Judge Jim Thomas says, "This house...is not clean."
Some Doors Should Never Be Opened
Reading the premise of the film resulted in a brief bout of cognitive dissonance: "What the hell…the narrator isn't a woman!" But as I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Yes, in Poe's short story, the narrator is explicitly a man ("Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend." [emphasis added]), but apart from that sentence, I just liked the idea. Writer Collin Chang took the basic kernel of the story and ran with it. Hell, most of Roger Corman's Poe movies retain virtually nothing save the title, and some of those films—such as The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven—are minor classics. So I looked forward to seeing how this new take would unfold.
I can be pretty stupid sometimes.
Don't get me wrong—there's a lot to like here: an inventive updating of a classic story, some effective editing, and an appealing lead. But when all is said and done…well, let me put it this way: At the end of Poe's short story, the House of Usher—the physical house itself—collapses into rubble.
That's pretty much what happens to the plot at the end of this movie.
Facts of the Case
Jill Michaelson (Izabella Miko, Coyote Ugly) is having a rough time of it. Jill's best friend, Madeleine Usher (Danielle McCarthy), and Jill's lover Roderick Usher (Austin Nichols, John from Cincinnati) disappeared with no explanation, leaving nothing behind but an apologetic note. Three years later, Jill hasn't quite recovered, still heartsick for Roderick. Out of the blue, she receives a call from Roderick—Maddy has died, whose last wish was that Jill attend her funeral. Returning to the house of Usher, Jill begins to rekindle her relationship with Roderick, but is devastated to learn that Roderick is slowly succumbing to neurasthenia, a peculiar condition that renders all of Roderick's senses hyper-acute: a simple cotton shirt feels like sandpaper, for example. The same mysterious malady claimed his sister, as it has claimed all members of the Usher family. Jill tries to understand Roderick's increasingly erratic behavior as she searches for the mysterious figure she sees roaming the house and the grounds in growing horror as she slowly realizes that nothing within the house of Usher is as it seems. Her attempts to discover the truth are continually blocked by the enigmatic Mrs. Thatcher (Beth Grant, Little Miss Sunshine), a woman with a mysterious past all her own.
I wanted to like this film, I really did. But the missteps are just too numerous, both in characterization and in plot. Izabella Miko is the film's strongest link. For the most part, she does a good job with individual scenes. She has an ethereal beauty, along with exceptionally expressive eyes, and director Hayley Cloake wisely lets Miko's face convey her moods rather fall back on weak dialogue. But while Miko's performance works in individual scenes, the various scenes taken together don't quite add up. For example, that opening montage makes it clear that Jill was utterly devastated when Roderick and Madeleine vanished from her life; yet she reconnects with Roderick almost instantly, and with little in the way of accusations or recriminations (much later in the movie, Jill gets drunk and cuts loose on Roderick, but it's too little, much too late). To make matters worse, the reconciliation is accompanied by a large gift of sexy clothes for Jill, raising the possibility that she is an exceedingly vacuous tramp, a conniving gold digger—or both. That sort of inconsistent characterization repeats itself in the final scene; I won't give away details, but let's just say that Jill is way too upbeat about the proceedings.
Austin Nichols' Roderick is more of a mixed bag. He certainly exudes a certain creepy vibe throughout the movie, but the acting itself comes across as too mannered, too affected. Part of it stems from a desire to keep the audience guessing—is Roderick the bad guy, or is he merely the pawn of the mysterious Mrs. Thatcher? The problem could be my own—in several scenes, he reminds me of a very tall Danny Strong (Jonathan from Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and that automatically makes it hard for me to take him very seriously.
Ultimately, thought, Nichols is simply hamstrung by the script. Roderick's character is largely defined his malady. Neurasthenia is presented as a hyperacuity of all the senses (a similar malady afflicts Roderick in the short story), but it is presented very inconsistently throughout the movie. To protect his eyes, he wears sunglasses. To protect his touch, he wears only certain clothes (none of which look particularly soft), and wears gloves when he writes. To protect his sensitive ears, he does all of his writing on a freaking loud electric typewriter? Yes, he wears earmuffs, but the sight of him typing in earmuffs and knit gloves is a little on the silly side. It would have made much more sense for Usher to dictate into a recorder (Nichols does voiceovers of Roderick's words as he types, so they're already halfway there). These writing scenes clearly try to echo Jack Nicholson typing away in The Shining, but while Roderick, like Jack, becomes more and more deranged with each typing sequence, the clakkity-clack of the typewriter constantly reminds us that for all the trappings, we never actually see Roderick suffering as a result of his supposedly out-of-control senses. (We get a few generic scenes of Roderick writhing and sweating in bed, but that could have just as easily been caused by bad sushi.)
