If you’re a person with simmering rage directed at the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma for their alleged contributions to the opioid epidemic, chronicles like Hulu’s Dopesick and Netflix’s Painkiller face a major stumbling block when it comes to delivering resolution: When one side of the ledger has hundreds of thousands of deaths and the other has a few settlements and some bankruptcy filings, “reality” can be a real bummer. No such restrictions confine Mike Flanagan in his latest spooky-season Netflix limited series.
Half creative writing project tied to a freshman seminar on Edgar Allan Poe, half horror-filled karmic catharsis, Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a bluntly entertaining exercise. It’s easily the most specifically topical of Flanagan’s Netflix minis, fueled by an often palpable anger. But that anger frequently gets in the way of the thematic richness that gave The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass their mournful charge. For eight hours, instead of rooting for people, you’re rooting for payback, leading to a satisfying, but surface-level experience.
The Fall of the House of Usher
The Bottom Line Horror fans will be raven.
Airdate: Friday, October 12 (Netflix)
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Mary McDonnell, Carl Lumbly, Mark Hamill, Michael Trucco, T’Nia Miller, Paola Nuñez, Henry Thomas, Kyliegh Curran, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, Sauriyan Sapkota, Zach Gilford, Willa Fitzgerald
Creator: Mike Flanagan
Twin siblings Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and Madeline (Mary McDonnell) Usher are sitting atop the Fortunato pharmaceutical company. For decades, they’ve made billions off an opioid called Ligodone, a painkiller marketed as non-addictive, even though its actual addictive properties have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
I trust you see what Flanagan, who wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode and directed much of the series, is doing there? If you don’t, key details get repeated multiple times, especially in the first couple of episodes.
While Madeline has remained childless, Roderick has an assortment of legitimate and illegitimate kids bucking for eventual control over the company, including oddly off-kilter Frederick (Henry Thomas), aspiring lifestyle guru Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), unscrupulous medical researcher Victorine (T’Nia Miller), PR wiz Camille (Kate Siegel), pansexual video game magnate Leo (Rahul Kohli) and enfant terrible Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota).
The government has struggled for years to topple the metaphorical house of Usher, led by the crusading C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), but thanks to Usher family attorney and general fixer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), nothing sticks.
Dupin is about to bring his biggest case to date when the Usher children begin to die in increasingly bizarre fashion, each with ties to the mysterious Verna (Carla Gugino). All of them. We know this because we see a rush of newspaper headlines in the series’ opening minutes. It’s amusing to try to remember details from those headlines when they become relevant later, but the only essential takeaway is, “They’re all dead.”
The circumstances behind those deaths — I’d say “each more gory than the next,” but the first death is mighty gross — are explained as Dupin and Roderick converse in the literal house of Usher, with Roderick offering flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks to a young Roderick and Madeline (Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald) and a decades-old choice that brought them wealth and tragedy.
Much of the series’ lack of nuance is tied to Flanagan’s difficulties handling Dupin (played by Malcolm Goodwin in flashbacks). On the page, in stories including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the character is the wily progenitor of every fictional detective to follow, but on the screen he’s a passive receiver of information. The character never evinces the necessary internal conflict of a man who yearned for legal recourse against the Ushers — not the Rube Goldberg meat-grinding machine version of justice being meted out in a fashion closer to the Final Destination movies than Poe’s more elegant prose.
In lieu of that conflict — making Usher granddaughter Lenore (Kyleigh Curran) a more substantial character than just “the good Usher” might have helped, too — viewers are left to watch The Fall of the House of Usher for its Grand Guignol corpse-of-the-week structure, muddied and muddled with all the flashbacks.
It’s a structure without an emotional center, however exceptional Greenwood is as the story’s wryly unrepentant focus, however icily perfect McDonnell (and Fitzgerald) are, however delighted Gugino is to be playing an agent of vengeance who dons different accents and costumes to achieve her ends.
Costumes and hair, incidentally, are a huge part of the characterizations in this show, from Greenwood’s mustache to Thomas’ disturbing man-bun. Production design, oddly, is less central, and this is the first of the Flanagan shows not to be a tour de force in that department. The show generally doesn’t look cheap and there are evocative images aplenty, but despite “house” being right there in the title, the domestic locations, however ostensibly opulent, are never memorable.
There’s plenty of entertainment value in watching Flanagan working with his growing troupe of recurring players. He knows exactly the right profane rants to bring out the best in Siegel, exactly the right ways to use and abuse both Thomas’ and Kohli’s inherent boyish likability, exactly how far to push the strain behind Sloyan’s serene, patrician exterior.
The characters are all grotesques in their own way — well, not “their own way” since the Ushers have layers of overlapping perversity — and the actors succeed in making it gratifying to root for them to get flayed, eviscerated, smushed and squished in different ways. Adding depth to the ensemble are Flanagan newcomer Hamill, boasting dead eyes and a gravelly voice from beyond the grave, and Michael Trucco, perfectly smarmy delivering several of Flanagan’s trademark monologues as the Ushers’ predecessor at the pharma company.
Trucco’s character is Rufus Griswold, a name shared with the 19th century scribe whose reflections on Poe after the latter’s death helped shape our possibly incorrect perception of the author as an opioid-addicted madman, which adds a layer of irony to Flanagan’s Sackler-esque prism.
Though the series’ title comes from only a single source, fans will already recognize that this is more of a hodgepodge. There are familiar character names, directly absorbed plotlines, overt and subtle visual nods. Sometimes there’s a tricky cleverness to the way Flanagan inserts references and sometimes there’s an almost silly audacity to the contortions necessary to, say, directly nod to the Rue Morgue. And then sometimes characters just recite long stretches of Poe’s poetry, suggesting that had they not been committed to reaping fortunes from human suffering, they might have built a family legacy on rhyming verse.
Even if you’re a total Poe dilettante, The Fall of the House of Usher offers pieces that’ll make you say “I get that one!” If you’re more of an intermediate Poe reader, you’ll be able to say, “I see where this is going!” a few times. And if you’re a Poe expert? I’m guessing you’ll find the series cute in its eagerness, at least for a while.
Whatever level you’re at, it’s a formula for a series of moment-to-moment effectiveness, with some cleverness and much playful horror. But in its wish-fulfillment approach to a very real tragedy, the haunting here is more fleeting and less marrow-deep than Flanagan’s best work.