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The Quinnipiac Chronicle

The Student News Site of Quinnipiac University

The Quinnipiac Chronicle

Edgar Allan Poe meets Big Pharma in Netflix’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’

Connor Youngberg

The stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe stand the test of time, wrestling with grief and psychological dread in a way that still strikes a chord in 2023. For writer-director Mike Flanagan, Poe’s collection offers up a modern opportunity –– a critique of capitalistic greed and Big Pharma, taking shape across eight episodes marketed as this year’s best television nightmare.

It may not be the most predictable reimagining for the 19th-century literature that now finds itself trapped in middle school textbooks. But with a healthy dose of the supernatural and a commanding cast at the center, the ever-quirky “The Fall of the House of Usher” is prime scare material.

The series introduces its bizarre premise, and the crime family in the middle of it all, with a story.

Roderick Usher, his family’s patriarch, decides now is the time to spill his guts –– his life, his losses and the long history of crimes committed under his Fortunato Pharmaceuticals company banner. The real-life Sackler family, allegedly responsible for much of the modern opioid crisis, is a clear influence for the Usher’s industry empire here.

Receiving this behemoth of a story is U.S. Attorney Auguste Dupin, who takes a seat in Usher’s dilapidated childhood home after focusing his life on bringing justice against the man himself. As the story unfolds, the series whisps Dupin across decades of Usher’s life, hinting at why his house must fall.

The show’s titular selling point is a surprising non-spoiler — all six of Usher’s children, each powerful in their own right, die horrifically over the course of two weeks. For Dupin and the public, their deaths are all independent, ironic tragedies on their own.

But Usher knows the truth about the horror behind his family’s demise, setting the stage for a wild adaptation of Poe’s best works.

As expected, the series is packed with plotlines. Each of the Usher kids get their due time to display wealthy stereotypes and immense egos, which often seal their fates across the series. Usher gets a flashback of his own, explaining his bizarre rags-to-riches development that holds the key to the supernatural threat at the heart of the story.

Flanagan borrows from a number of Poe’s gems, placing the Usher children inside loose narrative shells of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Raven” and other short stories and poems. It’s a unique approach to the typical adaptation, adding significant depth to each episode. If you’re familiar with Poe, searching for the clues to each adapted work is part of the fun.

However, Flanagan’s writing sometimes detracts a bit from the series’ bite. The majority of the story plays out in conversations, even opening with one. The dialogue is crackling and sharp, adding weight to each characters’ justification for their heinous worldviews. But this amounts to a lot of tell and little show. Many moments live behind the talk, lending a feeling of emptiness to some episodes in the midst of the dense plot.

It’s a strange dichotomy, but the scares more than make up for it.

Flanagan has dedicated his career to righting the wrongs of the “jump scare.” The practice is tired, boring and devoid of much depth. The terror exists only in the bang, lacking any emotional punch to make them memorable. He understands this point so well, opting to build his scares around characters’ traumatic histories instead.

He surrounds his main cast with complexity and nuance, and designs each scare in the same fashion. There are jolts and crashes of orchestral strings, of course, but he capitalizes on dread and suspense even after ghosts or hallucinations first appear. It’s the staying power of the scares that places Flanagan’s work a cut above the rest, smoothing over many issues with the series’ pacing.

For the show’s multitude of messages, the largest stems from its focus on Big Pharma. In each episode, Flanagan and the writers’ room find ways to inject timely commentary on the industry’s predatory practices. Oftentimes it works well, but the critiques are limited by their delivery. Jabs thrown towards pharmaceutical titans and the blood on their hands for the opioid crisis exist only in monologues, of which there are many.

Again, Flanagan’s strengths as a writer poke through more often than not, but his long-winded dialogue hinders a few of the brilliant points this show itches to make, leaving it one step short of greatness.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” lands on Netflix just in time for horror’s best season. It’s scary in all the right ways and deeply entertaining with its mysteries. Flanagan and his team use up every minute made available to them and it shows. If you’re in the mood for some of the best horror of the year and a healthy serving of not-so-subtle societal commentary, this strange mix of Flanagan and Poe delivers the goods.  

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About the Contributors
Jack Muscatello
Jack Muscatello, Digital Managing Editor
Connor Youngberg
Connor Youngberg, Associate Multimedia Editor

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