THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER Review: Mike Flanagan Ends His Partnership With Netflix On A High Note

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER Review: Mike Flanagan Ends His Partnership With Netflix On A High Note

Mike Flanagan’s (The Midnight Club, Midnight Mass, Gerald's Game) The Fall of the House of Usher, like his four previous ones, is a supernatural horror series influenced and inspired by classic works of horror: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House for Flanagan’s first miniseries, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw for the follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the pioneers of Gothic horror, for his fifth and last miniseries for Netflix. It might just be Flanagain's best.

Each member of the Usher family, modeled on the likes of the Sacklers, the Koch Brothers, and, among others, the Trumps, represent unfettered, unregulated capitalism, of profit over people, of exploitation without consequence. Each, in turn, receives a well-deserved, mostly justified, gory comeuppance via a seemingly ageless, possibly immortal, definitely non-human, angel (or devil) of vengeance. By the end of its consistently engrossing, enthralling eight-episode run, The Fall of the House of Usher emerges as more than well-made supernatural horror (though it is that), but as a wickedly insightful, gorily provocative satire of contemporary America.

More pointedly satirical and more bleakly comic than his previous work for Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher unfolds against the real-world backdrop of the opioid epidemic, placing responsibility on the Sackler-like Usher family, their control of a rapacious multinational company, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals (one of among many nods to Edgar Allan Poe interwoven throughout the series), and an oxycontin-like drug, Ligadone, that’s caused untold misery and death while the Ushers, beginning and ending with the family patriarch, Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood, a late replacement for Frank Langella), his co-conspirator/partner-in-lifetime crime, Madeline (Mary McDonnell), and their family lawyer/fixer, Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), flourish. 

That makes Roderick’s children, to varying degrees poisoned and corrupted by the obscene wealth and privilege the Ushers have accumulated from the billions of dollars in pharma sales, guilty by default and association, and their deaths — revealed in the opening minutes of the first episode and thus not a spoiler — all but grimly inevitable. Individually and collectively, they represent Roderick’s legacy, but not in the way he imagines. Through narcissistic control of every aspect of his children’s lives, he’s made monsters of them all, eager to push each other down a flight of stairs or an elevator shaft if it means inheriting a larger share of the Roderick estate.

The Fall of the House of Usher unfolds primarily as a confession between Roderick, seemingly alone in his decrepit childhood home, and his lifelong antagonist, C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), a onetime Medicare fraud investigator turned crusading assistant U.S. Attorney. Days after the beginning of the federal criminal trial that, in Dupin’s opinion, will bring the “Usher crime family” to long-delayed justice for their myriad felonies, Roderick sits alone, his children dead in quick succession, the result of accident or misadventure. As we soon learn, each on involves an enigmatic woman, Verna (Carla Gugino), from Roderick and Madeline’s past.

While Flanagan anchors The Fall of the House of Usher in Roderick and Dupin’s conversation, a dark night of the soul for one or both, the series jumps backwards and forwards in time, initially to 1953 and Roderick and Madeline’s childhood, 1962 as Roderick and Madeline’s lives change irreversibly, and New Year’s Eve, 1979, as Roderick and Madeline meet Verna, a bartender in this scenario, for the first time. Their conversation, and what Roderick and Madeline may or may not have sold for their future billions, ends before we learn more, deftly shifting to the near present and, again with Roderick narrating, the intertwined fates of Roderick’s children, half by his long-dead wife and the other half the result of various dalliances Roderick enjoyed over the decades.

Borrowing titles — and thus hinting at the overall themes and plot elements — from Poe’s shorter works, the second episode, “The Masque of the Red Death," focuses mainly on Prospero “Perry” Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota), the youngest Usher and as such, the Usher with the most to prove to his cold, controlling father. Rather than give each Usher child an individual inheritance upon maturity, Roderick forces each to come up with a bankable, potentially profitable idea. Perry’s idea, a franchise of high-end nightclubs, meets with Roderick’s disapproval, compelling the younger Usher to go it alone, a proof-of-concept involving a disused Usher property, exclusive, paying clientele, and a night filled with every imaginable form of debauchery.

The titles for the follow episodes suggest the fates of the individual members of the Usher clan, from “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Goldbug,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” through “The Raven,” though who dies — or rather in what order they expire — isn’t always clear. The Usher clan might not make it to the end of the series, but not knowing when or how they die adds tension and suspense that might be otherwise missing from The Fall of The House of Usher. For example, the medically themed “Murder in the Rue Morgue” episode seems to suggest Victorine LaFourcade (T'Nia Miller), an accomplished medical surgeon and researcher driven by seemingly altruistic desires, will be next in the metaphorical barrel. Minor spoiler: She's not, at least not yet.

The other members of the Usher clan, Camille L'Espanaye (Kate Siegel), the family PR specialist, as cold, calculating, and heartless as her father and uncle, Napoleon "Leo" (Rahul Kohli), a slacker, videogame enthusiast, and substance abuser, Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), the co-owner of a wellness company with her muscle-bound husband, William 'Bill-T' Wilson (Matt Biedel), and Frederick (Henry Thomas), groomed as Roderick's presumed heir to the CEO title, are, one and all, biding their time until they’re moved from background or supporting characters to the unwilling protagonists of their stories (and fates). And each time, Verna appears, a red-robed, mask-wearing, wraith-like creature in Perry’s episode, a security guard in Camille’s, an animal shelter worker in Leo’s, a needy heart patient in Victorine’s, and so forth.

Structurally, The Fall of the House of Usher falls into a familiar, if not unwelcome pattern, mixing and remixing the overarching present-day (and night) story involving Roderick and Dupin’s conversation, flashbacks involving Roderick and Madeline or the pre-demise Usher children, and spotlight episodes or sub-episodes centered on the rapidly dwindling supply of the Usher clan. Flanagan, of course, never forgets that audiences expect a few shocks, scares, and, of course, liberal, if not excessive, amounts of gore. Flanagan rarely lingers on the aftermath, but he also doesn’t turn away, amply showing what happens to the Usher children when, through greed, hubris, or self-entitlement, they make the choices that inevitably lead to their violent ends.

While Netflix’s loss will be Prime Video’s gain (Flanagan’s future projects will be with the latter), it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a better sendoff for his fruitful association with the former than The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s horror, yes, but it’s also horror with something worthwhile to express beyond the usual shocks, scares, and thrills typical of the genre. More likely than not, audiences on the other side of the screen will ponder The Fall of the House of Usher’s underlying themes, ideas, and meaning long after the final credits roll on the final episode and they’ve slipped into the comfort of their respective beds.

The Fall of the House of Usher is now streaming on Netflix worldwide.

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Bruce GreenwoodCarl LumblyCarla GuginoHenry ThomasKate SiegelMary McDonnellMike FlanaganRahul KohliSamantha SloyanT'Nia MillerThe Fall of the House of Usher

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