similarly macabre manner with his phantasmagorical avant-garde surrealist horror short Fragment of Seeking (1946). 

 In Usher, elderly poet twins Roderick and Madeline Usher are certainly the celluloid alter-egos of Curtis Harrington, a filmmaker figuratively taking his last gasp in cinematic form via the poetic deaths of the two siblings who share the same dark soul. Indeed, one could even look at Usher as one of the most lavish and dark home-movies ever made as Harrington shot it in his own strikingly elegant, if not seemingly melancholy, antique and fine art adorned Gothic home, and even counted on his own friends to star in and help create the virtual 35mm obituary. Roger Corman, who directed the most famous cinematic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, House of Usher (1960) and who assigned Harrington to direct Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Queen of Blood (1966), also provided insurance that was needed to shoot in eerie Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles for Usher. Featuring a naïve young poet named Truman Jones (Sean Nepita) who has the honor of being invited to the House of Usher mansion to be schooled in life and all its dark crevices and corners and not the sort of pseudo-knowledge taught by reading a bunch of flowery poetry, Usher is a film directed by a sweet and generous, if not ominous old-timer who no longer understands the world he lives in, thus he escaped to the dreadful dream world where the only certainty in life is misery and inevitable loss of said life. Picked up by the Usher Twins’ French chauffeur/butler Pierre (Fabrice Uzan), pansy-like protagonist Truman Jones enters the home and life of his dark yet gentlemanly mentor Roderick Usher with almost childish apprehension and naivety. Roderick lets Jones know that he is “not a teacher” but “simply a poet and perhaps not a very good one at that” and that poetry is from the heart, which the artist himself can only know and fully discover and integrate into their work. Jones’ first encounter with Roderick’s sister Madeline is a rather anti-social one as she does not even acknowledge him as she is apparently in ill health. A true gentleman through and through, Roderick entertains his guest by sharing lunch and wine, playing chess, walking around his pet Rottweiler Lucifer, and messing around with an Ouija board. Naturally, Jones is intrigued by the rather reclusive Madeline and one day she does comes by for some outdoor tea with the guest and her twin brother and the siblings discuss poetry, including their critical agreements on the ‘dry’ scribblings of T.S. Eliot, how W. H. Auden will be nothing more than a footnote in a century, and how “above all, there is Reverdy…possibly the greatest poetry of the twentieth century.” Curtis Harrington, a man who learned French while living in Europe during his early adult years, displays his disdain for the idea of poetry being translated when Madeline Usher pretentiously remarks, “when the words are changed, the poem vanishes.”  And, indeed, the same occurred with the butchering of his films like The Killing Kind (1973) and Ruby (1977) by sinister Svengali producers, which also lead to the partial vanishing of Curtis Harrington's auteur signature as a celluloid poet, which is undoubtedly the most horrific thing to consider when watching his films.

Apparently terminally ill, Roderick Usher tells Jones regarding his twin sister that “The doctor gives her no hope and I’m absolutely terrified.” Unfortunately, it is during their mutual birthday party featuring guests in the spirit of James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932)—a film that Curtis Harrington saved from being lost forever—that signals the beginning of the end for the Usher twins. Featuring a number of idiosyncratic party guests, including a priest (ironically played by ex-Satanist Nikolas Schreck), a doctor, a butch blonde lesbian poetess (Zeena Schreck, daughter and 'magical killer' of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey), and a couple bloated bluebloods, the birthday party begins merrily with wine and party masks, but apparently Madeline drinks a bit too much aged booze for her age and randomly tragicomedically drops dead during an initially happy dance with the ever so patronizing Mr. Jones. Rather oddly, Roderick initially seems quite youthful and even ecstatic after his dear sister croaks as if he has forgotten they both share the same blackened soul, but then, as Jones states, came that “last night.” On Jones’ last evening at the House of Usher, he receives a spooky telephone call from the ghost of Madeline stating, “Tell Roderick I will be seeing him soon,” and, sure enough, she does and comes adorned with rotten corpse-like flesh and remarkably dainty skeletal hands. A terribly stormy night, Roderick initially wallows in the witchy weather while playing discordant melodies madly on his beloved piano, but Madeline has come back to collect her brother and Jones learns the rather unfortunate truth that the two eccentric elderly twins share not only the same taste in poets and aesthetics, but also the same saturnine soul. After she enters the less than humble Usher abode, Madeline angrily accuses Roderick of burying her alive, but the two ultimately reconcile by sharing a big quasi-incestuous kiss, lips to skull, and are thereupon united for eternity with the forlorn brother's necessary death. Naturally, Mr. Jones leaves the house with the sunrise, but it is doubtful whether or not he learned anything about poetry, aside that one cannot fake what is innate, especially when it comes to the perennially disheartened hearts of the Ushers, who lived as gloomily yet paradoxically merrily and poetically as they would die as damned yet dandy demon seeds as living and breathing Jungian anima/animus archetypes.  Undoubtedly, director Curtis Harrington did not decide to portray both Roderick and Madeline Usher for no reason as they act as allegorical metaphysical reflections of his own sexually ambiguous and internally cadaverous soul.

