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The Fall of the House of Usher Is All Over the Place

Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix show is an exhausting mashup. Even worse, it’s not scary.

Eike Schroter/Netflix

Girl Talk is the stage name of DJ and electronic musician Gregg Michael Gillis. In the aughts, Girl Talk became briefly famous, and a little bit infamous, for long-form mash-up albums, in which he’d superimpose vocals from a rap track onto a recognizable pop or rock hit. He’d then move briskly from sample to sample, picking up on small phrases and shared rhythms, composing in stream of consciousness. The albums are—in ways sometimes rapturous and sometimes banal—completely exhausting.

Because Girl Talk never stays with one idea for very long, the albums never really gain specific depth. They careen along as a rapid procession of shocks, fleeting moments of hilarious novelty or uncanny transcendence. Listening to these albums now, you might ask yourself how long he can keep this up, or, perhaps, how long you want him to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Girl Talk as I’ve been watching Netflix’s new limited series The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s the fifth installment in writer-director Mike Flanagan’s horror anthology, new seasons of which have debuted almost every Halloween for the past six years. There was 2018’s eye-poppingly scary, strangely sappy adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; 2020’s anguished, squishily romantic The Haunting of Bly Manor, a combination of several of Henry James’s ghost stories; 2021’s Roman Catholic vampire allegory Midnight Mass; 2022’s YA horror tragedy The Midnight Club, which contains so many jump scares, it literally made it into Guinness World Records; and now, The Fall of the House of Usher, a cocktail of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe.

Most of these series are adaptations, none of them particularly faithful. (Notably, Flanagan stapled a somewhat discordant happy ending onto Jackson’s famously pessimistic Hill House.) But it’s the precise style in which these adaptations diverge from their sources that reminds me of the hullabaloo around Girl Talk. Mike Flanagan, like Gregg Gillis, is a mash-up artist. His adaptations revel in their prankish infidelity, their frenetic reassembling of beloved literary texts. As Flanagan films American classics, he cherry-picks details, hides Easter eggs, swaps storylines, and lifts memorable characters and places from their original contexts. When it works, Flanagan’s cute overlays carry the frisson of genuine insight—when Bly Manor skillfully cross-fades Henry James’s short story of gay panic, “The Beast in the Jungle,” into The Turn of the Screw’s haunted house, or when Midnight Mass grinds together the New Testament and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It’s a brilliant spectacle, but it’s also a gimmick. Each instance of gobsmacked recognition is an opportunity to gasp in delight or groan in irritation. In this way, the anthology has mirrored the pleasures and frustrations of streaming TV itself. Streamers are full of reboots and repurposed IP. Studios like to sell stories that the audience already knows; the room for creativity lies in making those familiar things slightly unfamiliar, in reassembling our favorite characters and plots in provocative ways. But such remixes have become so commonplace that even their surprises have grown routine. If, with this year’s Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan’s project is starting to feel a bit exhausting, it might be because the entire streaming ecosystem’s romance with the televisual mash-up is heading toward a macabre fate.

Edgar Allan Poe is the unquestioned figurehead of American Gothic literature, and a major influence on nearly every American horror story that’s come along since his mid-nineteenth-century heyday. The personified mansion of Jackson’s Hill House might not exist the same way without the “eye-like windows” of Roderick Usher’s house before it. Likewise, Poe’s devilish ambiguity, his production of phantasms both real and imagined, undergirds James’s own ventures into the genre. Poe is the unholy fount for much of the horror fiction Flanagan’s adapted in this series so far. It’s tantalizing to imagine what this series might do with all of this ghastly source material.

And House of Usher gorges itself at this terrifying table. I suspect Flanagan selected “Usher” as his anchor because it’s the most like a traditional “haunted house” tale to be found in Poe’s oeuvre—the story of a man haunted in mind and body by the recent apparent death, and subsequent hasty entombment, of his own twin sister. But that story serves here only as a frame narrative and bookend for a cavalcade of other adaptations of Poe’s more infamous tales, nearly a dozen of which make at least cameo appearances.

Often, this approach has led Flanagan toward shuddering juxtapositions. In House of Usher, it tends to lead more directly to grisly comedy. The show, set mostly in present times, begins by introducing a corrupt corporate patriarch, Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), and his six adult children, all of whom vie for his favor and compete to inherit his global pharmaceutical empire. The aging Usher is nearing the end, and, as you might imagine, questions of—ahem—succession loom large. As does the popular HBO television program Succession itself! The first big jump scare in The Fall of the House of Usher is when you realize, about five minutes into the first episode, that Mike Flanagan (that madman!) is launching a full-scale horror parody of Succession, from a soundtrack that explicitly riffs on Nicholas Britell’s earworm score, to the boardrooms and the paparazzi and the King Lear cosplay.

