Mike Flanagan’s reign of terror on Netflix comes to end with Fall of the House of Usher, a campy, gory, politically charged affair that—like The Haunting of Hill House—comes damn close to being a horror masterpiece. While a handful of blemishes spoil a perfect score, it’s yet another enthralling shocker that employs Flanagan’s increasingly familiar repertory company to brilliant effect.
The work of Edgar Allan Poe, gleefully mutated and modernized by Flanagan, heavily influences the series, which chronicles the demise of a powerful family. The Ushers built their fortune in pharmaceuticals, but extended their reach into numerous other industries. The brother/sister duo of Roderick (Bruce Greenwood) and Madeline (Mary McDonnell) are the elder royalty of the family, but Roderick also has six children from various mothers, and they form the nucleus of an empire—one that has seen near impunity for its many crimes. Then Roderick’s children start getting knocked off, one by one, under mysterious circumstances. In the wake of this rash of deaths, Roderick invites government attorney August Dupin (Carl Lumbly) to the dilapidated house where he grew up. Their conversation proves to be a confession, as Roderick explains to his rival what really happened to his family—and why.
It will come as no surprise to seasoned horror fans that Fall of the House of Usher is a deal-with-the-devil variant, and that the brutal demise of the Ushers is connected to their obscene levels of wealth, power, and success. But aside from the jump scares, surprise isn’t really the point of the enterprise, which builds out the family as a metaphor for the short-sighted ruthlessness of capitalism. Each member of the Usher clan is involved with a different major industry, and represent that industry’s worst, basest instincts—the greed, the excess, the classism, and most importantly, the sociopathic disregard for the suffering of others. Watching the horror genre eat the rich is practically di riguere lately, but this entry is uniquely blunt and scathing, using its eight robust episodes to slaughter its oh-so-deserving targets in graphic, gruesome detail. It’s all quite grim and shocking, of course, but unlike previous Flanagan projects, its scenes of eloquently exchanged dialogue and creepy supernatural visuals are shot through with a rather wicked sense of humor. This takes the edge off the Ushers’ downfall, giving the viewer enough distance to process the commentary, and, ultimately, the authorial rage fueling it. It’s here, perhaps, where the show’s flaws manifest, particularly in the final episode, when the critique escalates into on-the-nose social media ranting about the world’s enshrined, systemic evils. An already loud-and-clear message becomes unnecessarily strident here, to the artistry’s detriment.
Aside from that, though, Fall of the House of Usher is an exceptionally compelling construct, driven by all of the director’s usual strengths—and an all-star roster of perfect performances. Especially noteworthy, perhaps, is Willa Fitzgerald, who deserves high praise for her impeccable Mary McDonnell mannerisms as she enacts the young, flashback Madeline. Henry Thomas is also outstanding as Frederick Usher, by turns absurdly amusing and utterly despicable, and Mark Hamill turns heads as the gruff Arthur Gordon Pym, the family’s mechanistic fixer. But everyone—Crystal Balint, Ruth Codd, Kyliegh Curran, Zach Gilford, Annabeth Gish, Malcolm Goodwin, Carla Gugino, Rahul Kohli, T’Nia Miller, Katie Parker, Sauriyan Sapkota, Kate Siegel, Samantha Sloyan, Michael Trucco, and on and on—absolutely earns their keep. With the expiration of his Netflix deal, Flanagan is migrating over to Amazon Prime, a move that—given the themes of Usher—has an amusing “Angel Investigations takes over Wolfram & Hart”irony. Regardless, I’m anxious to see what he sets his sights on next.