Netflix will have to enjoy their final days with the Mike Flanagan while they last—the creator of The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass is taking his schlock-and-awe tactics to Amazon Prime. But before he goes, here is his last hurrah, perhaps his most cynical yet—The Fall of the House of Usher, a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about an ancient and cursed family. This one is bonkers (aren’t they all) but Flanagan’s writing has matured since the previous outings and the dialogue here is quick and sharp.
The Ushers are a billionaire family made rich on Big Pharma—the Sacklers, essentially—but whose greed and ruthlessness are now accruing interest. Death has come to collect, and death takes the form of Verna, a middle-aged beauty who appears to the Ushers just before they die. Mike Flanagan uses the same cast members—always a good sign when a creative team enjoys working together—and they have matured too. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood return to star, after starting out the Flanagan era with Gerald’s Game. That film based on Stephen King’s short story was absurd but surprisingly good, and that pretty much sums up Mike Flanagan’s work ever since.
In this outing, Roderick Usher (played by Greenwood) presides over a family that is rapidly dwindling under horrific and mysterious circumstances. Roderick has six children by (five?) different mothers and at the beginning of the first episode they are all dead. The rest of the series flashes back to how and why the Ushers are all dying. Roderick’s children are vile and they all hate each other, which might be unpleasant if they weren’t so funny.
Two are legitimate and the other four are bastards (I think). There’s the bumbling eldest child, ‘Frauderick’ so named by his siblings, set to take over the company one day— and the hedonistic youngest child Prospero, with the brilliant nickname ‘Gucci Caligula’. One kid’s a spin-doctor and another a heart surgeon, whose entire careers are devoted to protecting and promoting the family brand.
Then there’s Roderick’s coldblooded sister, the matriarch—childless, husbandless, ruthless. She’s the spider at the centre of the web, determined to catch whoever is leaking top-secret intel to the feds. And boy do the Ushers have a lot of secrets to keep—there’s the covert operating theatre where they perform deadly experiments on chimpanzees, the handful of abandoned buildings hiding the experiments’ toxic waste, and then there are the missing bodies who have disappeared from their graves. Roderick Usher knows he has a lot to atone for, and as his children drop like flies he recognises their deaths as payment to a vengeful spirit. It’s not clear at first who this spirit is, or if Roderick even knows. There’s Verna who it seems is behind the Usher family curse, but there are also faceless zombies who appear to Roderick.
Is it the ghost of his mother? This is one slightly unsatisfactory element to Flanagan’s writing—there are a few too many backstories and ghosts. The same was true of Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House—a few too many angry ghouls haunting the living. Sometimes it feels as though the hauntings are random, something hauntings should never be.
In episode two we are transferred back to Roderick and his sister’s youth, where they watch their ailing mother succumb to some torturous disease. She refuses medication. The children ask her boss for help, because he’s the head of a big pharmaceutical company. He doesn’t help and after the mother dies, she awakens again from her shallow grave to kill him. So that’s why the kids want to start their own pharmaceutical company.
Is this the reason for their family curse? Or is it a deal with a bartender demon that they make one New Year’s Eve in the late 1970s? Is it both? Flanagan loves a reap-what-you-sow story, and he is very good at embellishing them. But so often he falls at the last hurdle, and his previous work Midnight Mass is a perfect example. So ridiculous it was genius, Midnight Mass was a modern vampire story set on a remote island off the American coast. It was hugely enjoyable, with a complicated protagonist/priest struggling against his appetite for his human flock.
His motivation and tragic flaws were clear—he really wanted to care for his community but he also really wanted to drink their blood. He couldn’t help it, he was a vampire. It was a great premise. But then in the end he’d had another motivation altogether—it was unnecessary and convoluted, and it undercut the message of previous episodes. Something similar is happening in House of Usher. There are also annoying nods to Poe’s other works, as if Flanagan realised this was his one shot at Poe, so he had to throw everything at it. Characters are named after other Poe ones, there’s a raven who foretells doom, episodes are called things like ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. To be fair, the red death episode was very good. Flanagan’s take on the deadly masque involves a debauched dance party that ends in a bloodbath.
I won’t say any more. Fall of the House of Usher is certainly fun, much more so than the sad Haunting of Hill House. But it also stuffed with the Flanagan frills, bells and whistles. The cast is better at least—actors like Kate Siegel who were mediocre in Hill House and Midnight Mass step it up for Usher. The gormless Zach Gilford is also back—why? I cannot understand his appeal. But thankfully he is just one in a large, otherwise capable cast. I look forward to the next Mike Flanagan outing when it appears on Amazon Prime—but by the time it comes, I may have forgotten all about this one.