The Fall of the House of Usher
Directed by Jan Svankmajer, Czechoslovakia, 1980, 15 minutes
Source: The Kimstim Collection, The Collected Shorts of Jan Svankmajer, Vol. 1
The film, in black and white, beings with creepy music and a series of close-ups that cut between a raven, some stones and ominous storm clouds. The nameless narrator begins Poe’s narrative in Czech. We do not see him; the camera instead focuses on the House of Usher, a mansion in the dark, blurry distance. His childhood friend, Roderick Usher, has written to him, beckoning him to visit. The camera moves through the house’s empty rooms and squeaking doors before settling on a lone chair, just as the narrator describes his initial encounter with the depressed Roderick. At this point we realize a curious fact: there will be no actors in this film. As the narrator describes Roderick’s sickly appearance, the camera traces the chair’s frame. The narrator learns that Roderick’s sister, Lady Madeline, is sick and the camera immediately cuts to a close-up of a single stone falling from the house into water and then focuses on animated gray matter stirring.
Roderick reveals his preoccupation with the house and death. Coincidentally, Madeline soon dies. A black coffin enters the scene, and then interestingly moves itself from the house, to a road outside, before sliding into a tomb. An unsettling “hammer” noise echoes in the background before the tomb door slams shut and locks itself. Roderick becomes even more depressed and agitated, and the camera repeatedly focuses on a table with trembling nails, a hammer and a key, much like the one that locked the tomb entrance..hmmm. A few days later there is a thunderstorm and the narrator decides to read “Mad Tryst” by Sir Lancelot Canning and distract Roderick. As the narrator reads, the camera cuts to the table with the nails, which are now moving, and then to the coffin, which explodes into splintered wood, mirroring the frame story’s parallel plot. Again, some gray clay shifts, the name “Madeline” flashes, and soon the entire coffin crumbles as lightening flashes and Roderick “the chair” begins to stir uneasily. The camera focuses on tearing walls, growing cracks, and creates a dizzying effect. Roderick admits he has been haunted by noises from Madeline’s tomb all week and is certain that she is on the other side of the door. The door opens and Roderick’s chair crumbles. The furniture, a wardrobe and other chairs, begins “running” from the shaking house, leaping out of windows and sinking into the muddied water below. The final image is that of the initial raven, who also crumbles into a pile of feathers at the end.
I thought this would be an interesting film to watch since we are reading about short stories in relation to short films. I was impressed by how this adaptation combines both elements of the familiar and unfamiliar to recreate the Poe’s unsettling story, while contributing some engaging new twists. Reading along with the English subtitles serves as a necessary revisit to the actual text (for those of us who haven’t read it in years), and listening to the Czech adds a literal foreign element that made me feel as though I, too, was moving into the unknown. I was most impressed with how Svankmajer really brings the house to life with these animate objects; they certainly aren’t the singing, accommodating furniture pieces of Beauty and the Beast. The house is truly a character alive with madness. The physical decay and the rush of flashes of animation clay and earth really captured the underlying human emotion of frenzied fear.