Review: Mike Flanagan's "The Fall of the House of Usher" - A Masterful Ode to Edgar Allan Poe

25 September 2023
When Edgar Allan Poe first published "The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1839, he was already a figure of some notoriety in the literary world. Known for his tales of the macabre, Poe had a unique ability to delve into the darkest corners of the human psyche, exploring themes of death, decay, and madness with an almost surgical precision. His stories were not just tales to frighten; they were psychological studies, examinations of the human condition through the lens of horror. Poe's influence on the genre is immeasurable, inspiring generations of writers, filmmakers, and artists to venture into the realms of the eerie and unsettling.

It's within this rich tapestry of psychological horror that Mike Flanagan sets his adaptation, "The Fall of the House of Usher." for Netflix. But to call it an adaptation would be a disservice to what Flanagan has achieved. This is not a mere retelling or a straightforward translation of Poe's work to the screen. It's a reimagining that takes the essence of Poe's dark universe and expands upon it, creating a narrative that is as complex and multi-layered as the human psyche itself.

Flanagan's series is a tribute not just to "The Fall of the House of Usher" but to the entire oeuvre of Poe. It's a deep dive into the themes that pervaded Poe's work: the fragility of sanity, the inevitability of death, and the existential dread that comes from confronting the unknown. By weaving in elements from other iconic Poe stories like "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Black Cat," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," Flanagan creates a narrative tapestry that is rich in thematic depth and narrative complexity.

This is a series that understands the weight of its source material, that recognizes the enduring power of Poe's work to captivate and terrify even in our modern age. It's a series that asks difficult questions about human nature and the society we live in, all while enveloping the viewer in an atmosphere of almost palpable dread. 

This is not just a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe; it's a reinvigoration of his themes, a modern-day retelling that retains the essence of the original while daring to venture into new territories. And in doing so, it becomes a masterful work of art in its own right, a fitting addition to the dark and haunting universe that Poe first envisioned nearly two centuries ago.

Review: Mike Flanagan's "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Structure & Storytelling

Flanagan's approach to the structure of the series is nothing short of revolutionary. Traditional adaptations often struggle with capturing the depth and nuance of their source material, but Flanagan sidesteps this issue entirely. He uses "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a narrative skeleton, upon which he grafts flesh from other Poe classics. Each episode serves as a tribute to a different Poe story, yet they are all interconnected, woven together with threads of overarching themes and character arcs. 

This creates a narrative mosaic that is both cohesive and richly textured, allowing for a more profound exploration of Poe's universe

Characters & Performances

The Usher family serves as the nexus of this complex narrative web, each member a study in moral ambiguity and psychological complexity. Bruce Greenwood's Roderick Usher is not just a man of dark appetites; he's a symbol of the corrosive effects of power and privilege. Mary McDonnell's Madeline is far from a mere supporting character; she embodies the existential dread of mortality, her quest for immortality serving as a mirror to society's own fears of aging and death. 

The term "ensemble cast" often implies a collection of supporting roles, but here, each actor is a pillar holding up the grand edifice that is the Usher family saga. The performances are so finely tuned that they become a masterclass in character study, each actor bringing a level of nuance that is rarely seen on screen.

Cinematography & Visuals

The visual language of the series is a feast for the eyes, a blend of gothic grandeur and modern sophistication. Michael Fimognari's cinematography doesn't just set the mood; it tells a story of its own. Each frame is meticulously composed, whether it's capturing the eerie stillness of the Usher mansion or the frenetic energy of a climactic confrontation. The use of color, shadow, and light is not just aesthetic; it's symbolic, adding layers of meaning to each scene. The scares are not cheap thrills but carefully orchestrated moments that serve the narrative, making the horror feel earned and impactful.

review fall of the house of user

Themes & Contemporary Relevance

The Usher Family's Pharmaceutical Empire: Fortunato

One of the most compelling aspects of Mike Flanagan's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is its ability to take Edgar Allan Poe's timeless themes and transpose them onto a modern canvas. The Usher family's pharmaceutical empire, Fortunato, serves as a striking example. Named after a character from Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," Fortunato is not merely a backdrop for the unfolding drama; it is a living, breathing entity that encapsulates the moral decay and ethical compromises that Poe often explored.

In Poe's works, characters frequently grapple with their own moral failings, often leading to their downfall. Flanagan uses Fortunato to explore the ethical quagmire of the pharmaceutical industry, a sector often criticized for prioritizing profit over human well-being. This is a modern manifestation of the classic Poe theme of humanity's darker impulses, the willingness to sacrifice ethics for personal gain. 

The series raises questions about the lengths to which corporations will go to amass wealth, even if it means exploiting the vulnerable. It's a scathing critique of corporate greed, echoing Poe's own disdain for the darker aspects of human nature.

The Cost of Progress and Ethical Boundaries

Poe was fascinated by the duality of human nature, the constant struggle between our higher aspirations and our baser instincts. This theme is vividly brought to life through the series' examination of the moral implications of pharmaceutical advancements. What is the cost of progress? At what point do the ethical boundaries blur, and what are we willing to compromise for the sake of convenience or profit? 

These questions resonate with Poe's own explorations of the limits of human morality, as seen in stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart," where the protagonist's guilt becomes a haunting, inescapable force.

Madeline's Obsession with Immortality

Madeline Usher's quest for immortality serves as another thematic bridge between Poe's 19th-century world and our contemporary society. Poe often delved into humanity's fear of mortality, as seen in poems like "Annabel Lee" and stories like "The Premature Burial." Madeline's obsession is a modern echo of this, reflecting society's increasing fixation on youth and the fear of aging. In a world where technological advancements make the prospect of extending human life increasingly plausible, the series taps into the ethical and existential questions that such possibilities raise.

Madeline's pursuit of eternal life is not just a personal quest; it's a societal reflection. It serves as a critique of our culture's obsession with youth, the endless chase for anti-aging remedies, and the ethical implications of such pursuits. Are we, like Madeline, willing to pay any price for a few more years of youth? 

This mirrors Poe's own explorations of the human psyche's darker corridors, where the fear of death often drives people to extreme, sometimes horrifying, lengths.


Mike Flanagan's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not just another entry in the ever-growing list of Poe adaptations; it's a seminal work that stands as a testament to the enduring power of its source material. 

It takes the core elements that made Poe's stories timeless and adapts them for a modern audience, all while maintaining a level of artistic integrity that is truly commendable. This series is a complex, multi-faceted gem that rewards multiple viewings, each layer revealing new depths of meaning and emotional resonance. 

It's not just a masterclass in storytelling and adaptation; it's a magnum opus that sets a new standard for what can be achieved in the realm of horror television.

Reviewer Score: ★★★★★


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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