At turns brilliantly constructed and orchestrated, Michael Flanagan’s latest (and last) Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, is sort of a mixed bag of what he does well and some potential missteps.
With The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan put himself on the TV horror map with a masterpiece of television that combined truly unnerving horror with heartbreaking character work. He continued the trend with House of Bly Manor, which mostly worked, and then moved over to Midnight Mass, a completely original story that was terrifying and profound.
While he tried his hand at creating a Young Adult horror series, The Midnight Club, that one didn’t do so well, so it was back to more adult fare. Which brings us to ‘The House of Usher.’
Based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Flanagan combines several of Poe’s short stories into a longer and more complex narrative, spinning tales like “The Raven,” “Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the story of a massively wealthy family whose patriarch Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline Usher (Mary McDonnell) are the heads of a pharmaceutical empire called Fortunado. However, their claim to fame is a “non-addictive” drug that promises to make people pain-free. This is proven false, and the family is blamed for an epidemic of deaths over the years.
Unable to keep his pecker in his pants, Roderick is the baby daddy to a number of children, all of whom he has accepted without hesitation. They are:
- Frederick Usher (Henry Thomas), a member of the Fortunado board with a wife (Crystal Balint) and teenage daughter (Kyliegh Curran).
- Victorine LaFourcade (T’Nia Miller), a doctor/scientist working on a device that can keep the heart beating indefinitely.
- Camille L’Espanaye (Kate Siegal),a spin-doctor who carefully and nastily keeps the family in the news but as far away from scandal as she can.
- Leo Usher (Rahul Kohli), a video game entrepreneur with a drug habit.
- Tamerlane Usher (Samantha Sloyan), a health business guru with a fitness husband (Matt Biedel).
- Perry Usher (Sauriyan Sapkota), a young party boy who dreams of creating exclusive orgiastic nightclubs.
Added to that cast of characters is Roderick’s current (and much younger) wife, Juno (Ruth Codd), and a police investigator, Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), who had known the family even before they were rich.
The story of House of Usher follows the gruesome deaths of all of Roderick’s children and the mysterious woman (Carla Gugino), who seems to be connected to them all. This causes, you guessed it, the fall of Roderick’s house of Usher.
While most of the series occurs in the present, we often switch back to the early ‘80s, where a young Roderick (Zach Gilford) and his sister Madeline (Willa Fitzgerald) suffer tragedy and then plot to overtake Fortunado. It also reveals the first meeting with Gugino’s mysterious Verna.
There’s a lot to chew on in Flanagan’s latest, and while the machinations of Poe’s work into the narrative are clever, it can sometimes feel shoehorned in or even predictable. It’s certainly not without surprises and shocks, but this series asks us to spend eight hours with highly unlikeable characters. Only Roderick’s first wife, Annabel Lee (Katie Parker), his grandchild Lenore (Curran), and the investigator (Lumbly) are sympathetic. Add in the grumbly family’s “clean up” man Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill), and you have so many awful people you don’t really feel so bad when they get offed in horrific ways.
Some of Flanagan’s choices this time around felt strange for him. All the characters are overly sexual, and most are bisexual to the point where it felt incredibly unrealistic. What was disconcerting overall was that it felt like Flanagan was doing his version of American Horror Story, where things were dialed up to a campy level, and there was a preoccupation with sex. I’m no prude, but it all felt a bit much. When one character reveals that she, too, is bisexual, I actually rolled my eyes and said, “Of course she is.” (Note: as a gay man, I have no problem with bisexuality or LGBTQ characters, obviously. It was just that 80% of the characters were somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. Yay for diversity, but not particularly believable.)
What I did appreciate here was Flanagan’s writing. He’s still the master of the lengthy monologue, and his weaving of Poe’s prose into the voice-over and dialogue was quite beautiful. His directing is also always pitch-perfect.
Flanagan seems to stick with the same crew of actors (like Ryan Murphy), and they are all excellent. I love seeing them because of it. Choosing a favorite is hard because they are all spectacular at their craft, but Gugino, McDonnell, Miller, and Sloyan, in particular, stand out.
The tech credits are uniformly stunning, so there’s really nothing negative to point out except for the story. I grew tired of the Usher children and their continued selfishness and terrible behavior. Roderick and Madeline were also pricks, so it’s just hard to find someone to care about. There are supporting characters like wives and kids who are sympathetic, but for the most part, you are just watching horrible people die in bizarre ways. The mystery of the piece is why it all happened in the first place, and even that isn’t much of a shocker.
I think fans of Flanagan’s other series might not fall for this house like they have in the past, but there are enough whacky and horrible shenanigans here that might keep the audience’s interest. It’s like a horror version of Succession or Yellowstone. It’s not one of Flanagan’s scariest pieces, but there’s brilliance in between all the ickiness.