Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is riding through a blasted landscape to reach the solitary mansion of the Ushers which sits among the twisted, ruined trees because he has a mission to rescue one of its occupants. As he says when he steps up to the large oaken door and raps on the wood, which is then opened by the butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe), he is here to take one of the residents away with him. Since there are only three people living in the house, it must be Madeline (Myrna Fahey) he is here to see, and sure enough he tells the manservant he is her fiancé and she is coming with him. However, he won't get his way that easily for the head of the household, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), objects...
The film which almost made Roger Corman respectable, House of Usher kicked off his cycle of Edgar Allan Poe stories where he took some of the great horror writer's tales and elaborated them to feature length, in this case with the help of the great American horror and science fiction author Richard Matheson who was on screenplay duties. Recognising there probably wasn't enough material for a full movie, they were forced to mercilessly pad out what they did have, which ought to have made for a tedious experience, but with all of Corman's team - including Floyd Crosby photographing, Les Baxter scoring the music and Daniel Haller creating the sets - working at their very best, the results were thickly atmospheric.
And that was the best you could hope for for much of the running time of the Poe pictures as they more or less gradually built up to a bloody climax, or at least a climax where a bunch of things were happening as we had been anticipating for the previous hour and a bit. In Usher, Corman had a casting coup in securing the services of Vincent Price, who had dabbled in horror movies before with such works as House of Wax and William Castle fright flicks, but it was with this that he consolidated his position as one of the great stars of the genre. For an actor with a reputation for enjoyably hamming it up, Price was intriguingly subdued here, as befitting a role where he was playing a queasily hyper-sensitive recluse.
Roderick is adamant that his sister Madeline (Fahey was to die tragically young just over a decade later, with a lot of television credits but this film as her most identifiable legacy) must not leave the crumbling mansion, which for a work with just four characters actually becomes another character, as if the madness of the Usher line has infected its walls and caused them to crack and warp. It would be a brave moviemaker these days who would approach a shocker like this, but somehow Corman made it successful, not only financially but artistically as well; he had been given the budget of two B-movies by A.I.P., his usual milieu, to create his dream project, and their investment paid off.
The tendrils of insanity are creeping their way into each of the characters, but mostly Roderick and Madeline, the former determined that his sister never leave thanks to a terror of the diseased mind he is convinced she harbours, and also thanks to an uneasy, barely acknowledged incestuous streak in the man. Madeline, for her contribution, seems to be able to live a normal life if Philip can tease her out of the damned environment she exists in, which truly looks like Hell on Earth with a setting so unrelentingly grim yet garishly, sickeningly colourful, but Roderick is so intent on keeping her that he insists when she falls into a coma that she is dead, and buries her alive. This established the full on, Gothic outrageousness of the finale, a sequence so effective that Corman did his best to live up to it in many a movie thereafter, especially in the Poe cycle; if nothing else, it proved to the trendsetters that he genuinely did have talent and was not simply capable of churning out the smartass chillers and thrillers he had made his name with. House of Usher still impresses.