Friday, August 11, 2017

Revenge in the House of Usher (1982), by Jess Franco

The film that introduced me to Howard Vernon, and probably also Jess Franco. I should say here there's no use telling me I have the wrong title card on this one--it's a European horror movie so of course there are a million other titles. At least my copy doesn't go by Zombi 5.

In an ancient castle, Dr. Usher (played by Howard Vernon) directs his servants Morpho and Matthias to begin transfusing blood from a living girl into his comatose daughter Melissa. This appears to revive her, but her vitality does not last long and she soon returns to lifelessness. Shortly thereafter, Usher is visited by his former student Alan Hacker (apparently spelled Harker in the script and original dubbing), whom he initially greets with distrust and a lack of recognition, collapsing in a fit which is soon remedied by the local medecin Dr. Seward. Upon awakening, Usher tells Hacker he is a murderer, and has a story to tell him the next day. Shortly thereafter Hacker discovers a dungeon full of women, who tell Hacker that Usher drains their blood--he also discovers an imprisoned Matthias, and is confronted by a strange vampiric woman, before running across Usher in the middle of a blood transfusion. In trying to escape, Hacker trips, and passes out. The next morning, Usher's maid assures Hacker that what he saw last night was just a symptom of "mountain fever," which he believes despite being a med student. However, Usher proceeds to tell him that what he saw did happen, and reveals the whole of what is happening here in the House of Usher. Melissa is suffering from an ailment that must be cured by blood transfusions, as we've already seen. Usher shows us the process by which he acquired the victims of these transfusions, via lengthy stock footage plundered from The Awful Dr. Orlof. He also explains that his sins have tied him to his castle, and when the castle crumbles, so will he, and vice versa. Usher finally meets his end at the hands of the vampire-lady from earlier, who is actually the ghoul of his dead wife. Hacker barely escapes as the House falls in on itself.

For a movie as straightforward as Revenge in the House of Usher, that was one of the hardest plot synopses I've written in a while. There's somehow a lot that happens, with nothing happening at the same time--things make sense, and yet never follow each other. I may be the only person in the world to say this, but this was a perfect introduction to Franco's body of work. It's a strange thing to say, given that Revenge in the House of Usher is actually very unlike the rest of Franco's films; it was a good introduction in that it was amusing enough for me to want to see more. Indeed, Revenge does so much tremendously wrong that it's hard not to laugh at it relatively frequently.

Characters behave really strangely in this movie. For example, when the actresses who play Usher's transfusion victims read "moan in pain" in the script, they portray it as "moan sexually." Given that this is Jess Franco we're talking about, I don't think that's accidental. It's weird, too, that these girls usually only "scream" when the blood starts leaving their bodies, not when the needle is inserted. As far as I know, the needle part is the painful bit of having your blood drawn. It's strange that the moans of the victims are loud enough to attract Hacker to their cell at night, but he doesn't hear them at all during the day. Then again, Hacker is kind of an idiot.

Everyone is kind of an idiot in this. It takes about two or three sentences more than is necessary for people to comprehend basic things. Sometimes, people will just straight up forget things that characters have previously told them, and they'll rediscover it much later as if they were learning it for the first time. For example, Hacker is still shocked by Usher turning out to be a lunatic after his "mountain fever" dream of ladies being bled to death, which in itself follows Usher confessing to murder! Most of Franco's movies are almost absurdly dream-like--this movie even gives itself an open ending as to whether or not Usher's claims were true--but this never comes across as anything else besides utter cheapness. I sometimes question whether this movie had a script, at least in its English version. Oftentimes it is very obvious what's being done for padding, namely the repeated points and the fact that characters just loaf around. Dr. Usher will tell Morpho to go do something, and he'll have to tell him several times just to get him moving. Also, when Melissa revives for the first time, Morpho stands over whispering, "'re alive...", over and over, for several minutes. Franco's other movies frequently share this love of padding, but this goes on so long that it loops around to become funny again--even in context to his other films.

And then there is Howard Vernon.

I've seen enough movies with Vernon in them now, and I've tracked down interviews with him, to be reasonably convinced that he usually dubs his own lines in his movies. I've never been able to find out which languages he spoke, but it's not unlikely for a European actor to speak Spanish, French, English, and possibly German all reasonably well. Vernon's dubs become notably more...dramatic as his career marched on, and his performance here as Dr. Usher is no exception. Vernon is simultaneously amazing and horrible in this. His physical performance is great...he still has a lot of the charm that made him suitably creepy as Dr. Orlof twenty years prior. But his lines are--I honestly can't describe them. He makes a lot of weird gibbering old man noises, and moans the words out with a blend of fury and senility. A lot of it is the script. It's hard for anyone to deliver lines like, "Dr. Smegma and the ghost of Theodore Crejin Maliciamain [?] are after me," and "They're damned, all of them...a plague on both their houses," but Vernon pulls it off beyond his parameters. It's a strange blend of earnestness, unintentional camp, confusion, and fatigue. Every moment that Dr. Usher is onscreen makes it worth it.

Vernon's performance helps cement the fact that this is Franco at his least artsiest, at least from what I've seen. Sure, there's still plenty of zoom lens abuse, and characters staring wistfully into the sky, but there's too much bad dubbing for us to care. Franco then jumps onto his old practice of welding himself to a respected (or semi-respected) literary source. Yes, this is yet another Franco movie where he insists on making a bunch of Dracula references. Dr. Seward...Alan Harker...the enormous, foreboding castle where an evil ageless presence rots away. I've seen probably a dozen-plus Franco movies now and more than half of them shamelessly rip off Dracula, even in incidental and unusual ways. It's so weird that his big chance at directing Dracula, as 1970's Count Dracula with Herbert Lom and Christopher Lee, not only failed at cleansing the story from his system (even twelve years later), but also failed at being a satisfying adaptation of Stoker's story--even if it is one of the most accurate. That film's accuracy may be one of the reasons why it flopped so bad for me. But that's another story for another day.

In sum, this movie will make you a Franco fan and a Vernon fan if you aren't already. And here is where I reveal the ulterior motive of this review. I could not proceed further into Howard Vernon's career without this review under my belt, and now I can move on to the next logical step: the Vernon/Franco revenge thriller She Killed in Ecstasy. Aka: the movie where we get to see a 57-year-old Howard Vernon's junk.

Howard Vernon's junk.

So in further sum: heheheheheheheheh; stay tuned. 

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