At the Movies: E. A. Poe Meets Alice in Wonderland
Imagine if Edgar Allan Poe had a chat with Alice, of Wonderland fame. That sort of describes my ultimate feeling when, last night, I took a chance watching Ken Russell’s somewhat dubious-sounding movie THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER. Yes, that’s not a misprint, it’s a buggy interpretation “for the 21st century” of not just Poe’s “House” (which possibly more deflates than falls at the end of the picture) but almost everything else Poesque beginning with a wink of the eye to “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Thus rock star Rod Usher is convicted of killing his wife and sent to the local insane asylum run by, if not “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” the equally cracked Dr. Calahari (played by Russell himself), assisted by buxom and oft-groped nurse ABC Smith, “whose [to quote the back-cover blurb] mind-blowing shock treatments set off a series of bizarre, nightmarish adventures.” Other assistants, patients, relations, and/or references include “Berenice,” Valdemar (as in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”), etc., including, in that this becomes a detective tale too, Gory the Gorilla (as borrowed from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). And, Rod being a rocker, there are songs as well, or at least snippets thereof including a rap piece with overtones of “The Bells,” a rock song that quotes “The Conqueror Worm,” and most luscious of all, a rock video treatment of “Annabel Lee.” And more!
To paraphrase one of its reviewers, THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER is at heart a series of ten-minute takes in filmmaker Russell’s back garden with his friends and neighbors, done ultra low-budget. But also allowing him total control. And that’s where the ALICE IN WONDERLAND aspect comes through for me, that book also being a succession of takes, one mini-adventure, one new and eccentric character met following after another, presenting a broadening but never complete, surrealistic view of a world of madness. But madness still with a sophistication, a story behind it.
Love it or hate it, following the lead of seemingly most of the film’s reviews — I myself could have done with a bit less gratuitous phallic imagery, though in fairness there’s really not that much. So maybe you shouldn’t show it to the kids. But otherwise, in late 1960s parlance: Man, what a trip!