Mike Flanagan, creator of two of the all-time greatest Netflix miniseries in The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, dips back into the murky waters of gothic horror in an eerie, atmospheric masterpiece dedicated to Edgar Allen Poe. The aptly-named The Fall of the House of Usher weaves Poe’s prose, themes, and melancholy into a deliciously sadistic glass of Amontillado. Returning members of Flanagan’s ever-growing theatre troupe fill every major role with bursting starpower. None of this would mean anything without a strong story—the unique structure meticulously unravels its mysteries like a cypher. Not only is this new series one of the year’s best, but it also represents auteur Flanagan in his element. The passion for Poe bleeds from the tip of each episode’s sharp script, almost every one of which is co-written by Flanagan. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Poe easter eggs both obvious and subtle. Quoth the raven, yes please.
The Usher family is dying—literally. The opioid empire Fortunado Pharmaceuticals, lifeblood of the wealthy Ushers and originator of highly addictive drug Ligodone, stands the chance of crumbling along with it. Over the past two weeks, heirs to the Usher throne have dropped dead one by one under bizarre, tragic circumstances. Left to pick up the pieces and make sense of it all, patriarch Roderick (Bruce Greenwood, Gerald’s Game, Doctor Sleep) leaves a message for determined nemesis United States district attorney, C.A. Dupin (Carl Lumbly, Doctor Sleep). Roderick promises to confess to all 73 charges in the case against Fortunado as long as Dupin will hear him out. The Ushers have notoriously never gone on the record before tonight. Dupin meets Roderick at a derelict, abandoned home, as he unknowingly sits for the haunting story of a lifetime.
Across its eight breezy episodes, The Fall of the House of Usher goes back and forth in time, from distant past to the recent murders, always intercut with tense scenes between the storyteller and his invested “reader.” The creatives could have taken the easy way out, making the series an anthology focused around various Poe stories. Instead, Flanagan once again proves he understands what makes a compelling narrative. Each episode is named after a different Poe story or poem, with the sole exception being “A Midnight Dreary.” Though the naming contain hints as to each tale’s contents, innumerable surprises are in store to the point that my jaw was on the floor.
The series story plays out in dominos destined to take down every major player. Each character brings a unique perspective to the table. Roderick’s children are many—he is said to keep the door open for any bastards he may produce, whom he will welcome with open arms and a pricey nest egg. Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota, The Midnight Club), the youngest, obsesses over decadence and sex, longing to make a self-named nightclub proposal a reality; Camille (Kate Siegel, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Haunting of Hill House), “the clever one,” engages in a throuple while managing the family’s public image; secretly in the closet yet hyper-masculine, Napoleon (Rahul Kohli, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass) runs his own video game design company; Victorine (N’Nia Miller, The Haunting of Bly Manor) teams up with her surgeon girlfriend on mechanical heart venture HeroVesta as they struggle to move past animal trials; Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan, Midnight Mass, Hush) preps for the launch of her Goop rip-off Goldbug promoted by her annoying exercise influencer husband; and finally, daddy’s favorite, Frederick (Henry Thomas, Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House), is poised to take over the family business.
Siblings are catty and rude to each other, with the entire Usher family twisted and corrupted by greed. The unpredictably of who will die next is exacerbated by the prospect in the premiere that an informant is among them. Roderick offers up a fifty million dollar reward to whomever may bring them to light before the Fortunado trial implodes. The order the Ushers meet their fates may be surprising indeed. Telling his story nakedly, Roderick is plagued by visions of ghosts and mutilated bodies. Trademark jump scares, meticulously placed throughout, provide the necessary jolts, and only add to the tangible grimness. A weight and heaviness to each death ensures every single one leaves their mark. All are varied, and harmoniously stay true to the signature nightmarish visuals of Poe’s prose. By far the most ghastly occurs at the end of the second episode, setting the stage grandly for everything that follows.
Equally as important to The Fall of the House of Usher are the other non-heir roles. As the foil to Roderick, his conniving sister, Madeline (an electric Mary McDonnell, Donnie Darko, Scream 4), co-runs the Fortunado company with an iron fist. Cutthroat family lawyer Pym (scene-stealer Mark Hamill, Star Wars, Child’s Play) handles their affairs without emotion. Juno (Ruth Codd, The Midnight Club), Roderick’s much-younger second wife, is the black sheep of the family and nearly everyone hates her. Annabel Lee (Katie Parker, Absentia, Doctor Sleep) and Roderick’s granddaughter, Lenore (Kyleight Curran, Doctor Sleep), are the heart and soul of the dark tale. As the much-younger counterparts of our leads throughout the story, Zach Gilford (Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club), Willa Fitzgerald (The Goldfinch, Scream: The TV Series), and Malcolm Goodwin (iZombie) are perfectly cast.
Picking favorites is very difficult, in part because the acting prowess on display is staggering. Mary McDonnell delivers a memorable ferocious monologue lamenting our modern times. Napoleon constantly recites quotable dialogue destined for the annals of Twitter, like when he tells Prospero that he is “basically 80% cum.” A long rant about making a “lem-pire” from lemons is a highlight of Greenwood’s voiceover-heavy turn. Feisty zingers are in no better hands than Willa Fitzgerald or Kate Siegel, both of whom slay their respective roles. With so many characters, keeping track would seem impossible, yet this is the testament of great casting. As much as the collection of talent contributes to the larger whole, make no mistake. The M.V.P. reigning supreme can only be Carla Gugino.
Gugino’s Verna is shrouded in mystery, and rightfully so. Having appeared in many of Flanagan’s projects, Gugino proves she can play the antagonist just as convincingly as the protagonist. Verna shows up in all episodes, and it is she who gets to recite many of Poe’s direct quotations. I think people may have mixed feelings about the manner Flanagan concludes The Fall of the House of Usher, but for this viewer anyway, I have not felt as emotionally satisfied by a horror project since the ending of 2021’s Midnight Mass. Carla Gugino is the undisputed runaway star in one of her finest performances yet, and a key player to the endgame.
Multiple layered queer relationships emerge, blurring gender lines in a refreshing way. Similar themes Flanagan has explored previously, including generational trauma, family dynamics, corruption, and greed, return full force. Perhaps most impressive is that the story is able to stay grounded as it tackles the fantastical and supernatural. Stunning imagery grips the viewer tightly around the neck. Crowd-pleasing segments will leave genre fans cringing in delight. A disturbing love letter to the works of Edgar Allen Poe with a modern twist of Mike Flanagan’s trademark ensemble-driven horrors, The Fall of the House of Usher is decadent perfection.
Explore a decaying family legacy when all eight episodes of The Fall of the House of Usher debut exclusively to Netflix on Thursday, October 12th. The first two episodes debuted at 2023’s Fantastic Fest.