Philip (Mark Damon) rides through barren, smog-filled woodlands on horseback until he finally reaches his remote destination: the house of Usher.

The grandiose door is answered by butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), who rejects Philip's request to see the lady of the house - Madeline (Myrna Fahey) - because she's ill. Her brother Roderick (Vincent Price), we learn, has banned her from seeing anyone while she lies in her near-catatonic state.

Insisting upon an audience with Roderick, Philip is beckoned into the stately home and led by Bristol to master Usher's quarters. Roderick remains insistent that Madeline must not be disturbed. Which is no good for Philip, as he's there to discuss plans for his impending marriage to her.

This news in particular harrows Roderick: as he explains to Philip, the Ushers have a history of succumbing to dementia, psychotic tendencies and incurable illnesses. He himself has been afflicted with acute sensitivity - he must avoid bright lights, rich food, coarse clothing etc for fear of enraging his overactive senses. Warning that Madeline also is beginning to degenerate to the family curse in her own ways, Roderick reveals to Philip that he has kept himself and his sister held prisoner in their mansion up until now. This has been in the hope that they will die alone and end the cursed bloodline once and for all...

Of course, Philip is no push-over and decides to stick around in the hope of persuading Madeline to rebel against her brother's controlling ways. But all is not quite what it seems as Roderick sets about ensuring the loved-up couple can never consummate their relationship...

The first of several Edgar Allen Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman during the 1960s, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER came right at the start of that decade and marked Corman's first foray into the realms of filming in colour. It's an impressive first attempt: Floyd Crosby's cinematography and Daniel Haller's production design conspire to produce many a sumptuous composition. Corman, shooting in Cinemascope for the first time, takes these strengths and fills each wide shot with beauty - for a film where most of the action takes place indoors, there's a surprisingly expansive feel to its aesthetics.

The small cast (supported by a plethora of uncredited ghosts) all excel. Damon is the heartthrob, all stiff-upper-lip until he reveals his more vulnerable side during an extremely colourful nightmare sequence. Fahey is charming in an otherwise thankless role. Of course, this is Price's show though: he's rarely been better, his wit and theatricality gauging Richard Matheson's script perfectly to infuse his character with just the right amount of ambiguity. Is Roderick mad? Are his motives incestuous? Does the curse he speaks of truly exist?

Corman and Matheson have great fun playing with the above questions, exploring the themes of Poe's original short story and taking the odd liberty here and there to suggest certain subtexts of their own. The crumbling mansion and burned-out surrounding woodlands serve as visual metaphor for Roderick's state of mind; the sexual decadence that is felt but never explicitly shown or spoken is deftly alluded to in a bravura display of subtle understanding between director and screenwriter.

That Price, minus his trademark moustache, appears to approaching the film in a tonally different manner to its makers matters not - he simply adds further entertainment value to what is already a beautifully mounted, thought-provoking and cleverly economic (the $200,000 budget was meagre even in 1960) film.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER comes to UK blu-ray uncut courtesy of Arrow Films Video, presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 television sets. The print used is a very clean, well-preserved one. With extra restoration from Arrow's team, the results here are stellar.

Corman's rich colour schemes have never been bolder; the image virtually pops off the screen at times, such is the beauty of this transfer. Presented as an MPEG4-AVC file with a generous bitrate size, the movie benefits from full 1080p HD resolutions while retaining a fine layer of natural grain and never looking like anything but film. DNR is kept in check, as evidenced by accurate skin-tones and a level of detail which is vastly increased over previous home video offerings. Blacks are solid, depth is impressive ... I can't find anything to quibble about in this presentation.

English 2.0 audio has been given the Master HD treatment and is suitably smile-inducing. I'm hardly an audiophile, admittedly, but when the soundtrack sounds so sweepingly majestic as it does here, the dialogue so crisp and the infrequent moments of silence perfectly clean ... well, then, I'm gratified.

Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read at all times.

As with all recent Arrow blu-ray releases, USHER opens to an animated main menu page which offers a montage of scenes from the film within the traditional white border. From there, a pop-up scene-selection menu allows access to the main feature via 12 chapters.

By far the most significant extra on offer is an audio commentary track from Corman. Despite his slow, deliberate delivery he proffers a fluent and consistently engaging chat. From the offset, his memory is great and he's keen to discuss the use of a fire in the Hollywood hills during the opening scene, filming in Cinemascope for the first time, shooting on a miniscule budget on a tight 15-day schedule and much more. Going on to praise his performers, discuss themes and colour schemes, and so much more ... this a wonderful companion piece that does not suffer from the lack of a moderator.

"Legend to Legend" is a 27-minute featurette wherein Joe Dante (GREMLINS; THE HOWLING) discusses how he grew up watching Corman's Poe cycle and goes onto extol their virtues and speak about their enduring appeal. It's a sincere and involving piece, finding the usually smug Dante on somewhat more likeable form. This piece is handsomely edited, benefitting from clips of stills of key films along the way.

Author Jonathan Rigby is on hand next, in Nucleus Films' 33-minute retrospective "The House is the Monster". Ostensibly a more academic piece, Rigby is no less impassioned as he discusses the film's financial backing and distribution, the historical backgrounds of its chief participants and other cinematic adaptations of the same story. Beware though, as the text introduction warns, this is quite a spoilerific piece and therefore should not be viewed before watching the film itself.

Next is an archive 11-minute interview with Price. This was filmed in Malibu in July 1986 for French television. As such, it's presented in a pillar-boxed format with VHS quality picture and a slight hiss beneath the mono audio. Still, the interview is conducted in English - with burned-in French subtitles - and Price is as charming as ever as he reflects over his 5 decades (at the time) in movies. He talks of working with Disney, voicing Michael Jackson's 'Thriller, his early days as a leading man and his foray into horror cinema. He also covers his failed attempt at playing Dracula, Tim Burton's short animated homage VINCENT and much more. All told, this informal chat covers a lot of ground in hugely agreeable fashion.

David Cairns' "Fragments of the House of Usher" presents 10 minutes of scenes from the film, along with narration from. He calls Corman's work a "stiflingly interior study of madness" and highlights how Corman's direction viewed the house as the monster while Matheson's screenplay pointed more blatantly towards Usher's insanity: combined, they make for an intelligent and provocative mix.

A typically sensational original theatrical trailer for the film follows. The print used isn't as clean as that utilised for the main feature, but the 16x9 presentation is very good regardless. The trailer is precisely 2-and-a-half minutes long.

Arrow have released THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER on blu-ray in both keepcase and Steelbook versions. Although unavailable for review purposes, both come with a collectors' booklet containing liner notes from Tim Lucas and an excerpt from Price's hard-to-find autobiography. The former also offers double-sided reversible cover artwork.

Scream Factory are set to release USHER on blu-ray in America as part of a 6-disc Price collection, slated for a 29th October release. Whether they'll be able to match Arrow's efforts, both in terms of picture and extras, is debatable.

With Arrow having already announced plans to release THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM onto blu-ray in early 2014, and the possibility that they will be releasing more Poe-Corman productions in due course, the wise money says stick with them. Especially if you're a Region B buyer.

Irrespective of any potential competition coming from other territories, Arrow's release of THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is little short of stunning.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Arrow Video
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review