The Fall of the House of Usher (Zánik domu Usheru)

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 9, 2014

Those hoofprints! The strategy for Jan Švankmajer’s entire film is established right there, right from the beginning. We’ll not see a single human figure, except metonymically. But the characters, and the Ushers in particular, still have a palpable, material presence. It’s a fantastic idea, very successfully executed. The Fall of the House of Usher is the last word on Švankmajer’s, on the whole entropic world’s peeling, splitting, decaying proclivities. You can see why this Czech master would have been drawn to Poe, and the combination is really felicitous (or maybe some dire equivalent of that happy word). Here Švankmajer renders and even moves beyond the individual pathology of Poe’s story, and its corresponding hints that Enlightenment rationality may not answer every question. In the present iteration this anxiety is all there is. Dire, terminal!

Note the exemplary camera work. Images are at once so sharp and glancing—a really vivid impressionism is operating here. The animation of these objects, or of these surfaces, is really insinuating, furtive, always accompanied by that maggot sound so prevalent in Švankmajer’s films. It’s the sound of something creeping up on you, like disease or madness or total dissolution.

It is not always clear what this filmmaker, what surrealists generally, are trying to say to us. We sometimes suspect, quite correctly, that the surrealist project is actually to not communicate clearly, at least to call into question the straightforward signifying to which we are accustomed, and on which we so much depend. But surrealism, and certainly Švankmajer, also affirm other semi-certainties. Looking at this film one wonders: is anything ever completely abstract when made from organic materials? Meaning might not matter as much as we sometimes think. Before tenuous, mercurial meaning there is always being, or presence!

What’s this? A musical number! This guitar ballad undergirds an unprecedentedly amazing bit of figure animation. I say figure animation, but the clay that Švankmajer fashions here isn’t being made into any particularly recognizable figure. It’s just itself, in constant, restless, entropic flux! This is so much more vivid and effective than Carrie’s hand (De Palma, 1976) reaching up out of that grave to grab us. Švankmajer’s roiling clay is not just the insistent grave, though. Like any powerful symbol, it’s multiple: the primordial ooze, dread fecundity, the sentience of rocks and trees and dirt. It is really remarkable.

In the midst of all of this innovative animation, and the confident utilization of a number of non-standard narrative devices, Poe’s plot still marches forward. “One day he informed me that Lady Madeline was no more.” At this point Švankmajer immediately cuts to the coffin, pixilated, descending into the vaults to the accompaniment of that infernal knocking. The effectiveness of this sequence is quite exhilarating. And how often does this happen to sophisticated, jadedly experienced adult viewers? It’s also really scary!

Something is amiss, of course. There’s a troubling overhead shot of that key and those nails on a table. The nails start trembling in response to the storm that tears outside, that is tearing everywhere. They also start trembling to suggest that opening things up or locking things down won’t ultimately do us any good. The storm continues on, and accomplishes an intensity and force that is positively Lear-like, save for the fact that this storm doesn’t bring any self-knowledge or consolation. Roots tear up through the soil, water seeps and spreads inexorably.

Now, as our narrator attempts to distract Roderick Usher by reading a chivalric romance, all hell breaks loose. Madeline! The aforementioned nails turn flaccid, the hammer shivers, the coffin disintegrates. Wonder and extreme terror! We hear another report, and cut to a POV from the perspective of the thing that now rises from the earth’s bowels. Švankmajer’s surrealism is once again manifest, as he now juxtaposes a number of unexpected, and yet surprisingly apt objects. These yield a palpable, physical, phenomenological effect, and powerfully impress Poe’s appalling realization. “We have put her living in the tomb!”

Is this mankind’s irreducible nightmare?  (Or its most fervently held desire? Think of the wonderful thing that Tim Burton et al. do with an utterly dissimilar resurrection in The Corpse Bride.) The Monkey’s Paw is kids’ stuff. This is the thing itself! (Speaking of King Lear…) Now Madeline is on the other side of the door. It opens, and of course reveals nothing but a white emptiness. The (superb) text fills in the details, which—the collapse and double death—are visually communicated by more superbly selected, indirect visual details. Not only does the house fall, but aristocracy, Europe, the whole world falls.  All of this apocalyptic collapse is so beautifully, so terribly communicated. At the very end that bird—could it be a Raven?—that we’ve been seeing throughout the course of the film decomposes in a dread bit of time lapse pixilation. This, then, is the prospect we have before us: madness, and then suppuration.

I’ve been thinking about this very carefully. I don’t want to be reckless, or give in to meaningless hyperbole. But may I be bold here? Jan Švankmajer’s The Fall of the House of Usher vies for the greatest adaptation, the greatest horror movie ever.