The fifth in filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s run of miniseries made for Netflix, The Fall of the House of Usher finds him returning to adaptation once again — only one of these, the vastly superior Midnight Mass, was an original piece of material. This latest effort mines many of the famous stories and characters from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, attaching them like limbs to a big Frankenstein’s monster that uses Usher as a spine, and adds a large dose of timely commentary that’s as amusing as it is often diabolically clumsy and tin-eared. The family dynasty here is that of Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), who, along with his fraternal twin sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell), has controlled Fortunato Pharmaceuticals for decades, becoming wealthy beyond measure, enabling his many children (both legitimate and il-) in their decadent lifestyles, all the while addicting millions of people to his deadly opiate Ligadone.
Obviously, the Ushers here are a thinly-veiled analog for the real life Sackler family, which is as decent a jumping-off point as any for Flanagan’s targeting of the disgustingly rich. As the eight-episode series opens, Roderick sits down with longtime nemesis Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), prepared to finally give this investigator the evidence he needs to put Roderick away forever. He proceeds to narrate the untimely and violent demises of every one of his children. Each episode takes a specific inspiration from one of Poe’s stories and spins them into something a bit more Stephen King-y in their cornball modernity. For instance, The Masque of the Red Death now features an orgy in a nightclub that becomes an acid-rain downpour of grue. Elsewhere, the killer feline at the center of The Black Cat is particularly amusing.
All of these grisly delights are the karmic revenge of some shapeshifting spectral character named Verna — an anagram of raven; cute — played by Carla Gugino. It won’t be difficult to parse who she is or what exactly she’s after, especially given the series’ emphasis on righteous comeuppance; it’s all clever enough. As in his previous serial work, Flanagan’s stories here are relatively engrossing, and their yucky charms lend themselves well to a laundry-folding weekend binge-watch. Viewers familiar with Poe and his stories will spot endless references and Easter eggs, and in support of it all, Flanagan has also assembled a terrific cast, with everyone chewing appropriate amounts of scenery, particularly regular collaborator Henry Thomas as an especially scummy Usher son, as well as Mark Hamill as the family’s scary fixer.
But despite Usher‘s consistency and competency, the series’ pacing seriously flags, mostly in long flashbacks detailing just how the monstrous original Usher twins got that way. Once the nature of their torment is finally revealed, it lands as a bit of a letdown, mostly because there are still two-and-a-half hours’ worth of wrap-up to work through, a good chunk of which is padded out by one monologue after another — it’s never a good idea to close out your horror project with a thudding screed about consumerism and culture — and also a couple of lugubrious recitations of classic Poe mainstays like “The Raven.” At four hours, this melange of modernized gothicism might have been something of a funhouse classic. At eight-plus, it too often feels like a scolding slog.
CREATOR: Mike Flanagan; CAST: Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Henry Thomas, Mary McDonnell, Zach Gilford, Willa Fitzgerald; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: October12; RUNTIME: 8 hr.