I have good news and bad news. The good news is, just about everyone is gay in The Fall of the House of Usher. The “bad” news is, well, this is a horror series. And specifically a horror series based on the Gothic poet Edgar Allan Poe. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that hardly anyone (of any sexuality) escapes unscathed in one way or another. (I personally, a huge fan of the horror genre in general, do not consider this bad news.)
That said, I’ve watched and enjoyed literally every feature film and TV show Mike Flanagan has ever written, some before I even knew his name, and The Fall of the House of Usher is no exception. This show has Mike Flanagan’s fingerprints all over it, from the camerawork to the cadence of dialogue to the music. I knew the score was done by the Newton Brothers before the first episode was over because of how often I listen to the Haunting of Hill House and Haunting of Bly Manor soundtracks. I don’t have enough musical knowledge to tell you exactly what it is about their scores that made it immediately identifiable to me, but I didn’t even have to check until I was writing this review and wanted to be extra sure. (I was right.)
Another way to know this is a Mike Flanagan joint, of course, is the familiar faces. I don’t know how the world at large feels about Mike Flanagan having a relatively small bouquet of actors he plucks from for all of his projects, but I personally love it, especially since they’re all such strong performers. It feels like community theater in a way, the same little show family playing different characters and telling different stories together. It makes me happy every time I see a veteran choice, and also when someone shows up for the second time and it seems like they’ve been added to the official rotation.
The Fall of the House of Usher might be named after only one of Poe’s short stories, but there are many of his poems and stories woven throughout the series in a gossamer web. Each episode is named after one, and does indicate the general theme of that episode, but even those aren’t the limit. Some poems and stories are depicted in actual storylines, others in poems recited by the main character and patriarch of the titular family, Roderick Usher. And one poem, “Spirits of the Dead,” is even read aloud by a priest at a funeral.
I’m a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and even once ran a Dungeons & Dragons one-shot that was entirely Poe-themed. And while I don’t have all of the short stories and poems referenced in this show committed to memory, I knew enough to be delighted when they would be referenced, or when I got to watch one of the stories play out before my very eyes.
The general premise of the show is that Roderick Usher is the head of a major pharmaceutical company, and between that company and its offshoots, he has built himself an empire of untold power and wealth. The cost of this is a serious contribution to the opioid crisis, and a litter of greedy, spoiled children who feel like their actions couldn’t possibly have consequences, because they live behind the protective walls of money and privilege.
Roderick Usher has six children, by five mothers, and at least four of them are queer. (I could make the argument for five, but not without giving away spoilers.)
The youngest, Perry, is a self-described hedonist, and while he seems to have two partners he favors, he doesn’t seem beholden to any specific people, and doesn’t seem attracted to any specific gender. I would imagine if asked who he was attracted to, he would answer, simply, “yes.” His older brother, Rahul Kohli’s Napoleon, is also queer (bi+ specifically), and lives with his boyfriend.
Camille, played by the incomparable bi icon Kate Siegel, is a PR manager, a fierce and sarcastic bisexual woman with silver hair and no time to waste. And watching Kate Siegel in this role… whew. She’s a force to be reckoned with. And she’s hilarious. There are some line reads that made me absolutely cackle; she was a bright light of humor in a thick fog of spooky.
Lesbian actress T’Nia Miller’s Victorine is also a lesbian, and her partner, Alessandra, is played by Paola Núñez, who recently played queer in Resident Evil. It is very hard to write this review without giving away spoilers but just trust me when I say that T’Nia Miller acts her ass off in this one.
And those are just the Usher offspring! There are even more queer characters than that, if you can believe it — though Camille, Victorine, and Alessandra are the biggest queer women characters. There’s a running joke on the internet (joined in on by the man himself… and his wife) that Mike Flanagan hydrates with lesbian tears, because of the way he weaponized absolutely astounding queer characters against us so beautifully in Hill House and Bly Manor. And that may be true. But we’re able to cry all those lesbian tears to fuel him is because he never lets us go thirsty. While the queerness in House of Usher isn’t discussed as explicitly as it is in Hill House, and isn’t the main point of things like it was in Bly Manor, it is deliciously ever-present throughout this series.
I will say, it was almost a relief to realize that The Fall of the House Of Usher isn’t here to make us cry our eyeballs out like its predecessors. It’s less about family or loss or grief or heartache than previous Mike Flanagan projects. This is more about the consequences of greed, the karma of selfishness, what happens when you build a castle on a rotten foundation. And while there ARE a few things that go bump in the night, the house of Usher is haunted by choices more than anything.
And Carla Gugino. I have to talk about Carla Gugino. Carla Gugino gets her own paragraph. What an absolute legend that woman is. She is hypnotizing in this role, shifting from being maternal to sexy to commandeering to gentle. I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on screen. Her voice has the kind of tone and timber that feels like it’s putting you into a trance, like if you blink too long or breathe too loud you’ll break the spell. She’s a wonder to behold.
In fact, all the women were brilliant. The women I already mentioned, plus Willa Fitzgerald, Mary McDonnell, Katie Parker, Kyleigh Curran, and more Flanagan staples, Annabeth Gish and Samantha Sloyan. They were all phenomenal.
The combination of Mike Flanagan’s writing and the specific actors he casts make everything sound like poetry. I think it’s true of all of his shows, but it stood out in this one because of the nature of the source material; there were times it was obvious a poem was being quoted, but there were times it was harder to tell. Lines that were delivered with the cadence and musicality of a poem without actually being a poem at all, or lines from poems delivered so seamlessly you never notice the shift. This specific quality adds to the layer of mysticism and the ethereal aura Flanagan’s shows tend to have.
In general, this show is a little more on the funny side than some of Mike Flanagan’s emotionally devastating stories we all know and love, while still being spooky and unsettling at times. In fact, there are more jump scares in this than is typical of Flanagan’s style, but they don’t feel cheap to me. It all still feels very much classic horror, mixed with modern storytelling. The house of Usher has ghosts, sure, but it also is teeming with gays.
Each episode of The Fall of the House of Usher has two aspects to it: one part ‘there’s no such thing as a good billionaire’ and one part ‘stepping into the mist while disembodied voices whisper poetry in your ears.’ On paper it doesn’t seem like that combination should work, but it does. Oh, how it does.
Keep an eye out for Kayla’s episodic recaps of the show, starting Thursday!