'The Fall of the House of Usher' Is a Gloriously Creepy Gothic Horror-Meets-'Succession' Delight

Netflix’s fifth horror series with filmmaker Mike Flanagan also gives the opioid crisis an Edgar Allan Poe spin.
Sarah Ward
October 12, 2023

Of the many pies that Succession's Roy family had their fingers in, pharmaceuticals wasn't one of them. For virtually that, Mike Flanagan gives audiences The Fall of the House of Usher. The horror auteur's take on dynastic wealth gets a-fluttering through a world of decadence enabled by pushing pills legally, as six heirs to an addiction-laced kingdom vie to inherit a vast fortune. Flanagan hasn't given up his favourite genre for pure drama, however. The eponymous Usher offspring won't be enjoying the spoils of their father Roderick's (Bruce Greenwood, The Resident) business success, either, in this eight-parter that streams from Thursday, October 12. As the bulk of this tale is unfurled fireside, its patriarch tells federal prosecutor C Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly, SWAT) why his children came to die within days of each other — and, with all the gory details, how.

As with The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor before it, plus The Midnight Club as well, Flanagan's latest Netflix series finds its basis on the page. The author this time: Edgar Allan Poe, although The Fall of the House of Usher isn't a strict adaptation of the iconic author's 1840 short story of the same name, or just an adaptation. Character monikers, episode titles and other details spring from widely across Poe's bibliography. Cue ravens, black cats, masks, tell-tale hearts, pendulums and a Rue Morgue. What if the writer had penned Succession? That's one of Flanagan's questions — and what if he'd penned Dopesick and Painkiller, too? Hailing from the talent behind the exceptional Midnight Mass as well, plus movies Oculus, Hush, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald's Game and Doctor Sleep, the series that results is a gloriously creepy and involving modern gothic horror entry.

The Poe minutiae is everywhere, as constantly thumping whenever someone's name is mentioned. Alongside Roderick and his twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell, Veronica Mars), everyone of importance harks back to one piece of prose or another. Dupin was Poe's fictional investigator, a role that still applies here to a man that's spent much of his life trying to bring Roderick to justice. Indeed, he's as close as he's ever been to that feat via a trial when the kids start dropping in gruesome ways. Each one earns an episode, from smarmy eldest Frederick (Henry Thomas, Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), Goop-style wellness entrepreneur Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan, Minx) and ruthless medical engineer Victorine (T'Nia Miller, The Peripheral) to games designer Napoleon (Rahul Kohli, iZombie), family publicist Camille (Kate Siegel, The Wrath of Becky) and wannabe bar owner Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota, The Midnight Club).

Greed, violence, paranoia: as happened in Poe's pages, all three bubble through The Fall of the House of Usher. So does death, obviously, including loss, decay and the deceased haunting the living, as Roderick's children do in macabre jolts. Applying Poe's favourite themes to the affluent and privileged is a satisfyingly entertaining touch, even if it's never subtle. The same proves true of the show's twisted dive into a Sackler-style realm. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed's Nan Goldin hasn't achieved such comeuppance in her war on money and influence amassed through the opioid crisis, and therefore through other people's suffering and lives, but Flanagan channelling Poe imagines quite the visually ravishing and narratively riveting undoing.

Roderick's empire is Fortunato Pharmaceuticals' empire, as built upon peddling a highly addictive painkiller that's been spruiked as the exact opposite. As he and Dupin sit on a midnight dreary in a crumbling home that's as dilapidated as the Ushers' souls — well, most of them — he shares that story as well. In addition to the tightly wound how's-it-going-to-happen suspense of each child's demise, The Fall of the House of Usher flits back to Roderick (Zach Gilford, Criminal Minds) and Madeline's (Willa Fitzgerald, Reacher) early days at the company. How early sins become inescapable coffins is teased out, inevitability dripping through the series stronger than blood, of which there's no shortage of. Eating the rich is on the menu, as is carving into the avarice-fuelled lust for power and prosperity at any cost under capitalism.

Rich applies to much about The Fall of the House of Usher. The treasure trove of Poe nods and borrowings fit the description, of course, but that's just the beginning. With his regular cinematographer Michael Fimognari, Flanagan splashes around an alluringly opulent look whether the show is glistening or getting grisly, or — as is frequently the case — achieving both at once. He's also a master of unrelenting tension, especially leading up to each gratifyingly inventive brought-it-on-themselves death. Setpieces abound, one as lushly staged and riveting as the next — and as grim. The outcome of a masquerade dance party that also owes Eyes Wide Shut a debt is particularly retina-searing.

A bounty of jewels resides in Flanagan's plotting, passion, love of lyrically penned monologues and melodrama, too, and his cast of familiar faces. He isn't just piecing together Poe elements and playing with them. As his resume attests, he's long adored doing the same with his actors. So, almost everyone boasts ties to the filmmaker's past works, and often several. The Fall of the House of Usher's stars nail the current brief as well, from Lumbly (and The Fugitive's Malcolm Goodwin as the younger Dupin) as the picture of earnestness in the pursuit of what's right to the entitlement glistening across Thomas and company in every way possible, plus the nerve-shredding mystery that Carla Gugino (Gunpowder Milkshake) slinks through the show in an enigmatic part. Star Wars legend Mark Hamill is a Flanagan newcomer as get-things-done Usher family lawyer Arthur Pym, but slides right in like he's always been telling horror stories with his co-stars. (Whatever comes next for the writer/director and his favourite talents, don't be surprised if Hamill goes with them.)

Flanagan's Netflix shows repeatedly get remotes pressing "next episode" with can't-stop-watching urgency. It's hardly surprising, then, that The Fall of the House of Usher joins the auteur's The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass as the kind of compulsive viewing that audiences can easily lose a day to. Ending most episodes with an extravagantly staged offing helps; however, as wicked downfalls plague a brood that's made its own bleak fate, this dark, operatic and gleefully OTT affair never stops being a delight. Here's hoping that the house of Flanagan horror never falls.

Check out the trailer for The Fall of the House of Usher below:

The Fall of the House of Usher streams via Netflix from Thursday, October 12.

Images: Eike Schroter / Netflix.

Published on October 12, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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