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Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Netflix’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Mike Flanagan’s Darkly Comedic, Delightfully Gory Masterpiece

Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Netflix’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ Mike Flanagan’s Darkly Comedic, Delightfully Gory Masterpiece

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Those still trying to fill The Midnight Club-sized hole left by its unceremonious cancellation can pause their rewatch cycle because Mike Flanagan season is upon us. Netflix has another delectable horror-drama to devour. And this one won’t leave you in a puddle of tears!

This fall, the writer-director and his longtime producing partner Trevor Macy (Midnight Mass) deliver the next Flana-verse installment with their highly-anticipated The Fall of the House of Usher. The master storyteller’s latest literary adaptation is inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including the 1839 short story of the same name. 

The Fall of the House of Usher is framed by wealthy businessman and CEO of Fortunato Pharmaceuticals Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) having a tense face-to-face meeting with attorney C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly). Naturally, they have their sitdown in a creaky old house on a rainy night, an appropriately dreary Poe-like atmosphere. While Roderick’s being his charismatic, assertive self, it’s clear to Dupin (and the audience) that something, or someone, is haunting him. Understandable, considering all six of his children are dead. 

As the Usher patriarch recounts the shocking fatalities of his offspring, the episodes jump between timelines going back weeks or sometimes decades. Even though we already know their ultimate fates, like Dupin, we’re hanging onto Roderick’s every word.

In flashbacks, we’re introduced to the multiracial Usher family — six adult children from five different mothers. His first love Annabel Lee (Katie Parker) is the mother of the two oldest siblings Frederick (Henry Thomas), the first in line to inherit Fortunato, and his sister Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), who is more accomplished and strategic. And yes, this does give them a superiority complex. 

Victorine LaFourcade (T’Nia Miller) might be the most complicated of the bunch because her work in the medical field seems to come from a genuine motivation to help people, in the beginning at least. She can be sweet with her partner/colleague Dr. Alessandra Ruiz (Paola Nuñez). But that Usher blood prevents her from being an objectively good person. 

Camille L’Espanaye (Kate Siegel, rocking killer makeup and gorgeous locks) has the taxing job of handling her family’s public image and endless controversies, which is unfortunate for her overworked and not-at-all-appreciated assistants Toby (Igby Rigney) and Tina (Aya Furukawa). 

Napoleon “Leo” Usher’s (Rahul Kohli) thing is video games. He’s not an actual designer but more of an investor/socialite with a drug habit. His poor boyfriend Julius (Daniel Jun) has to put up with a lot. The youngest is Prospero “Perry” Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota) whom Frederick aptly calls “Gucci Caligula” at one point. He lacks the Usher ingenuity and is only interested in a hedonistic lifestyle.

Roderick’s twin sister Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell) is seemingly more ruthless than her brother when it comes to their family business — and just about everything else. Their upbringing was less than ideal, and as they grew up, they became consumed by their ambition. Willa Fitzgerald and Flana-verse favorite Zach Gilford play the siblings during their younger years when they cross paths with the stranger who will return decades later to watch as the Usher empire quickly crumbles.

The mysterious Verna (Carla Gugino) is front and center to the death of each heir. In the trailer, she calls herself “Consequence” and tells Roderick, “Your family is a collection of stunted hearts whose time has come.” During production, Gugino described Verna to Tudum, “You could say she’s the executor of fate or the executor of karma.” Whether she’s killing them herself or somehow causing their deaths is unclear for most of the 8-episode run, so no spoilers here. 

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Mike Flanagan has plenty of death in his past work but nothing I would ever call gory. The same can’t be said for House of Usher, though. The deaths are horrific in the best way, and watching how the surreal scenarios play out is a major part of what makes this a fun series. Imagine the roaming specters from The Haunting of Hill House if they died in a Jigsaw trap or freaky Final Destination “accident.” 

In the trailer, there’s a noticeably comedic tone to the series, with most of the dark humor stemming from the family dynamics of the heartless, self-centered Ushers. Viewers will also realize there’s a significant amount of sex, which isn’t usually prominent in other Flanagan projects. But it makes sense that characters living in opulence would be insatiable, or at least expectant, in all areas of life including sex. 

One familiar element in a Flana-verse production is a star-studded cast of actors, the majority of whom have worked with the filmmaker before. Doctor Sleep’s Kyleigh Curran joined the cast as Lenore Usher, the daughter of Frederick and Morella “Morrie” (Crystal Balint), and the only family member who isn’t allergic to empathy.

New additions (that we hope to see in future projects) include the remarkable Mark Hamill as Arthur Pym, the Ushers’ intimidating attorney and all-around “fixer.” Both Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald perfectly embody the icy and highly intelligent Madeline Usher at different ages, delivering her biting dialogue with a chilling and amusing tone. 

Flanagan’s consistently brilliant writing adds depth to unlikable characters that could easily come off as stereotypical, especially with all the (real and fictional) examples of wealthy narcissists we see on TV. He shares credit with his team of established and emerging writers — Emmy Grinwis (Snowfall), Justina Ireland (Dread Nation), Matt Johnson, Dani Parker (Midnight Mass), Rebecca Klingel (The Haunting of Bly Manor), James Flanagan (Midnight Mass), and Kiele Sanchez. 

Bruce Greenwood performs a monologue about the phrase “when life gives you lemons,” made all the more captivating as the camera slowly zooms in on a closeup. It’s another signature of Flanagan who directed four episodes with Michael Fimognari (The Midnight Club), who also acts as the series cinematographer, at the helm of the other four. 

As he did with authors Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James in The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Christopher Pike in The Midnight Club, Flanagan interprets their elegant words, adds his signature style, and creates a stunning series. You’ll want to brush up on the poet if you hope to catch all of the references. Episodes are titled after other Poe stories but don’t necessarily follow the same narrative. 

The Fall of the House of Usher is a character-driven exploration of family, karma, greed, corruption, and privilege told through a uniquely satirical and supernatural lens. Though the series falls outside of the Flana-verse emotional repertoire — terminally ill teens, heartbreaking queer love stories, the tragic Eleanor Crain — the gore and dark humor are an unexpected treat. Mike Flanagan never fails to hit the mark.

The first two episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher premiere at Fantastic Fest in September 2023. All 8 episodes begin streaming October 12 on Netflix

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