FANTASTIC FEST 2023: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER is Flanagan’s Fiendish Farewell to Netflix

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The vast library of Edgar Allan Poe becomes a supernatural hunting ground in Mike Flanagan’s final Netflix series

Stills courtesy of Netflix.

When it was announced in April 2017 that Mike Flanagan and his creative team would follow up their gut-churning adaptation of Gerald’s Game with a full-on limited series adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, my initial reaction was both ecstatic and skeptical. While Flanagan’s already impressive roster of features had already brought me to terror and tears in equal measure, the idea of a horror series felt antithetical to what made the genre so devilishly potent to me. Like comedy, horror felt like a genre whose impact felt inextricably tied to its brevity–and to prolong these shocks to ten hours’ worth of immediately binge-able content seemed like it would deaden the overall impact.

I was so damn happy that the Flanagan crew proved me wrong not just once, but four times over the course of Flanagan’s TV tenure on Netflix. From Hill House to Midnight Club, Flanagan’s skill as a storyteller flourished in ways that the trappings of feature films would only limit. His care for each of his characters became augmented by the increased regular presence of his devoted cast, all of whom turned in intriguing new shades to their developing horror personas with each subsequent series. Deciding a favorite of the four is a Sisyphean battle–the only reason one stops championing one boulder is so they can go back to the bottom of the hill for the other three.

Which makes me so happy to report that The Fall of the House of Usher is a welcome new challenger to the fray. Building off of the last half-decade of tremendous horror storytelling, Mike Flanagan and his regular team of players close out a jaw-dropping era of TV terror with an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation that’s terrifying, tender, and a ton of fun.

“Once upon a midnight dreary…”

Like the best of Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher looms under the specter of death from frame one. Six deaths, in fact. In the wake of escaping conviction in a towering lawsuit, Fortunato Pharma CEO Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) inters the last three of his six children–all of whom passed away within the two weeks since the trial’s beginning. Assistant D.A. C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), Usher’s failed prosecutor, receives a call from the billionaire that evening inviting Dupin to Usher’s ramshackle childhood home. Usher’s longtime litigious viper Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill) won’t be there to stop either man from the business at hand: Roderick’s sought-after confession to decades’ worth of crimes. To Roderick, however, there’s a more important confession to make: revealing to Dupin just how each member of the House of Usher met their grisly demise–and the sinister connection all of them have to the mysterious Verna (Carla Gugino).

Akin to how The Haunting of Hill House and Bly Manor created a tapestry of the collective works of their original authors’ source material, The Fall of the House of Usher draws from the macabre well of Edgar Allan Poe’s entire body of work–spanning everything from throwaway lines in poems to creatively deconstructed characters and elements from novellas and short stories. As such, each episode of The Fall of the House of Usher grants individual actors in Flanagan’s company such delicious scenery to chew. While each story in Usher is compelling in its own right, English majors and fans of weird tales will have a particularly great time seeing how Flanagan anticipates and delightfully subverts just where one thinks these particular characters will meet their grisly end.

Equally fascinating is how bitingly contemporary Flanagan, co-showrunner Trevor Macy, and their writer’s room have made these stories. Transporting them far from their two hundred-year-old context, Team Usher interweaves Poe’s endlessly relevant themes of madness and dread with more modern concerns of the opioid crisis, the growing divide between rich and poor (affluenza is a delightful Sword of Damocles here), medical ethics, the growing reach of AI and algorithms when it comes to content (one can’t help but sense some parting shots with Flanagan’s studio on the road to Amazon). Such modern relevancies further illustrate how ripe Poe’s work is for such critical and creative revival–with Poe’s deeply cynical yet reverential view marrying quite well to Flanagan’s signature brand of compassionate terror. In an approach that blends Succession and The Devil and Daniel Webster (to borrow from another classic of Americana), The Fall of the House of Usher is viciously funny even as it makes you crawl out of your skin–before reducing you to tears when you least expect it.

Much like how Usher feels like a culmination of Flanagan’s storytelling prowess while at Netflix, the ensemble cast is packed with returning players each at the height of their acting skills. The Usher family–including Greenwood, Mary McDonnell, Samantha Sloyan, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, Henry Thomas, Ruth Codd, and Sauriyan Sapkota–feels less like a family and more like a pack of opportunistic wild beasts cloaked in Chanel and Gucci. While the series ends up dividing the cast as their stories further isolate them in their own respective spells of madness, Usher crackles with life when these characters brandish verbal daggers all in one room. The family truly feels like a dynasty on its last legs–and all of these family members are too blind to their own bitter contradictions to face reality. Notable turns are Siegel’s Camille as the family’s quick-thinking PR rep, endlessly spinning the Ushers’ violent deeds into glowing media coverage; Sloyan’s Tamerlane, bringing her own Paltrow-style Goop knockoff brand to market by any means necessary; and Thomas’ “Froderick,” the Usher’s ‘eldest boy’ whose extreme desire to please masks a truly insidious nature that aligns more with Roderick than most might assume.

However, it’s Carla Gugino’s Verna who walks away with the entire series. Already a legendary Flanagan lead from Gerald’s Game and Hill House, Gugino finally gets the chance to play a wholly antagonistic role in Flanagan’s sprawling universe. While the best surprises of Verna are still to come, Gugino’s Verna morphs and bleeds into the Ushers’ lives in a chameleonic way that evokes the best of Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black. Gugino’s Verna also gives Flanagan the opportunity to distill the best of Poe’s moral and psychological contradictions into a terrifyingly tangible and active presence, with Verna’s compelling moral quandaries creating the path that leads the show’s characters deeper into hells of their own design.

And hellish this series can truly be–with Team Flanagan taking the mic drop endings and twists of Gerald’s Game, Hill House, and Midnight Mass to disturbing new heights. What makes these shocks so satisfying is the amount of care put into the character work that precedes it–that the violent delights of the Ushers have undoubtedly earned the violent ends that are borne of them. It’s what made me fall so deeply in love with Gerald’s Game, Hill House, Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, and Midnight Club–and to watch how the series reaches such high-pitched, apocalyptic ends while never losing sight of the beating, compassionate heart of Usher makes Flanagan’s final Netflix outing a truly beautiful Fall to behold.

The Fall of the House of Usher premiered its first two episodes at Fantastic Fest 2023, with the entire eight-episode miniseries provided for review. The Fall of the House of Usher premieres in its entirety on Netflix on October 12, 2023.

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