Friday, October 25, 2013

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983)

El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher (1983) was the first Jess Franco film that I had ever attempted to watch.  About twenty years ago, I requested a print catalog from a film collector who advertised in the classifieds of either Fangoria, Gorezone or the like.  This particular collector (whose name escapes me after all these years) dealt in primarily obscure European horror cinema and offered VHS copies for sale.  He had about fifteen films for sale directed by Jess Franco (which, at the time, I thought was a large filmography, only to be oblivious to the fact that Franco had directed probably ten times that many films by that point!).  One of the titles for sale was The Fall of the House of Usher (bear in mind, that this was his listed title.  I cannot find a credible source which lists this title as an official release title).  Bypassing more exotic titles such as Vampyros Lesbos and Succubus, I decided to dip my little toe into the water with a film with very familiar source material.  When the tape arrived in the mail, sadly very little could be gleaned from its print:  it was a multi-generational copy; the imagery was washed-out and blurry; and the audio distorted with hums, hisses, and pops.  About five or six years ago, I purchased the region-one, Image Entertainment DVD of El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher under the title Revenge in the House of Usher and I have watched it three or four times over the last few days.  I also dipped into my library of arcane film knowledge and uncovered some very interesting tidbits about the production.
Alan Harker (Antonio Mayans), a young doctor, is summoned to the castle-home of Dr. Usher (Howard Vernon), Harker's former professor and colleague.  Dr. Usher is cared for by young Helen (Lina Romay) as Dr. Usher's physical health is failing along with him suffering bouts of mental incapacity.  Harker greatly admires his former professor, despite the fact that Dr. Usher adhered to some very controversial medical theories.  It would appear, at first blush, that Dr. Usher needs Harker's help with some medical experiments; but it soon becomes clear that Dr. Usher wishes to make a hefty confession unto someone who may understand his actions...
Revenge in the House of Usher has the potential to be a strong film in Franco's enormous filmography.  Franco really excelled at creating very moody and poetic cinema and he was especially adept at creating disorienting, other-worldly settings outside of the fantasy genre.  One of his best examples is Christina, princesse de l'érotisme (1973), where the main character encounters both real, corporeal people in the mansion that she is visiting; but she also encounters seemingly ethereal, unreal people also inhabiting the mansion.  Franco, unlike any other filmmaker, seamlessly is able to blend both types of encounters to make really sensuous and provocative cinema.  Lorna, the Exorcist (1974) works in the same way:  throughout the duration of the film, one never gets the sense that Lorna is completely "real," despite the fact that she is very present in familiar settings, like a crowded casino, or dreamily available in Lina Romay's bedroom sequences.  Usher has similar sequences:  during Harker's first night in the castle, he descends into the catacombs, where he encounters captive females, an imprisoned servant, and a spectral woman who all hint towards a malevolent past which Usher is hiding.  Later, in the final act of the film, Vernon's Usher, who has now lost his grip on classical reality, encounters his dead wife in a surreal encounter.  He also uncovers all of the women in the castle playing a taunting, child's game at his expense, which really undoes the belief that Usher is in control of anything going on in his life.  These dream-like sequences are the essence of Franco's artistic talent, and Usher has very strong scenes.
Unfortunately, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher commits one of the cardinal sins of cinema, and I honestly believe it never recovers from this stigma:  the reuse of footage from Gritos en la noche (The Awful Dr. Orlof) (1961).  During the much-anticipated confessional scene between Usher and Harker, El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher cuts to lengthy clips of Franco's classic film.  As one could imagine, this use of the footage feels like padding and also feels like a really cheap, low-budget tactic.  It appears that Eurociné either co-produced or acquired the film after it was finished.  The company owned the rights also to the Orlof film (1); and additional scenes were filmed for the French version (2) (which is also the print on the Image DVD).  These additional scenes star Olivier Mathot as Morpho and Françoise Blanchard as Usher's daughter, Melissa.  These scenes are included, obviously, to make Usher an Orlof film.  (If I had to speculate, Mathot probably directed his scenes with Blanchard.)  With the exception of some festival showings, this print remained unreleased in Spain. (3)  I wish that El Hundimiento de la Casa Usher didn't contain these scenes.  I would have much preferred to have Vernon relay his confession to Harker in narrative form:  it would have allowed the expressive Vernon to convey his feelings of melancholy and guilt in a purer, more heartfelt form.
Finally, here is the most curious tidbit regarding Revenge in the House of Usher.  In an 1996 interview, Franco was asked "What would be the smallest crew you've ever used?" (4)  Franco responds:

"The smallest?  Let's see... I did the direction of photography myself in the 'Usher' film.  So one--I had an assistant for the camera.  I had someone for the makeup--two.  I had Mayans--three.  I had one more, more or less, for props and things. And Lina.  That makes four or five.  Five people."  (5)
Interesting to note in the vast filmography of Jess Franco, Usher has his smallest crew.  I find this very impressive.  Also, I really enjoy this film:  it's very moody and poetic in classic Franco style; and if one can appreciate the compositions, the disorienting vibe, and its somber tone, then it's well worth visiting.  Another film of artistry on the periphery.

1.  Bethmann, Andreas.  Jess Franco Chronicles.  Medien Publikations.  Tschechien, Czech Republic: 1999.  pp. 108-09.
2.  Obsession:  The Films of Jess Franco.  Eds. Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock.  Graf Haufen and Frank Trebbin.  Munich, Germany:  1993.  p. 156.
3.  Bizarre Sinema Jess Franco El sexo del horror.  Eds.  Carlos Aguilar, Stefano Piselli, and Riccardo Morrocchi.  Glittering Images.  Firenze, Italy:  1999.  P. 133.
4.  "Interview with Jess Franco," by Kevin Collins.  European Trash Cinema Special #1.  Ed. Craig Ledbetter.  Kingwood, TX.  October, 1996.  pp. 27-28.
5.  Ibid.

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