We learn, in that opening Waystar Royco opera, that all six of Usher’s children have met untimely ends in the matter of a few weeks. What follows proceeds largely via flashback, as Usher laconically recounts the circumstances of each death, seated in the titular house, sipping expensive spirits with his longtime foe; after the first, each episode focuses on a different Usher before ushering them off to their own, custom Poe-style denouement. Across eight episodes, of course, the Masque of the Red Death appears, as does the Rue Morgue, the Raven, the Pit, and the Pendulum. Most of these iconic stories receive an episode’s length of attention, but, in passing, we also run into a cask of Amontillado, a corporation named Fortunato, a drug named Ligodone (after his story “Ligeia”), and dueling attorneys named C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Pym. The Fall of the House of Usher isn’t so much based on the tales of Poe as it is a mash-up of their most recognizable parts. If you know the stories, you’ll be occasionally tickled but mostly perplexed by how strained these adaptations are; if you don’t know the stories, well, a lot of this is just going to seem weird to you.

It would qualify as an unfair spoiler to suggest how any of the children specifically meet their dooms. (And I’ll further suggest, for just this reason, that you avoid reading any of the episode titles in advance of your viewing.) But suffice it to say that the horrific heirs include a profligate party boy (Sauriyan Sapkota) desperate for his father’s approval, a ruthless spin doctor (Kate Siegel) unable to protect her father’s empire from interlopers, an affable stoner (Rahul Kohli) victim to his own immaturity, a recklessly ambitious doctor (T’Nia Miller), a recklessly ambitious lifestyle influencer (Samantha Sloyan, giving very strong Shiv Roy energy), and a straightforwardly scuzzy insecure eldest son (Henry Thomas) whose jealousy obstructs his otherwise easy path to the throne. That each of these six is summarily dispatched is no secret; it’s merely a question of which combination of Poe’s finishing moves delivers the coups de grâce.

On occasion, Flanagan can capture some of the mischievous dread of his previous work. In the series’ variation on “The Masque of the Red Death,” Flanagan traps us in a claustrophobic club orgy, turning a single rusted-out sprinkler head into a ticking time bomb. In the Succession-style pilot, the murderous rage that lies beneath that show’s sibling rivalries seeps out over the course of an extended comic dinner party. Even droll visual jokes like Usher sliding a knife through a trompe l’oeil cake in the shape of a Starbucks cup become imbued with threat and violence. A few of the set pieces recapture Flanagan’s old flair—you likely won’t forget the image of a tell-tale heart within the open chest cavity of an unfortunate corpse, still beating with the aid of state-of-the-art Fortunato medical technology—but most unfold with little surprise and little variation, like a ghost sleepily retracing its last steps over and over again.

Whereas Poe’s original stories themselves proceed with an inexorable gravity, the series rarely manages to build real suspense. When every character is fated, in turn, to meet their end, the lead-up loses its drama; every death occurs at the end of a long, rote recitation of incidents rather than as the culmination of a chaotic or unsettling turn of events. Much of House of Usher proceeds less with frenzied energy than a dutiful sense of obligation. This means it’s not a particularly illuminating journey through the bestiary of American Gothic literature, but, perhaps even worse, it means that The Fall of the House of Usher is not at all scary.

There are no pure adaptations, no perfect transpositions of literary material into visual media, and, in fact, a bit of strategic infidelity is often the ingredient that animates a great adaptation. Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers and Patrick Somerville’s Station Eleven are two of the best televisual adaptations in recent memory, in part because of the ways they stray from their sources. Good adaptations are interpretations, not transcriptions.

But infidelity is not House of Usher’s problem; the problem is what the success of mash-up projects like these portends. The streaming landscape is littered with shows assembled from recognizable spare parts, forays far more cynical than Flanagan’s affectionate odes to the literary masters of horror. Think of the nostalgia buffet of Stranger Things, filled with its video rental stores and Kate Bush needle drops, or franchise series like Star Wars spin-off Ahsoka—a show animated more by the excitement of familiar cameo appearances and in-world callbacks than by any fresh drama. Streamers’ favorite risk-avoidance strategies center around acts of recycling. While some of these adaptations and sequels and prequels shine with a particular creative vision—the Star Wars prequel Andor and the MCU’s high-concept WandaVision come to mind—the market logic behind them can feel awfully slippery.

It’s no coincidence that when AI image generator Dall-E debuted online, the most memed prompt was some variation on “X in the style of Y.” The mash-up logic presents itself as an almost natural conceptual framework for the kind of art that a computer might cook up to order. ChatGPT, write an MCU series in the style of a ’50s sitcom. ChatGPT, write a teen melodrama in the style of Ghostbusters. ChatGPT, tell the stories of Edgar Allan Poe in the style of Succession, for a limited series on Netflix.

The human sense of exhaustion that’s palpable in Flanagan’s House of Usher is less troubling as a rare misstep from a director of great and ingenious skill and relative consistency than it is as a harbinger of things to come. Debuting in a year when the Writers Guild of America strike has foregrounded this very issue—the industry’s morbid desire to replace its writers with compliant machines—House of Usher is a warning. This is Mike Flanagan’s last series with Netflix, and thus likely the end of this largely delightful run of Halloween mash-up series. But he is neither the origin nor the cause of this trend in streaming television. Maybe next year, maybe next decade, we might open our Netflix or Amazon or Max accounts, and we might hear the beating of a heart with no human author. But we’ll already know the tale it has to tell.