Welcome to Up Next, a recurring column keeping an eye on what’s new in TV. This week, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer checks in with a review of Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix thriller, The Fall of the House of Usher.
The Fall of the House of Usher might not be Mike Flanagan’s most profound Netflix horror series to date (that’d be Midnight Mass), nor his most heartbreaking (The Haunting of Hill House), but it’s certainly his most fun. The new limited series reimagines the grisly poems and stories of Edgar Allan Poe in a surprising new context and has a blast with every twisted minute of it. Darkly funny, sickly sexy, tonally rich, and disturbing as all get out, this is easily the best horror TV show of the year – and one of the best shows of the year, period.
The Usher family’s story starts with Roderick (Bruce Greenwood, played by Zach Gilford in his younger years) and sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell and Willa Fitzgerald), who make a decision in the ‘70s that sets them on a course towards corruption – and wealth – that seems to have no limit. In the present day, Roderick sits atop the throne at a company called Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, which is essentially a stand-in for Purdue Pharma, the real company that manufactured the modern opioid epidemic. Roderick and his six adult kids may on some level be stand-ins for the Sacklers, but some of them also feel like they could’ve walked straight out of Succession.
The show’s structure is simple: in an old, empty house, Roderick tells an investigator (Carl Lumbly) how each of his six children died. We know early on that Goop knock-off wellness guru Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), douchebag game developer Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), acid-tongued fixer Camille (Kate Siegel), medical researcher Victorine (T’Nia Miller), party boy Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota), and heir apparent Frederick (Henry Thomas) will die, but that foresight in no way diminishes the experience of watching them meet their maker. The Fall of the House of Usher has some of the most memorable kill scenes in recent memory; nearly every episode ends on a perfect, punctuating mic drop after we’ve just seen something horrifying. The show methodically breaks down any initial sympathy we could have had for these characters, then revels in ripping them apart – sometimes literally.
As with most of Flanagan’s works, the series is gorgeously shot and edited, chock full of cinematic shot compositions and ominous imagery. It also benefits from a tightness that not every entry in the modern horror master’s filmography has. Gone are the majority of the loquacious, borderline-didactic monologues that make his works brilliant or tiring depending on who you ask. The show luxuriates in atmosphere and tone-setting, especially in flashbacks that slowly reveal the nature of the family’s original sin, but it otherwise moves along at an addictive clip. If your stomach is strong enough to handle an onslaught of disturbing and kinky scenarios – many of them lifted straight from the mind of Poe himself – it’s easy enough to burn through this show in one sitting.
This may also be Flanagan’s most ambitious project to date. The cast is sprawling, the references are plentiful (I counted 18 Poe works alluded to throughout, but there are probably even more), and the message at the show’s center, which it winds its way to in a sort of concentric circle story structure, is as focused and effective as anything else in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The show may not make audiences shed many tears – these characters are, by and large, way less likable than any in Flanagan’s previous four Netflix shows – but it coalesces into a scathing, scorching take on the moral rot of late capitalism. Overt in its condemnation of some very modern monsters, the show has a political edge that is surprisingly satisfying.
The Fall of the House of Usher utilizes many, many actors who are by now most known for their work with Flanagan, and while it’s a crowded playing field, most everyone brings their A-game. Ruth Codd, the talented young actress who broke out in Flanagan’s and Leah Fong’s short-lived teen show The Midnight Club, returns here in a role that sneaks up on viewers over time, culminating in some of the show’s most powerful moments. McDonnell and Fitzgerald also do phenomenal work here, while Greenwood has full command over each scene he’s in. Mark Hamill even shows up, playing a scary, stoic family fixer who often manages to menace without even lifting a finger.
Of course, there’s also the Poe of it all. Literary scholars and die-hard Poe fans may be split on the show’s incorporation of the author’s works, as the adaptations can be considered loose at best and at odds with Poe’s intentions at worst. Some Poe stories play out nearly the same as they do on the page, while others lift little more than their name from the poet’s bibliography. The creative liberties aren’t inherently bad, though, and they’re often very, very good. When an episode does fully nail the source material, it’s not because of what Flanagan kept the same, but because of what he and the writers’ room changed to make each story sharply modern and ultra-specific. By now, though, it’s safe to say that the filmmaker is delivering the type of rich, genre-expanding texts that deserve to be studied in their own right. This is one of them, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss.