What does it mean to adapt Poe for the modern age? Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, a loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe short story, certainly fits in many of the familiar nouns — each episode references one or more familiar Poe works in combinations that can feel like a trip through junior high English class. The problem is that the tone is all off.
For starters, if most people know any one thing about “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it’s that the titular downfall is about incest. The Netflix adaptation, however, proposes: What if it were about the opioid crisis instead?
The story follows a cold, distant pharmaceutical industry scion watching each of his children die horrific deaths in the waning days of his empire. Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, Flanagan creates a kind of Poe Cinematic Universe, borrowing ideas from Poe’s best-known stories and working them into a mostly original tale of greed and family destruction. But in between the epic family drama, the insistence on Poe-ing up the joint frequently becomes muddled and even distracting. Is naming a character Annabel Lee and then having your protagonist randomly recite Poe’s famous poem to her enough to convince us of his undying love? Probably not!
But this is the approach the show relies on, and the result is a choppy mismatch of subject and mood. House of Usher, despite moments of intrigue, seems to lack the most central element of all Poe’s works: Passion. The characters of Usher may be dying like they’re in a gothic horror, but they’re not living like it.
Note: The following review contains spoilers for The Fall of the House of Usher.
In theory, Poe ought to be a perfect vehicle for Flanagan. The rising auteur wrote and directed this series, as he has with each of his previous Netflix adaptations, The Haunting of Hill House (2018), based on the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), based on Henry James’s gothic novella The Turn of the Screw. He also co-created 2022’s The Midnight Club, based on Christopher Pike’s teen horror novels — and he’s adapted, far more faithfully, two different Stephen King novels into acclaimed feature films: 2017’s Gerald’s Game and 2019’s Doctor Sleep. Flanagan has gained a loyal fanbase both for these and for his original works, which range from his indie debut film Absentia (2011) to the sleek thriller Hush (2016) and the religious horror Midnight Mass (2021). He nearly always writes the screenplays for his works, and usually directs the hell out of them.
As writers, both Poe and Flanagan are moody, more than a bit shameless, and obsessed with psychological and philosophical questions about death, grief, and loss. Poe’s infamous short story that provides a basis for this work possesses an additional affinity with Flanagan because it shares his obsession with family. As anyone who has spent any time with Flanagan’s work knows, the only thing he likes more than a solid jump scare or a reflective monologue is a chance to ruminate on families — what holds them together, what tears them apart, what pulls them back together again — because in the worldview of Mike Flanagan, even at his most cynical, there’s always hope for a family reunion or a family redemption.
Flanagan tends to work with a core rotating ensemble of actors, similar to American Horror Story’s anthology approach to recurring casts. This series, they all commit themselves completely to the conceit that they’re in some kind of Poe-ian shadow world, effortlessly dropping off-kilter lines from Poe poems and novels alongside zings and barbs about NDAs and PR spin. Each episode owes something vaguely thematic to a different well-known Poe short story, with the manner of death unfolding in a Final Destination-like hodgepodge of calamity. The gruesome deaths of the Ushers (a clear analogue of the Sacklers) are supernatural retribution for America’s opioid crisis, which Usher helped, um, usher in. The ghastliness of the epidemic seems to have summoned a supernatural Lady Death, a.k.a. Carla Gugino, OG member of the Flanagang, who dons a series of personas in order to hasten the Ushers to their fates.
This setup allows the show to flit between ongoing references to well-known Poe themes and episodes focused on a specific story. For instance, references to the famous poem “The Raven,” the classic revenge story “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the titular short story occur throughout. Other works get referenced mainly through character names (e.g. Auguste Dupin, a detective-turned-prosecutor played with admirable aplomb by Carl Lumbly, shares the name of an investigator from Poe stories like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”) or through casual asides or even direct quotes inserted into dialogue. This litany of allusions ranges from blatant to coy, clever to annoying. At one point, Roderick’s stone-faced lawyer Pym (a superb Mark Hamill) mentions having a guest for dinner, a reference to the original Poe narrative in which another Pym cannibalizes said guest. One character even bears the name of Poe’s real-world enemy, Rufus Griswold.
The references mostly tick all the boxes. The “Murders in the Rue Morgue” episode features death by primate. The episode named after “The Masque of the Red Death” becomes a modern-day bacchanal that goes horribly wrong. The “Gold Bug” episode features a gold bug. As our titular story demands, someone does get buried alive. Apart from serving as fun Easter eggs, however, most of these seeded references rarely amplify the main storyline — and the main storyline itself suffers from a disconnect between the stories it’s referencing and what the narrative is actually doing.
