The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1928)
Director: Jean Epstein
Sound Affairs (2014)
Artistic Director, Charlie Barber
Based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe
3rd November 2014
Tonight's screening and live performance at The Capstone was a rarity
and a treat. A silent movie with a sixteen strong band of musicians providing
the soundtrack to a story from the master of the macabre. The avant-garde
inspiration of French director Epstein, the film is a surrealist take
on the degenerate ending of the line of the house of the title. Charlie
Barber's music was composed to accompany it's current tour.
Epstein, assisted by Luis Bunuel (L'Age d'or), cast Jean Debucourt as
Sir Roderick Usher and Marguerite Gance as his wife Madelaine; a departure
from the original incestuous brother, sister relationship.
They live alone in a remote mist shrouded mansion, shunned by the locals
for whom their name is anathema. Barber for his part, in keeping with
the early 20th century mood, has adapted two early works by Claude Debussy
as the modern day accompaniment to proceedings. As might be expected there
is little to lighten the mood: L'apres midi d'un faune this is not.
Consisting of four woodwinds, four horns, seven strings and a set of
drums, the film flickers into life with a wavering oboe leading the way.
A friend of Roderick arrives in the village in search of a guide to the
The journey across blasted heath and past windswept sullen waters, weighs
heavy on all the players before the reunion, to tuba-esque greeting burps,
heralds the last happy moment in the film.
All is foreboding and the rising brass over dinner, from which Madelaine
is excluded, shows Roderick at his wide-eyed maniacal worst. Her own plangent
woodwind theme strikes up whenever she is in shot, usually being painted
by her husband; a portrait that is sucking her vital life juices out of
The interior of the house, a dark shadowy vastness, overwhelms the players
in it's morbid festering dilapidation, and the score to his lordship's
insanity is equally dark. Shots from outside purvey a sense of melting
away, carried as a wasted dirge in the brass, as the friend goes out to
walk the grounds for some fresh air.
Madelaine collapses and expires to a pip on the flute. Roderick is seen
dementedly rushing towards the camera with his wife in his arms. The funeral
procession to the family morgue sees her open coffin in a boat with a
white wedding dress in tow, crossing some troubled water.
As the strings bewail her passing the drum rattles a death roll. The
surrealist candle superimposed journey ends in a manic explosion of brass
as the nails are finally knocked in.
Back inside the house again there are several allusions to some of Poe's
works as Roderick awaits a sign. It comes in the new fangled form of magnetism
and an electric storm. As his wife's coffin stirs and Roderick is serenaded
in his own hellish madness the house is set alight and a lady in white
appears out of the flames as her portrait melts.
To a sustained crescendo and tension in the music they stagger outside