There have been countless film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but few have been quite so strange as French surrealist film-maker Jean Epstein’s 1928 silent version. When you find out that the script was co-written by a certain Luis Buñuel, the strangeness becomes somewhat less surprising.
This movie version concentrates obsessively on Roderick Usher’s compulsion to paint his wife Madeleine’s portrait, although as the portrait takes on more and more the appearance of reality so Madeleine’s own vitality seems to drain away. Roderick comments that it is in the painting that she truly lives.
The fact that it’s a surrealist film (and a silent one) would lead you to expect an almost purely visual treatment, with plot largely disregarded. And you’d be right. Fortunately Epstein’s visual imagination is sufficiently brilliant to carry this off with ease. The sets are sparse, the house seems almost empty, but there’s one superb visual set-piece after another. Candles are used repeatedly and very effectively, there’s an atmosphere of complete other-worldliness, as if the Ushers have long since departed from what we regard as reality.
The photographic effects are primitive (it was 1928) but extremely effective. The images of the countless nails being hammered into the coffin are exceptionally disturbing. There are strange processions through the countryside with the coffin, and a crypt that seems more like a cave.
The acting complements the visual images perfectly. Jean Debucourt is clearly both oversensitive and overcivilised and also clearly quite insane, but he has an almost alien quality as well, as if this is not the world to which he rightly belongs. The destruction of the house is similarly unearthly, as if something was being destroyed that never truly existed anyway.
An unconventional but enthralling version of Poe’s tale, a must for lovers of Poe, of surrealist movies, and of weird cinema in general. And highly entertaining as well. To make things slightly confusing, there were two versions of The Fall of the House of Usher made in 1928. The Epstein version is the one to look out for.