Flanagan takes a kind of mix-and-match approach to his biggest references that frequently makes their origin stories nearly incidental. For example, the Poe short story “The Black Cat” is originally about a murderous addict who succumbs fully to his violent impulses. But in the House of Usher episode “Black Cat,” that aspect of the focal character is almost entirely absent because we barely spend any time with him before he’s battling his furry demon. Instead, that psychology gets handed to the subject of the “Pit and the Pendulum” episode. As a result, that episode has little in common with its origin source, while “Black Cat” lacks any of the depth and murderous intensity that makes Poe’s story so memorable. And so on and so forth.
What’s more, the underlying reason for these deaths — the reason we spend eight episodes watching Usher and his family be stalked by Gugino’s Lady Death — turns out to be essentially Faustian, with everything spelled out and conveniently moralistic. There’s nothing of Poe’s lingering mysteries, the giant unresolved questions of internal motivations and dreamlike logic that hang over his stories and their subjects.
We do get some fabulous creative moments, like Flanagan’s gleeful edit of an opening montage that introduces us to all members of the Usher family through witty cross-cuts and overlapping dialogue. And the murders — the murders! Decadent, melodramatic, gory, deliciously horrific. If what you came for were eight cycles of impending doom counting down to their garish conclusions, you’re in luck.
But the narrative mostly lacks the poetic sensibility and depth of feeling, the weight of profundity that makes Poe such a perennial favorite. Poe’s stories teem with shadows, with turgid, feverish imagery; they evoke the confused turbulence of nightmares, hallucinogens, and madness. The dreary moodiness of Flanagan’s Midnight Mass combined with the looming background ghosts of Hill House would have served this subject well, but instead the production opts for a boardroom sensibility. The settings, like the characters, read as cold and clinical. The gothic insertions from Poe feel forced and sanitized amid the halogencore vibes of our satirical family of squabbling billionaires. Even when characters are succumbing to delusions or dropping like flies, the tonal approach stays detached, as if we’re still, like Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), locked into a bird’s-eye view of human suffering from an indifferent corporate tower — not plummeting endlessly through the fever dream where Poe would have us.
Another thing this adaptation lacks is any hint of Poe’s psychosexual turbulence. There’s plenty of kink, sure, but in keeping with the show’s overall tone, it’s always presented as clinical and dispassionate and even distasteful: One character hosts an orgy, but only as a business strategy; another manipulates her personal assistants into purely transactional sex; a third outsources all intimacy with her husband to sex workers. And again, there’s not even a hint of sublimated incestuous lust between our two Usher siblings, which is half the reason anyone reads “The Fall of the House of Usher” to begin with.
You sense that none of these characters has ever laughed maniacally over a fallen enemy or clawed their way out of a grave or inappropriately interfered with a dead corpse, or any of the other excesses of personality that make tales of the gothic so irresistible. Roderick and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell, never better) would presumably have trauma over the premature burial of their mother, who does indeed claw her way out of a grave in the opening episode. Yet that plot gets dispatched without much lingering impact, and soon the two siblings go right back to burying people alive. And even that feat, which should be the Amontillicious climax, becomes little more than a perfunctory business transaction. Where is the exultation, the rage, the hysteria, the long-suppressed release of emotion that finally erupts in the frenzied unthinkable act? Where is Poe?
Flanagan does give us two character arcs that get it right. Each captures the chaotic conflict of a tortured violent psyche, and each works because the show takes the time to establish their characters and then lets us see their gradual mental collapse and demise. The first win belongs to T’Nia Miller as Victorine, the heart research scientist whose pursuit of a miracle medical technology drives her into complete psychosis. When it does, the result is a wondrously bloody, pitch-perfect display of the macabre. The second belongs to Henry Thomas as Freddie, the maligned eldest child who channels his familial resentment and insecurity into malevolent domestic abuse as his siblings start dying, culminating in a classic, shall we say, stroke of irony.
These two Usher arcs are so well-considered and well-executed, however, that they highlight the weaknesses of all the others. It’s as though Flanagan drew a line from Poe’s fabled love of opium to the modern opioid epidemic and ran with a thought experiment without giving too much more thought to the emotional essence of Poe’s work. (Poe probably wasn’t even an opium addict.) Perhaps that’s because a part of Flanagan would rather be writing his own stories. House of Usher contains many moments of pure, undiluted horror, stylish and masterful. But the show drowns in its uneven grasp of the source material, when it needn’t have relied on source material at all. The key to the ideal Flanagan series likely lies not with more cherry-picked adaptations, but with more stories that are entirely Flanagan’s own.