Beth Grant has a couple of moments in which she turns Mrs. Thatcher into a truly unnerving character, but more than anyone else, her efforts are undermined by clichéd writing and a makeup job that's but one step removed from Frau Blücher. [cue horses whinnying]
These inconsistent characterizations complicate the script, because they create different options on how to interpret the proceedings. When you're watching a thriller, you generally try to put the pieces together as the plot goes. But the inconsistent characterization creates unintended possibilities, and it's incumbent on the director to get us to the point where the pieces can fall into place. That's where the film misses major opportunities. Two examples:
1. Jill is a physical therapist. Given Roderick's condition, particularly when he's shown with wracking cramps, you'd think that a physical therapist would come in handy. But it never occurs to anyone, even when Jill sits in Roderick's room watching him suffer an attack.
2. A particularly inventive touch is Roderick's use of a sensory deprivation tank to escape the ravages of his disease. It's the perfect therapy for someone whose senses are out of control—but the significance of the tank is blunted due to the inconsistent presentation of the disease. We don't see the out-of-control senses, so we don't make the connection. No one ever refers to it as a sensory deprivation tank, but rather just "The Tank," so anyone who hasn't seen Altered States is just confused as to its purpose.
By movie's end, the pieces fall into an incoherent mess. We understand Roderick's plan (sort of), but any kind of justification for the behavior is totally absent. Mrs. Thatcher makes multiple statements about "the family curse" and takes some actions to end that curse, but that curse is never fully explained, nor is there any justification as to why, having served the Ushers and their insidious schemes for so long, she chooses this particular time to take action. Some movies get away with providing sufficient clues and allowing the audience to connect the dots; the operative word here, though, is "sufficient." The ending of this movie is like being given twenty unnumbered dots that you are supposed to connect to form Picasso's Guernica. It just ain't gonna happen.
Useless Trivia: Judy Allan Poe, a descendant of the Poe family, is in the funeral scene at the beginning of the movie.
Enough with the plot; what about the technical side of the disc?
The sound comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. There's good imaging of voices throughout the movie, but there's really not much in the movie to challenge a home theater. Subtitles are provided in English as well as Spanish.
Video is a bit inconsistent. The movie was shot on digital hi-def, not film. The limitations of the format (more specifically, limitations of the kind of equipment to which people not named George Lucas have ready access) gives the interiors a murky look, particularly indoors. The director's commentary reveals that in many scenes that look was enhanced with a little bit of smoke for a slightly hazier look. Scenes shot in more open indoor spaces have a slightly grainy look to them. On the other hand, several outdoor establishing shots look good.
The commentary track is pretty good. Director Hayley Cloake explains how the story was developed, production details, etc. Even though she's along on the track, Cloake has a very engaging, conversational style, and the commentary goes quickly. She even explains the curse, and the motivations of the characters at the end. Sadly, that knowledge only makes you wonder why that couldn't have been made a little clearer in the finished product; making matters worse, when I watched, I reviewed the ending; after listening to the commentary, it still didn't make any sense.
My hopes that the deleted scenes would help me make sense of this thing were quickly dashed—two alternate takes were virtually interchangeable with the takes that made the final cut, and one scene further established Jill's sadness at Maddy's death. No points there.
In addition to the trailer, there's also a gallery featuring trailers from other TH!INKfilm productions. The trailers suffer heavily from MTV Quick Editing Syndrome, but some are effective enough to make me look for them on my next "Bad Movie Weekend."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I said earlier, there's a lot to like here. It opens with a well-edited montage that quickly establishes the Jill's character and the backstory, and also gives the proceedings a melancholy, somewhat timeless air. In addition, the filmmakers had several good ideas in bringing the Poe story into the 21st century. There are nods to Poe's work throughout, from the subtle—the names in the Usher family tree are taken from Poe's family—to the not-so-subtle—a nightclub called "The Raven."
A good idea and a strong female lead can only take you so far. In this particular case, they were sufficient to pull us into The House of Usher, but they weren't strong enough to keep us from pounding our heads against the wall in vain hopes of finding a secret passage out of this muddled film.
The court hereby finds the accused guilty on two counts:
• Failure to fully develop a promising premise;
Because the court is serious about providing the convicted with a chance for rehabilitation, the court sentences them to watch Hudson Hawk, Howard the Duck, and The Avengers, as constant reminders that good ideas are all well and good, but in the end, all that really matters is your execution.
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Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes
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