Is Mike Flanagan the best writer/director working in film and tv right now? He certainly seems to be having the most fun. Flanagan is probably the best argument for paying for a Netflix subscription in 2023; his expanded Shirley Jackson/Henry James adaptations for the steamer, The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor were wildly imaginative fare, while Flanagan’s deft touch proved a perfect fit for the cinema of Stephen King with Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep, even if the finale of that movie was a bit too much of a greatest-hits monster mash. Like many of his peers, Flanagan seems to enjoy the idea of universe building, but in a sparky, literate fashion that’s not working out for anyone else in quite the same way.
The Fall of the House of Usher is Flanagan’s take of Edgar Allan Poe, but it plays like a souped-up Halloween special of Succession, and it’s no surprise that audiences bored with re-treads, sequels and reboots have been caught on their heels by his fresh as paint approach to reworking the classics in modern garb. So we start, very much as Poe would have intended, with the mournful sound of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, and that fidelity to the letter of Poe’s work is consistent right through to the use of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer (to God) in the mind-wrenching climax of episode two; there’s a full whack of eight episodes dropping on Netflix as of yesterday, so binge away if you dare…
The House of Usher is a very different yet familiar animal here; the owner of Fortunado Pharmaceuticals is patriarch Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), introduced in church mourning all six of his recently departed children, and fearing that something awful lies in wait for him; there’s not a bimbo waiting in his limo but a grotesque jester. We jump back several weeks to find that whatever dark deal Usher struck back in 1979 to elevate his family pharmaceutical company to the financial highs and moral lows of industrial ‘pill mill’ production have come to a grim AF reckoning; he and his family have been brought to book by the US government, pulled in court in Trump-family fashion, and faithful lawyer Arthur Pym (Mark Hamill in memorably baleful form) is shocked to find out that there’s a mole, or an informant sharing family secrets; this arching question looks like it’ll be the main hook of the show. With each episode taking a theme from a different Poe story, episode two’s The Masque of the Red Death jumps things up a notch rising to an astonishing concluding scene that’s all the more shocking because it’s so short.
‘Whoever has the gold makes the rules’ is the quote from the Wizard of Id comic strip that Usher offers up as part of his confession to prosecutor Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly); his antagonist demurs, ‘I’m more of a Calvin and Hobbes man myself.’ Instead of the usual ‘Dammit Marjorie’ boardroom dialogue, it’s Toby Dammit; it’s the witty way that Flanagan updates Poe that makes the opening of this series a blast to watch. It might seem obvious to update The Masque of the Red Death to Covid in the way that Tom Wolfe did with AIDS in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but Flanagan goes somewhere different with a cruellest imaginable set piece about a high-society sex and drugs party in a disused warehouse. Could there ever be ‘an algorithm which could write movies and tv shows” one character wonders? No need to worry; no machine could come up with the Roderick Usher Experimental Zoo, or Morgue as it predictably gets retitled when things get murderous. ‘You are consequence and tonight you are consequential’ we’re warned; today’s best streaming talent ably competes with tv and cinema, and The Fall of the House of Usher is anything but Poe-faced in the playful, witty way it turns venerable clichés inside out in highly entertaining, yet jolt-inducing style.