Mike Flanagan’s swansong on Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher is simply put, sublime. This is more than a bald-faced adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s best works. It is a love letter to the master of macabre, whose works reverberated with themes of love, longing, and grief. The Fall of the House of Usher is haunting, grotesque, and beautiful.
It is the latest in the ‘Eat the Rich’ genre of films and shows, and it is definitely one of its finest entries. If you have always liked Flanagan’s work, chances are you will love this.
Flanagan has earned a reputation for using horror as a tool to tell his stories, lauded for sparingly using the cheap thrills of jump scares, even Quentin Tarantino has praised him for it. In The Fall of the House of Usher, a story simmering with palpable rage at the machine, the narrative drives the horror, not the other way around.
The series centres around Madeline (Mary McDonnell) and Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), heads of the corrupt Fortunato Pharmaceutical. These Usher twins undeniably rank among the most emotionally imperturbable characters in any horror fiction. Like mythical dragons, they sit atop a pile of decaying bodies and gold they have earned by selling Ligadone, an opioid painkiller that is a thinly veiled proxy for Oxycodone.
The Ushers are themselves a stand-in for the Sackler family who have been sued for fuelling the opioid crisis around the world for decades. Those who have watched Dopesick, or even its stunted cousin Painkiller, will be familiar with Purdue Pharma’s crimes. What they won’t be familiar with is a sense of karmic catharsis that Flanagan gets to play out in The Fall of the House of Usher. It is a creative reimagination of the Sackler family’s fate no reality can match.
We meet Roderick when he has already buried six of his children after each of them died gruesome and mysterious deaths. He is finally forced to confront his past and confess his sins, inviting the police investigator Auguste Dupin, a friend he betrayed long ago, to confess to. In his crumbling childhood home, Roderick recounts in painstaking detail how each of his children died and how he is accountable for all of them.
The Usher siblings may also bring Succession’s sibling quad to mind, but the mood here is undeniably different. The writing is as sharp as the editing is crisp. Every scene is meticulously crafted and each character is thoroughly held accountable. In The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan examines the psyche of the survivors of a haunting. Here, the haunting is complete and justice is doled out. Generational trauma and generational wealth are put under a distinctive lens, and, no one gets to cry “Oh, woe be me,” and get off the hook.
The Fall of the House of Usher is not just a scathing takedown of capitalism, but all its byproducts too. From unchained greed and hedonism to animal cruelty, this show is not for the faint of heart. Under the direction of Flanagan, no one is safe—he calls out everyone from Apple to the Kardashians, from the Koch brothers and the Rockefellers to Prescott Bush and even Donald Trump. Bruce Greenwood gets to deliver a few flaming monologues, the “lempire” (empire of lemon) one being an absolute beauty. It isn’t just Greenwood whose performance is commendable, the entire cast is chosen perfectly.
Henry Thomas is back again, this time as the quietly unhinged Frederick Usher, the eldest of the Usher children. Samantha Sloyan’s Goop-knockoff, Tamerlane, is the second and last of the legitimate Usher children. T’Nia Miller shines as the deceptively unethical medical researcher Victorine, especially in her final moments. Flanagan’s creative and life partner, Kate Siegel plays the heartlessly eccentric PR wiz of the family, and many other characters join the fray.
Rahul Kohli is back on the Flanagan rodeo after Midnight Mass as Napoleon Usher. Sauriyan Sapkota’s Prospero, the youngest of the Usher children, would have been a prime candidate to get the most sympathy in any other story. But alas, this is not that story.
In terms of performances, Mary McDonnell is noteworthy as Madeline Usher, Roderick’s twin sister, a queen without her crown. Flanagan’s lucky charm at this point, Carla Gugino and her Verna is devilishly enjoyable and poignantly entertaining as the peddler of dreams, desire, and justice.
And, that does not even cover the other good performances on the show so tightly woven and brilliantly executed that it might just be Mike Flanagan’s best work yet. From the ashes of The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan builds himself his magnum opus, which also happens to be colossally good fun.