Since The Haunting of Hill House debuted in 2018, Mike Flanagan has steadily built up an impressively diverse anthology of limited series on Netflix, with releases coming on a near-annual basis. The intervening years have included a romantic puzzle box, a small-town vampire story, and a collection of teen ghost stories. But with The Fall of the House of Usher — which is likely the final collaboration between Flanagan and Netflix — the showrunner has created his most ambitious story yet. It’s still the slow-burning human drama fans have come to expect, but this time, it tells a much more complex story that touches on everything from AI to the opioid epidemic, all viewed through the lens of gothic horror.
A loose adaptation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, House of Usher makes its stakes clear from the very beginning. The story is centered on Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), the patriarch of a billion-dollar medical empire who made his fortune on the back of the opioid epidemic. He also has six kids with five different mothers, and as the show opens, he’s in an old abandoned house confessing something to a local prosecutor: all of Roderick’s kids are dead, and it’s his fault.
What follows is Roderick explaining the story of how all of his adult children died in a short span of time and how it all relates to him and a deal he made with a mysterious woman (Carla Gugino) at a bar in 1980. Initially, the setup seems obvious and not especially original. Roderick became hugely successful thanks to the help of some kind of dark entity, and now, years later, he (and his family) is paying the price in very bloody fashion. But it elevates itself beyond this concept in a few ways.
House of Usher is eight episodes long, and while the first helps set things up, the following six follow a pattern: each one is about the death of a different child. Each death is based, in part, on a different Poe work, reimagining them in clever fashion. The first, “The Masque of the Red Death,” turns a plague-era story into an exclusive party for the superrich that ends in nightmarish fashion, while “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” — based on a short often described as the first modern detective story — digs into the gruesome reality of medical tests on animals. My personal favorite was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” an absolutely brutal story of love, ambition, and a futuristic pacemaker.
Like some of Flanagan’s previous work — Hill House is based on a Shirley Jackson novel and Bly Manor a story by Henry James — House of Usher is the kind of adaption that uses the source material as a skeleton to build something entirely new upon. It also means that the show tries to do a lot. Not only is it adapting multiple disparate stories from the same author but it’s also trying to weave them together into a larger, coherent narrative, while at the same time using that story to comment on everything from the opioid crisis to the failures of the mega-wealthy and problems with modern technology.
Because of this, it starts out slowly as the show attempts to introduce all of its various parts. For the first few episodes, it felt a little confused and unwieldy to me. There were some great moments — particularly when you learn the horrific ways that characters die — but it wasn’t clear how those different pieces fit together. Part of the problem is that there’s just a lot here; characters were being killed off before I even had a real sense of who they were and how they fit into the family. But after some time (for me, it was the fourth episode when things clicked), the scope of the show comes into focus and really hits its groove.
Once that initial confusion is out of the way, part of what makes it work is how each episode manages to tell its own self-contained story about the victim in question while also steadily advancing the overarching tale of what Roderick did to deserve this fate. The mystery, which seems so obvious early on, becomes more complicated and even darker than I first imagined. And there are some great individual performances that really sell it. The cast is made up of Flanagan regulars who make up for a delightfully despicable group of asshole millionaires.
A few examples: Henry Thomas as Frederick, the smarmy firstborn with control and confidence issues; Kate Siegel as Camille, a cold-hearted PR rep who keeps the family’s dark secrets away from the public; and T’Nia Miller as Victorine, a researcher desperate to do something meaningful at any cost. It’s the kind of group where you don’t exactly feel bad when they meet a brutal end; in fact, it’s pretty cathartic. (Perhaps the one exception is Rahul Kohli’s character, Leo, who stays out of the spotlight and uses his inherited wealth to invest in video games, hang out with his chill boyfriend, and go on blackout drug-bingeing sessions.) Outside of the family, there’s also Mark Hamill as a completely heartless family lawyer who makes bad things go away, and Gugino taking on multiple variations of the same potentially supernatural character. There isn’t really a weak link here.
While you can mostly see where things are headed in a broad sense, House of Usher excels at the details, from the thematically fitting way that characters are killed to the truth behind Roderick’s deadly deal. Even something as seemingly simple as an ignored text message becomes a powerfully tragic moment, full of both terror and heartbreak. That combination, of course, is exactly what Flanagan is known for, and it remains strong in House of Usher... it just takes a bit to get there.
With Flanagan heading over to Amazon, House of Usher also likely marks the end of an era. For the last few years, Netflix subscribers have been able to enjoy a slowly growing collection of dramatic horror stories, each of which pushed Flanagan and his collaborators in slightly different but still familiar directions. House of Usher is arguably the most uneven of these stories due largely to its somewhat messy start. But the highs are as terrifying — and heartbreaking — as anything else in the collection. And for those new to Poe, it gives you one heck of a reading list.
The Fall of the House of Usher is streaming on Netflix on October 12th.