1 of 5 | Bruce Greenwood plays Roderick Usher. Photo courtesy of Netflix
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Mike Flanagan's latest Netflix series, The Fall of the House of Usher, which premiered the first two episodes at Fantastic Fest, highlights Flanagan's skill at literary adaptation. It pays homage to Poe while crafting an original story in Poe's world.
In the present, Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) finally grants investigator C. August Dupin (Carl Lumbly) an interview after years of dodging him. Roderick and his sister, Madeleine (Mary McDonnell) are the last survivors of the Usher family and he's ready to tell the story of what happened to his children.
Flashing back to Roderick and Madeline's youth and to the recent past when the Usher children were adults, Roderick's story is full of dysfunctional drama and ghastly horror. The updated narrative also touches on other Poe classics.
Fortunato Pharmaceuticals was how Roderick made his fortune. His children Camille (Kate Siegel), Prospero (Sauriyan Sapkota), Napoleon (Rahul Kohli), Tamerlane (Samantha Sloyan), and Frederick (Henry Thomas) run the gamut from cutthroat businesspeople to resentful saboteurs.
One sibling informed on Fortunato in a trial, but which one is one of the show's mysteries. They also have different ethnic backgrounds because of Roderick's multiple lovers.
Poe readers will recognize Fortunato as the victim in the story The Cask of Amontillado. There are multiple references to the Rue Morgue, including the names Dupin and Camille. The name Prospero comes from The Masque of the Red Death.
Setting the series in the world of pharmaceuticals makes it very relevant. Fans of Dopesick and Painkiller might not gravitate towards Flanagan's gory horror, but he makes valid parallels between Big Pharma's evils and supernatural ones.
With all the family history and flashbacks to different decades, Flanagan keeps exposition and backstory lively with powerful dialogue. Both Roderick's late mother Eliza (Annabeth Gish) and young Roderick (Zach Gilford) work for condescending bosses who humiliate them.
Flanagan and his writers don't settle for making those bosses one dimensional plot functionaries. He gives them elaborate enough dialogue to illustrate where the attitude of the 1% comes from, particularly as Roderick rises to that status himself.
Likewise, Young Madeleine (Willa Fitzgerald) explains how she and Roderick survived foster care. This could be exposition but the writers make sure her description is as evocative as the rest of the show.
For a few episodes at least it appears each hour deals with a different family member's death. These deaths are graphic and horrifying, but also suggest they are the indirect consequences of Roderick's misdeeds.
Roderick also sees violent flashes of victims as he tells his story. The show uses the darkness to hide monstrous images until the ultimate shock. 4K TVs enjoy the effect as effectively as any big screen horror movie.
Flanagan has created an Usher family as compelling as TV legends The Ewings or The Sopranos. Some are so obnoxious that their comeuppance is delicious but many are sympathetic too.
The use of Poe to tell this tale is a clever literary hook. However, after The Haunting of Hill House, Haunting of Bly Manor and Midnight Mass, Fall of the House of Usher is classic Flanagan first and foremost.
The Fall of the House of Usher premieres Oct. 12 on Netflix.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.