DIRECTED BY: Jean Epstein

FEATURING: Charles Lamy, Jean Debucourt, Marguerite Gance, Abel Gance

PLOT: Roderick Usher invites an old friend to the portentous mansion where he lives in the company of the servants and his dying wife, Madeline, whose portrait he has been obsessively trying to paint.

Still from The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Like it’s source material, Epstein’s silent film treatment of ’s short story doesn’t explicitly depict any extraordinary phenomena, but the aura of metaphysical discomfort and  mysterious menace is so pervasive that it lends it an oneiric character—one that’s likely to give a stronger and longer lasting impression than any more overt effect.

COMMENTS: Despite the expected controversy over the precise definition and characteristics of the movement (or whether it even qualifies as a movement), one could say that the underlying tenet of French Impressionism is the search for an emancipated cinematic language, with its own forms and techniques, in contrast to the “filmed theater” approach. Instead, cinema was to articulate, with its own unique means, certain realities (and modes of expressing them) that no other art-form could. Impressionist films focused on, among other things, subjective, psychological reality: dreams, madness and all sorts of altered states of consciousness, The methods necessary to compellingly bring it to life were unconventional camerawork, including character point-of-view perspectives, innovative editing techniques, a preoccupation with the visual composition of shots and their picturesque qualities (such as the contrasts between light and dark), etc.

With this said, it’s easy to see how such a movement proved vitally influential to weird cinema (and filmmaking in general)—as well as why it’s the perfect fit for an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. And indeed, Jean Epstein aptly translates the author’s most revered hallmarks—a constant, underlying sense of unease—to the language of cinema. It’s so well-realized that the viewer can predict the house’s impending ruin even without the title. The suggestion of a spectral world of shadows and unconscious forces subtly advances on diurnal reality, and the persistent aura of mystery and the uncanny reveals itself at each new turn, be it in the enigmatic presence of Madeline Usher, in Roderick’s afflicted mood and behavior, or in the many disquieting details of the mansion and its surroundings.

The resulting atmosphere of dreamlike disquiet is sustained through the film’s runtime, as if the viewer were trapped in the elegant and ethereal matter of a cloud as it gradually darkens and thickens before the storm. And as overused as it might be, “atmosphere” is indeed the appropriate term, considering the amount of shots purely devoted to its establishment (the ominous images of Nature, the manor’s vast, empty spaces where nothing but the wind manifests itself)—especially when compared to the more practical approach taken by most films at the time. Epstein employs an inventory of techniques that, while common today and fully absorbed into the vocabulary of mainstream cinema, remain surprisingly effective; one would assume that the contemporary viewer would have been mostly desensitized to them by now. Odd angles, not focused on human figures, establish an alienating ambiance before we even get to the titular house. Quick cuts of dark natural imagery accompany Roderick’s guitar music (described in the tale as “wild” and “fervid”), suggesting the sombre disposition that haunts him. Superimpositions abound, as in the candlelight’s ghastly apparition on the landscapes through which Madeline’s coffin is carried—as if to denote the mansion’s influence extending into its natural surroundings—or most notably (in my opinion) in the scene where Madeline’s debility is highlighted by the juxtaposed shots of her faint movements.

The scenery itself inevitably takes a central role. The depiction of the House of Usher here is one of the most vividly portrayed Gothic settings in cinema. Critics have pointed to the crucial relevance that every single element has in relation to the whole in Poe’s stories; the same meticulous design is present here. The intimidating immensity of the spaces and their sparseness hint at the solitude that affects its inhabitants. The majestic decorations and details like the abundance of curtains and candles complete the impression of an environment as bewitching as it is uncomfortable. Instability is apparent from the beginning; notice the constant wind, increasingly invasive and impetuous, or the disordered placing of the books. The tension only grows with each moment until the inevitable grand finale, by which time the elements have completely overtaken the crumbling edifice.

Epstein’s adaptation of Poe to the screen works extraordinarily  well because rather than merely enacting the narrative, it precisely attempts a transposition of the emotions and moods that define the story (and the author’s work in general) to the world of the moving image. The result is as beautiful and haunting as the most demanding fan could ever hope to find in a film version of his work.

Note: A young initiated his film career as an assistant director on Epstein’s Mauprat (1926). The Fall of the House of Usher was their second collaboration, with the Spanish director acting as co-screenwriter this time; Buñuel, however, ended up leaving the project over creative differences. According to Troy Howarth, it is unknown how much of his contributions (if any) made it to the final film.


“A strange mix of Gothic design, modern austerity, expressionist angles, graceful camerawork and surreal effects, it’s an atmospheric classic that becomes increasingly more surreal…”–Sean Axmaker, Parallax View (festival screening)


  1. Jean Epstein rules. It’s also worth checking out the OTHER Fall Of The House Of Usher from 1928, the American short, which is one of the most delirious, obtuse examples of Expressionism and one of my all-time favorite movies.

  2. This is a beautiful and elegantly creepy film. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, but this review makes me want to watch it again.

    It’s interesting that after almost 100 years, and the plethora of Poe adaptations, this one remains more true to the source material than most others. Seems like a worthy addition to the Apocrypha.

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