Once upon a midnight dreary, while I scrolled weak and weary, through many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten Netflix shows. While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly my eyes fell upon what was soon to become my favorite show of all time: Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher (2023). From Doctor Sleep (2019) to Hush (2016), most horror fans are likely familiar with Flanagan’s work, however it seems like his collaborations with Netflix are where he really hits his stride.
Both Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020) established Flanagan as a master of the mini-series format, with follow-ups Midnight Mass (2021) and The Midnight Club (2022) only cementing this further. When it was announced that his last collaboration with Netflix would be an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories, there was never a doubt that Flanagan would be able to deliver.
The Fall of the House of Usher is not only masterful modern spin on its namesake, but it retells a variety of Poe’s stories, each woven together with intricate plot threads that serve to deliver a heartbreaking tale of greed, power, and responsibility. While diehard fans of Vincent Price’s 1960 adaption of the story may initially be turned off by the liberties taken within The Fall of the House of Usher (2023), anyone who sticks it out until the end is sure to be won over by this unprecedented reimagining!
The Fall of the House of Usher – A Study in Dread
The Fall of the House of Usher follows, of course, the Usher family as they deal with a criminal investigation being brought against their pharmaceutical company, Fortunato Pharmaceuticals. In the midst of this investigation, the children of Roderick Usher begin to die in strange and horrific ways as a mysterious, shape-shifting woman torments them. Each episode follows the death of one of the Ushers and, in the process, adapts a new Poe tale.
This is where Fall of the House of Usher runs into its first problem. How do you keep your story gripping when the audience knows how it ends? Not only does the very title of the show tell you that this won’t be a happy ending, but there’s a good chance the viewers already know the major plot beats and endings for the majority of the stories used in the show. Flanagan deals with this problem rather elegantly by simply leaning into the fear of the known rather than the unknown.
In the show’s brilliant second episode The Masque of the Red Death, viewers already know that Prospero is going to die from the second he is introduced, and they also know that those attending his party are going to die as well. Astute viewers may even be able to use their knowledge of the story to guess how these deaths may occur. Flanagan leverages this knowledge against the viewer by keeping the resolution of the story largely faithful, but changing the path to get there.
As Prospero makes decision after decision that damns him to the fate of his literary counterpart, the audience is slowly filled with a sinking sense of dread. They know what’s going to happen but there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop it. This formula stays the same from episode to episode. You know you’re going to get from Point A to Point B, but you’re not sure how until it’s too late. This method of storytelling is absolutely brilliant and is perfect for this kind of adaptation.
Not only will life-long Poe fans be kept on their toes, but this also keeps the adaptation digestible for those completely unfamiliar with his works.
The Fall of the House of Usher has no interest in subtlety when it comes to its themes. Each member of the Usher family, with the exception of Lenore, goes along with the family business of crime and exploitation for their own personal gain. As we watch these characters reap the consequences of their own selfishness and greed, it’s hard to not root for their downfall.
However, this isn’t a simple case of “rich people are bad because they’re rich”. The show makes a point of displaying the worst aspects of late-stage capitalism, and the horrible lengths people will go to grow their already unfathomable fortunes.
That’s not all the show has to say. The Fall of the House of Usher also focuses heavily on the idea of ‘buy now, pay later’. In the literal sense of the phrase, Roderick and Madeline Usher make a deal with Verna that will guarantee them fame and fortune at the cost of their family line. The siblings are able to justify this horrifying deal by saying that the Usher kids will enjoy all the finest things in life for a good 40 years before they have to pay their toll.
The deal the Usher’s make with Verna is a fairly clear allegory for climate change and the way the “bill” has been passed down to younger generations. Why care about the environmental repercussions of your actions when you won’t even be around to see the destruction it causes? With The Fall of the House of Usher being Flanagan’s final miniseries with Netflix, he made sure to go out with a bang.
Alongside themes of greed, power, and responsibility, Flanagan makes sure to have his thoughts on AI in the creative space known. Madeline Usher and Annabel Lee come head to head when Madeline talks about creating an algorithm that could write movies and TV shows. In response, Annabel expresses an opinion that I’m sure many of us felt through the whole “creative AI” debate: shouldn’t some things be left for us sad little humans?
If this didn’t make Flanagan’s opinion on the topic clear enough, it’s revealed at the end of the show that an AI version of Lenore has been tormenting Roderick with the word ‘Nevermore’. The AI has literally become a ghost haunting him, and it’s evident that Flanagan is warning us that our own actions (or inaction) with AI may one day haunt us.
The Rise of the House of Flanagan
The Fall of the House of Usher is a masterpiece of a show, and a fantastic last hurrah for Mike Flanagan and Netflix. The show is unabashed when it comes to representation, and it revels in putting a modern spin on such iconic tales of horror and misery. It’s a testament to the growth Flanagan has gone through as a creator, and it should have you excited to see what he’s cooking up next.
Whether you’re a fan of Mike Flanagan, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, or just looking for something good to watch in your free time, The Fall of the House of Usher should be at the top of your list.