Sunday, February 3, 2008

THE HOUSE OF USHER (2006) d. Hayley Cloake

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When a film maker produces a new project, they must carefully balance style and substance, for going too far in either direction can end in ruin. Too much style and not enough substance can finish up like Dario Argento’s INFERNO, which looks spectacular, but suffers from a weak story and weaker acting. Too much substance and not enough style kept THE LAST MAN ON EARTH from being as great a film as it could have been. The story concept was superb and Vincent Price was marvelous as always, but the film could have looked so much better. THE HOUSE OF USHER certainly wins a few style points on occasion and it tries hard to bring in some substance at the end, but there is never a successful marriage of the two and the focus on style cripples the final product.

THE HOUSE OF USHER, based on the Edgar Allen Poe short story of a similar name, is the story of Jill Michaelson and her ties to the Usher family. Jill returns to the embrace of her former lover, Roderick Usher, upon learning of the death of his twin sister and Jill’s best friend Madeline. Once back in the Usher fold, Jill begins unraveling the twisted threads of the Usher curse and before long becomes enmeshed in its clinging cords. Despite urgings to escape before it is too late, Jill must unearth all she can of the buried secrets of the Usher ancestry and face the skeletons in their crypt.

There are many things to like about this film despite its many weaknesses. When the camera work is well lit, there are many beautiful, atmospheric and compelling establishing shots of the Massachusetts interiors and exteriors that are truly sincere and there are some moody scenes that have much impact. Izabella Miko, who plays Jill, is the most engaging and effective star of a Gothic-inspired film in a long time. Her elegant demeanor and smoldering sophistication, despite her youthful appearance, are deeply reminiscent of Euro-beauties of a bygone age. In today’s world of crass and cutesy dimwits, Izabella Miko’s winsome vulnerability and incredibly emotive aura make her a rose in a field of actress dandelions. Miss Miko’s fine performance coupled with some occasionally good camera work and mixed with an eerie soundtrack produce a stylish feel to THE HOUSE OF USHER that almost makes a viewer forget its weaknesses, but not quite.

Too many of the film’s sequences are shot so dark as to be ineffective. Instead of developing mood and mystery, they engender frustration and the frequent query, “What am I looking at”? The pace of this film starts out as being patient, then slows down to ponderous, steps it up to plodding and then leaps forward like an evil pixie at the end. There is nothing wrong with a slow pace if the payoff is worthwhile, but the end of the film does not live up to the slow rising action that seemed to be preparing for a more shocking climax. In addition, Austin Nichols’ performance as Roderick is uneven. He gets the dark, brooding part right, but is unable to sell himself as a degenerate, diseased descendant of a familial curse until his rapid character development during the hasty denouement, and by then it is too late. Mr. Nichols’ exchanges with Miss Miko have the right chemistry but their delivery of their lines is even harder to hear than a Steven Seagal-Edward James Olmos whisper competition. I often had to engage the subtitle function to be sure of what was being said. Finally, Beth Grant as Mrs. Thatcher looks menacing and that appearance fits the established style of the film but her performance is uninspired and doesn’t raise the level of suspense as it should.

THE HOUSE OF USHER has a small extras menu that includes some deleted scenes. More importantly, the commentary by director Hayley Cloake is quite interesting and her anecdotes lay bare the dark heart of this film and its inspiration from distant Poe relative, producer/writer Boyd Hancock. What might have been even more appealing would have been some deeper delving into the sets of this film. All the interiors and exteriors were shot in Danvers, Newburyport and Rowley, Massachusetts and while mentioned in the commentary, a short feature on that subject might have been advisable. In addition, since the director even mentions the old-world appeal of Polish-born Izabella Miko, an interview with such a mesmeric young actress may have also been a good idea.

In the end, THE HOUSE OF USHER has its heart in the right place and tries very hard to succeed at updating a story that has been made into a movie uncountable times, but by going for style over substance, it is unable to deliver on its promise. It is a worthy cautionary tale for film makers to study. Just as a painting must be more than glitzy color, just as a novel must be more than word-smithing and just as a fine meal must be more than plate composition, a film must be more than strong establishing shots and one impressive performance. Substance must equal style, or the end result is potential unrealized.

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