Few would dispute that Mike Flanagan knows how to tell a great dramatic story. However, even the famed horror director has outdone himself this time. A master of suspense and dramatic storytelling, Flanagan tells his most ambitious story to date with The Fall of the House of Usher for Netflix. The eight-part limited series debuts its first two episodes at Fantastic Fest. Even in that condensed time, Flanagan showcases his impeccable storytelling.
The family of Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) has suffered considerable loss. Over the last two weeks, all six of his children have died. He tries to mourn with his granddaughter Leonore (Kyliegh Curran) and sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), but a specter (Carla Gugino) haunts him. Roderick built a pharmaceutical giant, but now he must come clean to prosecutor C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly). In the process, he reveals how his children died.
Over his eight episodes, Flanagan lays the breadcrumbs and trails to the horror that slowly dismantles the Usher house. Every death, every scare, and every moment is built up throughout the show. Undeniably drawing from the Sackler family, with a dash of the British royals on display, Flanagan aims high. The Fall of the House of Usher never gets to “Eat the Rich” status, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find audiences who feel positively about the wealthy by the end of episode eight.
The rise and fall of a family in America remains the most daunting story to tell. Yet Flanagan’s choice to adapt this kind of story through Poe allows The Fall of the House of Usher to dig into the spine of American storytelling. As one of America’s first great authors, Poe’s stories hit at themes and ideas of America that we would unravel for generations. Yet those themes – revenge, hate, pride, lust – all remain as relevant today as when Poe first put pen to paper. Flanagan never adapts a story from point A to B, but using Poe as inspiration proves invaluable in digging into the American psyche.
Of course, Flanagan features his steady troupe of actors, all of whom shine in their hand-picked roles. As a gamer and bisexual playboy, Rahul Kohli as Napoleon Usher gets the endlessly entertaining role. His descent into madness is quite wonderful, and Kohli once again shines while chewing through Flanagan’s dialogue. Kate Siegel gets an extremely showy part as well and gets to burn extremely bright as the controlling public relations professional. T’Nia Miller, Zach Gilford, Henry Thomas, Katie Parker, and Samantha Sloyan all return – despite being wildly overqualified for the roles. Across the board, they deliver impeccably flawed and nuanced takes on greed destroying the soul.
Newcomers Mark Hamill and Paola Núñez offer unique versions of being brought into the madness. Hamill gives one of his most unique performances to date, and the resulting vicious attorney is some of his best work. Núñez is one of the few who maintains her soul throughout it all. She brings a poppy optimism the series is missing without her. Yet it’s in the quiet moments with Miller that she truly shines. An increased role for Lumbly – who was relegated to ghost and flashback status in Doctor Sleep – is quickly rewarded. The veteran actor brings pathos, anger, and honesty to his role, even as his monomania blinds him to the supernatural events haunting his prey.
However, even more than her previous collaborations with Flanagan, Gugino simply dominates the screen. She gets her most varied roles to date and brings out a horrifying antagonist for the Usher family. Her shadowy persona changes in each context, and as she threads together each member through their greatest temptations, she rips them in two. It’s a terrifying role that still contains a deep well of empathy for those who deserve it. It’s not shocking to see her thrive, but it’s exciting to see her talent fully utilized.
For Netflix and Flanagan, The Fall of the House of Usher represents an interesting parting of ways. While Flanagan will move to Amazon for to craft The Dark Tower franchise, the previous partnership resulted in undeniable success. Flanagan once again utilizes his unique blend of human interpersonal drama and brilliant scares. Yet it is the excess showcased through sex, drugs, power moves, and gore that elevates The Fall of the House of Usher to the top of the heap. While the closing of some episodes falls into a bit of a pattern, the power of the series is never in doubt.