The Fall of the House of Usher review: Well staged but messy and overlong
Mike Flanagan's latest features superb performances and impressively designed set-pieces, but extends its reach and offers few surprises.
These days, the arrival of a new Mike Flanagan project comes with much fanfare, and so it should. Flanagan has proven to be a master of his craft, gifting us series such as the exceptional Midnight Mass and films including the hugely impressive Doctor Sleep.
This time, Flanagan turns his attention to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, adapting not only the title story, The Fall of the House of Usher, but also a whole host of the author's other tales, weaving them together like a tapestry and transplanting them to the modern day.
It's an ambitious approach to adaptation and certainly one that isn't without reward. However, it also makes for a messy and muddled series, one which is more notable for its sparks of brilliance than its quality as a whole.
The Fall of the House of Usher features an ensemble cast filled with a host of Flanagan regulars, including Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, T’Nia Miller and Carl Lumbly, while newcomers include Mary McDonnell, Willa Fitzgerald and the one and only Mark Hamill.
The narrative is set up by a framing device, as Roderick Usher, the CEO of a corrupt pharmaceutical company and patriarch of the Usher dynasty, sits with the detective who has been trying to bring him to justice for his misdeeds over the years, C Auguste Dupin.
As they converse in a dilapidated house, Roderick offers Auguste a confession revealing two things - one, his guilt, and two, the truth about how all six of his children came to perish one after the other over the past two weeks. Don't worry this isn't a spoiler; their funeral is the very first thing we see.
We then flash back to two time periods, one much earlier charting the rise of Roderick and his twin sister Madeline to prominence, and another only two weeks ago, as we get to know the Usher dynasty, which is made up of Roderick, Madeline, Roderick's two children by his first wife and four from other mothers, as well as his one granddaughter.
More like this
It's a complex set-up, which also weaves in Gugino's mysterious figure Verna, but in essence, the format becomes very simple - we watch as each of the kids are killed off in gruesome fashion, one by one, while we try to piece together why this is happening.
There's a lot to admire and plenty to enjoy here. The performances are all absolutely top draw, with the cast truly managing to sell this absolutely outlandish premise. Hamill deserves a particular shout-out in his role as the family's Renfield-esque lawyer, while Siegel is delightfully despicable as perhaps the worst of the Usher clan.
Meanwhile, Bruce Greenwood is a force of nature, carrying so many of the show's lengthy, talky scenes and doing so with ease. You'll find yourself hanging on his every, brilliantly gravelly word.
Flanagan also remains an absolute master of horror set pieces. Without giving anything away about how they are dispatched, each of the children's deaths is excellently and uniquely staged, with the first one we see being particularly chilling, and the rest being no less inventive.
There's also a lot of humour to be found here. As the series shifts from the gothic horror of the framing device and the set pieces, it moves to the 'everyday' lives of these uber-rich a**h***s, all of whom are so dimwitted and detestable as to be almost cartoonishly hateful, but gloriously so.
However, the format itself does make for a somewhat messy watch. In between deaths we spend a lot of time waiting around, darting back and forth in time to sequences with little relevance and which, tonally, are a bit of a hodge-podge.
It's lighter on horror than many of Flanagan's previous outings, and a number of the scares strike the same beat all series long. This would be fine if the show had anything particularly interesting to say about the world of big business and billionaires, or a distinct tone for those scenes.
Unfortunately, it doesn't. It has a lot of fun playing with archetypes, and these scenes are often fun to watch, they're just not doing anything we haven't seen done better in shows more distinctly focussed on that arena, *ahem, Succession*.
It's also definitively overlong. Clocking in at over eight hours in total, episodes in the middle of the run can feel like a drag, and are padded out by those trademark Flanagan monologues.
Unfortunately, many of these feel particularly fruitless this time around - you will have understood what the character is trying to say by the second line, and will have to watch them repeat themselves ad nauseam for the next five plus minutes.
In truth, that's an issue with the series as a whole - there are a lack of surprises to be had here, even for someone such as myself who knows few of Poe's stories well.
Elements which are devised as shocking reveals may have you asking whether that truly is it, after the guessed as much four episodes prior. Unfortunately, it usually is - there are few real shocks to be had here, it mostly plays out as you will have predicted from the off.
Maybe for mega-fans of Poe, there will be more to embrace here, and they will come away loving every second of The Fall of the House of Usher.
I myself came away feeling it was very much a mixed bag - impressive for its ambition, its performances, its horror and its staging, but trying to do both too much and not enough within its inflated runtime.
It will surely be a favourite on Netflix during this year's spooky season, and so it should be - in blending so many disparate elements it's trying something original, and is therefore more worthy of attention then many production line horror projects.
It just doesn't quite pull it off, and ends up as a lesser light in Flanagan's catalogue, which is still not a bad place to be.
Try Radio Times magazine today and get 10 issues for only £10, PLUS a £10 John Lewis and Partners voucher delivered to your home – subscribe now.