24 Things We Learned from Roger Corman’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ Commentary

"We knew we were gonna have a great time when the fire started."
House Of Usher Vincent Price

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Roger Corman’s first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation with his commentary for The Fall of the House of Usher.

We lost a legend over the weekend with the passing of filmmaker Roger Corman. Writer, producer, director, part-time actor — the film lover worked tirelessly to get films made, help films reach audiences, and give lift to new voices. From Jonathan Demme to Jack Nicholson, from Ron Howard to Pam Grier, from Joe Dante to William Shatner, the talents who got their start with the king are numerous. He churned out hundreds of films here at home while also working to bring non-English films and filmmakers to the attention of American audiences.

The guy loved movies with every bone in his body.

In 1960, he kicked off a handful of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, and he started with The Fall of the House of Usher. Corman recorded a few commentary tracks over the years, and we’ve chosen this one to cover today as a celebration of his achievements, interests, and talents. Now keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

Commentator: Roger Corman (director, producer)

1. The opening shots of a smoky landscape were “the result of a forest fire in the Hollywood Hills.” He found it to be the perfect intro as Poe’s stories are “stories of the unconscious mind,” and that “we should not see reality.” To that end, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon, who also passed away this weekend) approaching the Usher house through the burnt field is the only shot of the real world with everything else being shot on the stages representing the house.

2. The house’s front door opens, and Corman admonishes himself for not adding a creaking sound. “But these pictures were shot on a really low budget and fast schedule.”

3. The film shot for fifteen days, and it was Corman’s longest at the time. Like his other Poe adaptations, the film cost under $300k.

4. “This was the first film I shot in scope,” he says, adding that he’s unsure if it was CinemaScope or one of the less expensive anamorphic lenses that came after CinemaScope. Regardless, he’s not sure it was the right choice here as CinemaScope is at its best when filming exteriors.

5. The great Vincent Price was Corman’s first choice for the role of Roderick Usher. Both won numerous awards, “but Vincent won more awards than I did for the picture.”

6. “I was a believer, and still am, in what we used to call Art History 1A, Articulation of the Service.” It refers to the idea that the set should be filled with objects and imagery, all of which was rented for the productions at pretty inexpensive rates.

7. Madeline Usher was Myrna Fahey‘s first leading role — and her final feature film — before heading to a career on television.

8. The paintings in the Usher home were all commissioned from artist Burt Schoenberg. “Everybody at the end, took one as a memento. I still have mine.” The one he took was the portrait of Roderick Usher, and he was surprised that Price didn’t pick it for himself. Price actually chose to keep the creepy, red-tinted portrait at 44:45 of Captain David Usher.

9. Corman’s film crew had a reputation as being among the best independent crew people around. When they were between pictures with Corman, other films would hire them on as a unit rather than have them individually landing new gigs.

10. The Fall of the House of Usher was the first feature film for American international Pictures that was released and screened as a standalone film. Prior to that point, AIP packaged all their films into double features of monster movies, sci-fi flicks, etc. They also preferred to produce them on the cheap and in black & white. That was Corman’s instructions going into The Fall of the House of Usher, but he “convinced them to make one, fifteen-day color film instead of two, ten-day black & white films.” He says there was some resistance to the idea, including from one of the AIP executives who asked Corman “where is the monster in House of Usher?” He told the suit that the house itself was the monster, and they got their greenlight.

11. Corman didn’t want Roderick Usher to be seen as a monster or feared for his strength or ferocity. It was instead his intelligence and empathy that Corman wanted to focus on, and he feels Price did a phenomenal job with the role.

12. He found theatrical audiences divided in their feelings and loyalties regarding the two male leads. “On one hand they could identify with Mark as the young man falling in love, becoming involved in a strange, romantic situation. Yet, at the same time, they might be able to identify with… and possibly even think of Vincent as a father figure.”

13. Roughly 70% of AIP’s film played traditional theaters while the remainder became drive-in theater fare. “This type of picture was far more effective in a hard-top,” he says, adding that the action films (bikers and gangsters) “played better in drive-ins.”

14. French critics helped establish Corman and Price as “higher level” talents after seeing the film and reading various things into it, “which was, to a certain extent, what I was trying to put into it, and some things that had never actually occurred to me but occurred to them. But that may be reasonable, that’s part of the job of a critic.”

15. Poe’s stories are often very short, so the films had to elaborate and expand their ideas to justify a feature. Corman gives writer Richard Matheson immense credit for “his ability to expand the story but to stay inside the vision and the mind of Poe.” He adds that while most writers required multiple rewrites to reach a shooting script, Matheson’s screenplays were often ready to go from the first draft with only minor changes.

16. He’s often been accused of printing the first usable take, but “in reality I generally went two, three, four takes, something like that.”

17. Corman is a firm believer in “editing” the film in preproduction by way of storyboarding the entire film including every shot, scene, and cutaway. “I would draw all my shots on the blank page in the script, opposite the printed page, so that I had double pages all the way through the script, so I could look at what I had written and what I had drawn.” More specifically, he says, his storyboards were drawn from above the scene — his degree in engineering being the main culprit there — with lines and angles showing the movement of actors. This also meant that he rarely had a finished film that required paring down. “I very, very seldom lost a scene in editing.”

18. “I like the concept of the off-camera scream or sound,” he says, as it suggests there’s more happening around a character than he or she is aware of. “There’s also the fact that sometimes after shooting, I get he idea that I’d like to have a scream here, and I add it in in post-production.”

19. Corman hadn’t planned on making more Poe adaptations while making The Fall of the House of Usher, but he still made the wise choice to leave the stairway set (seen at 54:53) and others standing after production wrapped. “We managed to use it in several other films.”

20. The fantasy sequence was shot without sound, “an exercise in cinema technique,” and it’s something he repeated in the other Poe adaptations.

21. It’s been years since he’s rewatched the film, and he had always remembered it as a dialogue-heavy production. “But now I’m struck by the amount of silent shooting there was, which I like.”

22. You can hear the glee in his voice when he mentions that the shot at 1:10:33 of the bloody fingers coming out of the coffin got a great reaction in theaters.

23. He views the film as fairly complex for a fifteen-day picture, and these days he’d give one of his directors four or five weeks to accomplish the same. “Maybe I’m just getting easier in my old age.”

24. The bulk of the house’s destruction was filmed on set, but a few shots of burning walls and rafters were captured elsewhere. They heard someone was planning to take down their barn, so they paid to have it burned down instead. He did another fire sequence in 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, but it was filmed in the UK and couldn’t match the fiery goodness on display here “because the English were very, very careful about what they’d let me do.”

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“It’s interesting to see the MGM lion roaring in front of the American International logo.”

“I’ve always felt that something appearing quickly from the side of the screen gives it a little bit of accent.”

“I haven’t seen this film for I’d say, at least twenty years, and actually, I think it holds up.”

“Matheson is one of the best writers I ever worked with.”

“Let me just watch this.”

“We knew we were gonna have a great time when the fire started.”

Final Thoughts

Roger Corman has always been a compelling and engaging speaker on the subject of films, and that continues to be evident on his commentaries as well. Sure, he’s always in salesman mode, but that aspect never dampens the enthusiasm for movies that he brings to the conversation. Here he reminisces about Poe, AIP, and the great Vincent Price, and it’s a good listen.

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.