Mike Flanagan had established himself as one of the best storytellers working in the horror genre with 2017’s Gerald’s Game. Since then, he has been one-upping himself with Doctor Sleep and all his Netflix miniseries. Just because his stories feature ghosts and monsters, there’s an in-built expectation that his movies and shows are going to be scary and shocking. However, his style is akin to the kind of tales our grandparents used to regale us with on many a candle-lit stormy night. There is something inviting and comforting about it, but the closer you get to its themes and characters, the more harrowing it gets, especially in terms of existential dread. So, despite their macabre nature, Flanagan’s miniseries and movies can be watched by everyone, regardless of their love for horror. That said, The Fall of the House of Usher is a different beast altogether, and it’s palpable from the first episode to the last.
The series’ overarching narrative is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story that goes by the same name. But Flanagan, along with co-writers Justina Ireland, Dani Parker, Rebecca Klingel, Kiele Sanchez, Jamie Flanagan, Emmy Grinwis, and Matt Johnson, take inspiration from the rest of Poe’s literary work. The miniseries follows Roderick and Madeline Usher, the co-owners of a billion-dollar pharma company called Fortunato. Roderick has a total of six children, with two of them (Tamerlane and Frederick) being legitimate and the rest (Victorine, Napoleon, Camille, and Prospero) being illegitimate. And, not really a huge spoiler; all of them are dead. Fortunato is facing damning charges for selling a drug called Ligodone by claiming it’s non-addictive, even though it is addictive. So, essentially, it’s game over for Roderick. Surprisingly, though, he calls Auguste Dupin (the investigator tackling the Fortunato fraud case) to his old house for a drink and a confession, the latter of which Dupin has been running after for decades.
The Fall of the House of Usher could have easily been an anthology series because it’s quite the fad nowadays. If you look at Poe’s poems and short stories that Flanagan and his team of extremely talented writers are drawing from, you will see that they are wildly different in terms of the narrative. They have a common dosage of melancholy and sadness, but the themes and the characters are unlike each other. So, the effort it must’ve taken for the writers to take all that and combine it to make a singular, decade-spanning narrative about generational decay is mind-boggling for me. And then, they made it relevant by talking about pharma fraud, capitalism, influencer marketing, misogyny in politics, and more. My tiny brain is unable to comprehend that. Just to give you a small example, which doubles as a personal anecdote because Poe’s work has been integral to my schooling days; we were tasked with reading The Raven in the hopes of improving our English writing skills. But we were too young and too ignorant, mostly due to the pressure of getting all the words right, to understand why this dude was talking to a raven about someone called Lenore. Now, after almost a decade, seeing that same poem presented as an allegory for lost love, regret, death, and even artificial intelligence feels more educational than the hours spent trying to recite it accurately.
Don’t worry; the Fall of the House of Usher is certainly not just for English literature nerds. Much like Flanagan’s other works, it’s still for everyone as it covers a wide variety of topics, most of which are centered around the theme of opulence. Now, I’m not sure if I am projecting or if it’s really the case, but the miniseries feels like a slap on the faces of every TV show that glorifies rich people or makes them look cute after some surface-level critique about their expensive lifestyle. I am well aware of the fact that the privileged are bulletproof, literally and metaphorically. I don’t want them to be bulletproof in the realm of fiction because that’s where they can be dismembered, disfigured, and turned into an example of poetic justice by the personification of death. Thankfully, Flanagan and his team of writers scratched that specific itch vigorously and intensely. That said, they don’t make the Ushers feel like easy targets. They show why people like them get to exploit the system and live a life of utter debauchery. And they show why we shouldn’t suck up to the flag bearers of capitalism to climb up the social ladder because we can be rich without being morally bankrupt. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the writers have done a spectacular job of treating a plethora of topics and characters with such nuance and passion, while making the audience feel smarter than the miniseries by giving them the right kind of clues for the next piece in the puzzle.
