Although silent films were certainly no strangers to special effects, for much of the silent era, the feasibility of creating a film requiring heavy use of optical effects was hampered by the fact that those effects had to be done in camera. Distortions required the scene to be shot with special lenses. Superimpositions required double-exposing the film. Split-screens and composite shots required double exposures with carefully cut mattes or elaborate semi-silvered mirror arrangements. Everything had to go perfectly, because mistakes couldn’t be fixed in postproduction – there effectively was no postproduction.
Relatively high-speed, fine-grain film and optical printing – which started with simplistic, homemade devices, but wasn’t widely implemented until commercial printers became available in the late 1920s – changed that. An optical printer is essentially a synchronized projector and camera and allows for previously filmed footage to be re-shot a frame at a time. What this meant for the special effects film was that the actors performing their parts could be shot straight, quickly and easily, and the effects didn’t have to be worried about until after filming was complete, with all the time in the world to plan them and all the attempts needed to get them right.
Melville Webber and James Sibley Watson, Jr., neither of whom were filmmakers nor had any experience with filmmaking but were intrigued by the avant-garde films coming out of Germany, decided to try their hand at experimental cinema in 1928 with The Fall of the House of Usher. Reportedly, they chose to adapt that particular Poe story because they hadn’t read it in years and only remembered the plot in the broadest terms, so they wouldn’t constrained by a fixed narrative.
Optical printers were available by 1928, and Webber and Watson would soon acquire one, but they did not yet have it for Usher. Truth be told, they had extremely little that wasn’t borrowed or made of cardboard. All of Usher’s effects were done the old fashioned way – in camera – which is all the more remarkable as almost every single shot in the film is piled high with complicated effects work. In addition to the usual anamorphic and multifaceted lenses and double-exposures, some shots were composited by double-packing the camera with already developed film in front of the unexposed film. I don’t even know what to call that – in camera contact printing? I’m shocked the camera movement was able to hold both layers of film steady. I have a silent-era camera, and granted it’s 88 years old and not in the best of repair, but it has a hard enough time keeping a single layer steady.
The film is Expressionist as all hell, to the point that the plot is incidental to the emotional drive of the images. The influence of Murnau and Wiene is plainly evident in the cinematography and set design. There are no titles, save for at the start and some superimposed animated sound effects (“beat”, “crack”, “ripped”, “scream”, “shatter”).
The characters are Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, a traveller, and disembodied, black-gloved hands. Roderick and Madeline are at dinner, where Madeline is served a coffin by the hands. She faints and sleepwalks to the crypt, where she apparently dies in an open coffin. Roderick nails the lid closed and goes back upstairs to sleep, but is haunted by visions of his sister’s corpse coming to get him. The traveller reads from a book, but Roderick keeps hearing sounds coming from downstairs. Madeline breaks out of the coffin, transformed into a shambling, sunken-eyed, almost vampiric thing. She ascends the stairs, bursts into the room, and falls on Roderick. The house begins to collapse. The traveller escapes just in time to see it fall entirely into the water. The film ends with the moon setting over where the house once stood.
The picture invites interpretation, so strap in for my amateur analysis: Coffins and especially stairs are frequent motifs in the images. The coffin represents finality as much as it does death, and the stairs suggest a single destination or building to an inevitable outcome. There’s a parallel between Roderick’s hammer strokes and of zombie-Madeline’s steps, and a contrast between the hammer’s fall to the ground and the traveller’s hat oddly floating up from the ground. The two siblings are closely connected and Roderick’s efforts to distance himself from his sister are self-defeating – note that the pages of the book are being turned backward. Also note that, despite the traveller reading from it, the book is blank – the Ushers are too far removed, too engrossed in each other to comprehend outsiders.
Enough of that. Did I like the film? Yes, I appreciate the technical skill that went into it, admire the two men who managed to create it without the knowhow and with next to no budget, and I find the final work entrancing. A hearty recommendation.
My rating: I like it.