Last week, in deference to the approach of Halloween, we featured the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe as Free eBooks and Free Audio Books. If you give them a read, a listen, or both, you’ll discover that few creators, using nothing more than the written word, can disturb quite so effectively as Poe. But his written words have also provided inspiration to frightening works in other media, including the previously featured 1953 British animation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and, today, the short-film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” That 1839 story perhaps most perfectly (and most viscerally) realizes such pet themes of Poe’s as illness, dread, and live burial, and as such has served as material to a great many filmmakers as defiantly lowbrow as Roger Corman and as uncompromisingly idiosyncratic as Jan Švankmajer. But here we offer you one of the most interesting cinematic “Usher”s ever made: James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber’s 13-minute avant-garde adaptation, scripted in part by poet e.e. cummings.
“Despite their importance as leading figures in the film world,” writes Tara Travisano, “Watson and Webber’s work is often overlooked and not given sufficient credit.” Though they got their shooting script from the modernist-influenced cummings, the filmmakers, “not fans of modernism,” “preferred to have their films described as amateur.” Their Fall of the House of Usher, the best-known work they ever produced, “hardly follows a narrative, but is valued for its creative use of repetition and variation and for the film’s dramatic lighting.” And don’t worry if you haven’t read the original story in a while; according to Travisano, Watson and Webber chose to film it because they themselves hadn’t read it in a while, and thus “would be free of its influence.” But after experiencing the brief but unsettling cinematic dream they managed to make out of this half-remembered Poean material, you may want to seek out its influence by going back and reading it again — or listening to it, or trying to sleep and re-dream it for yourself.
You can find Fall of the House of Usher in our collection, 285 Free Documentaries Online.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.