As mentioned before, the storytelling style that Mike Flanagan and Michael Fimognari have is synonymous with a warm, albeit goosebumps-inducing, “sitting around a bonfire and sharing ghost stories” aesthetic. Their scares have an undertone of sadness to them, thereby making them the perfect people to adapt Edgar Allan Poe’s texts. But for The Fall of the House of Usher, which is their final project with Netflix as Intrepid Pictures (Flanagan and Trevor Macy’s label) are moving to Amazon, Flanagan has taken a more visceral approach. Due to the subject matter, Flanagan and Fimognari (who is also the cinematographer) exude a sort of mercilessness that’s almost intoxicating. The moments of horror, much like his previous movies and shows, decrease in terms of shock value because that’s not the point of the miniseries. Its intention is to terrify, and, let me tell you, those scenes achieve Saw and Final Destination levels of brutality and carnage while still maintaining their poetic nature. On a technical level, the miniseries is perfect. The VFX, the special effects, the CGI, the production design, the costume design, the hair and make-up design (some of those ghosts look gnarly as hell), the lighting (most of which is unmotivated and hence amazing), the editing, the sound design—it is all brilliant. That said, the Newton Brothers score is good but not great. I can still hum the Hill House theme on cue. However, this one? It’s serviceable.
It’s safe to say that The Fall of the House of Usher entirely hinges on Bruce Greenwood’s performance, and, my oh my, what a performance it is. I think the right word is hypnotic. If you delete everything from the show and limit it to the conversation between Greenwood and Carl Lumbly (who is fantastic as well), which is what happens in the original short story, I’ll still watch it and be enthralled by it. However, that little exercise will rob us of the amazing performances from the rest of the cast. Mary McDonnell aptly captures the older Madeline Usher’s no-nonsense vibe. Zach Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald, as the younger versions of Roderick and Madeline, are great, especially Willa with her “men can go to hell” attitude. Malcolm Goodwin, as the young Auguste Dupin, is really good. And then there’s the whole Usher family. Samantha Sloyan playing a knock-off version of Gwyneth Paltrow is truly hilarious. T’Nia Miller is so magnetic. Her eyes and the way she enunciates every syllable—it’s all really captivating. Rahul Kohli channels every dude-bro Twitch streamer ever. At this point, I don’t know if he loves games or if he really went method on this one, even appearing at gaming awards and stuff.
Meanwhile, Kate Siegel channels every PR head that you’ve ever encountered, and she is exquisite. Sauriyan Sapkota impresses yet again after his work in The Midnight Club. Henry Thomas continues to prove that he’s an absolute chameleon. Mark Hamill is chilling. Katie Parker, Kyleigh Curran, Ruth Codd, and Paola Nuñez, as the four sources of positivity and goodness, are splendid. And then there’s the scene-stealing Carla Gugino, who, as the kids like to say nowadays, slays (sometimes literally) in every scene she is in.
The Fall of the House of Usher is another slam dunk for Mike Flanagan. It’s truly astonishing how he and his team have taken Edgar Allan Poe’s work, which is from the 1800s, and turned it into a modern fable about capitalism. And not just any brand of capitalism, but the one centered around the pharmaceutical industry, i.e., an industry whose top brass has hugely benefited from the declining condition of the world, especially throughout the ongoing COVID pandemic. Although it’s futile, the miniseries makes a concerted effort to ask the villains who are monetizing everyone else’s miseries: Where are they going to go with all this wealth? Immortality only exists in science fiction, and it’s a concept that’ll always be limited to movies, TV shows, and literature. The only version of immortality that’s achievable is by creating a legacy that’ll benefit people after your death. But I don’t think the privileged are concerned about all that as well. They just want to sit on their mountain of bloodied wealth and point at the rest of us and laugh, assuming that they are the ones who are content with their lives. Little do they know that having a sustainable income and being remembered fondly is way better than spending money you haven’t earned and being forgotten; which is a point that the miniseries makes pretty explicitly. Anyway, those are just my thoughts on The Fall of the House of Usher. Please check it out for yourself on Netflix, form your opinion, and share your thoughts with us.