A true ‘auteur’ piece summing up the dark, foreboding, and transcendental thread that defines director Curtis Harrington’s entire career as an experimental avant-garde filmmmaker turned cult horror master, Usher is certainly a work that will be most appreciated by those already rather familiar with the filmmaker’s oeuvre as the final expression of a man who lived and breathed movies, especially of the absurdly melodramatic campy horror variety.  Featuring visual and verbal references to Harrington's favorite artists, including the painting "The Kiss" (1907-08) by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt and the genius of French proto-surrealist/cubist poet Pierre Reverdy, Usher is also a tribute to the aesthetic ingredients that inspired Curtis Harrington to get up in the morning and become one of the most subtly cultivated cinematic artists of the typically artless and uniquely unrefined horror genre. Indeed, considering the desperate poverty-budget circumstances the film was made under, Usher is truly the last testament of an auteur filmmaker whose dreams were too big and idiosyncratic for the likes of the monetary-inclined culture-distorters of Hollywood, yet whose artistic spirit still managed to prevail in the end with one last work of conspicuously campy and creepy celluloid poetry. Compared to his first film The Fall of the House of Usher (1942), which was recently released for the first time on The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection DVD/Blu-ray combo put out by Flicker Alley, Usher, like great wine (incidentally, Harrington’s favorite choice of drink), is the finespun product of maturity and purity. Thankfully, Curtis Harrington died happy knowing that he was able to create one last film free from the constraints of petty producers, writing in his memoir regarding Usher, “I was thrilled with the results. It was, indeed, the film I had intended to make. Nobody had told me what script to write, what scenes to shoot, or how it should be cut. It was truly an heir to my early films.”   

 A man who lived when films were actually shot on film as opposed to schlocky and seemingly soulless digital, Harrington also remarked at the conclusion of his memoir regarding the dubious future of film, “Just as the development of sound-on-film technology doomed the silent film as a creative medium, now digitization will doom film itself.  It is as if the painter's traditional pigments have been replaced by artificial colors that could never match the qualities that made older paintings great.  Films can be reproduced on television, or made with digital technology, but a real film is in the magic of refracted light on a screen, of moving shadows.”  Ironically, most people interested in seeing Usher, as well as Harrington's other elegant work of horror, will have to settle for digital viewing via DVD/Blu-ray, which is a small price to pay to experience the works of a celluloid spiritual son of Edgar Allan Poe, a protege of avant-garde filmmaker/voodoo priestess Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti) and Roger Corman, a personal friend/collaborator of Kenneth Anger, and one of the oh so very few aesthete-minded filmmakers who ever worked in Hollywood and the horror genre.  A celluloid swansong from the soul about twins that share one soul directed by a man with a rather conflicted soul, Usher is, as described by personally by Curtis Harrington via his alter-ego Roderick Usher, the product of a macabre mind that had to admit that “I have been suffering from a certain morbidness of the mind. I’m tormented by images of the conqueror worm devouring flesh…That flesh that once gave so much pleasure.”

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

In those pictures Harrington does indeed look exactly like a disgusting and perverted old faggot.

teddy crescendo said...

Not only is Roger Cor-girls 1960 adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher" the definitive version its also one of the greatest cult movies of all-time, its rewatchability factor is quite astonishing, why not reveiw it.