Over three miniseries made for Netflix, Mike Flanagan has worked his way backward through the literary horror canon. With 2018's The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan expanded and updated Shirley Jackson's classic 1959 novel while staying true to many of the story's original details and remaining locked into its central themes. Hill House set a pattern followed in 2020 by The Haunting of Bly Manor, which took a similar approach to Henry James' venture into the supernatural, The Turn of the Screw.
Flanagan's latest, The Fall of the House of Usher, continues that journey while mixing up the approach. Though nominally adapting Edgar Allan Poe's 1839 story, the dramatic, violent decline of its version of the Usher family provides a framework for a free-floating fantasia of all things Poe, from murderous primates and black cats to telltale hearts and ravens.
In fact, it might be easier to list the Poe works not referenced in the eight-part miniseries than to lay out those that are. But Flanagan's Usher is about more than just squeezing in as many references as possible. In fact, it's downright topical. Bruce Greenwood and Mary McDonnell star as, respectively, Roderick and Madeline Usher, a brother and sister team that heads the pharmaceutical company largely responsible for the opioid crisis. (Any resemblance to the Sacklers is entirely uncoincidental.) But, as the series opens, it's a company without an heir, Roderick having recently lost all six of his children (by various women) in a back-to-back series of freak accidents.
But were they accidents? The series is framed by Roderick's extended, and long overdue, confession to C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), an Assistant U.S. Attorney who's been trying to take down the Usher family for decades (exactly how long and why will be revealed later in the series). Talking to Dupin in the ruins of the Ushers' childhood home, Roderick agrees to come clean about all his crimes, including his role in the deaths of his children.
Jumping through a timeline of recent and long-ago events, the series follows along with his confession. Most episodes focus on the death of one of the Usher children, each of whom meets a Poe-inspired fate. Episode titles like "The Masque of the Red Death" and "The Black Cat" make no secret of those deaths' inspirations, but Usher consistently finds clever spins on these familiar stories (even if one episode has to bend itself in knots to make the connection work).
The Ushers are played by members of Flanagan's ever-expanding stock company, but the material asks them to stretch a bit. Usher is archer and funnier than most Flanagan efforts, reminiscent at times of Succession, but with the Sacklers taking the place of the Murdochs and a much higher body count (and way more blood). Everyone meets the occasion. Kate Siegel gets an especially plum role as Camille, a soulless PR specialist who crisis manages her sibling's death (until she no longer can), and Henry Thomas plays Frederick as the quintessential failson, a man made useless by luxury, excess, and entitlement. Joining them is another Flanagan regular, Carla Gugino, playing a role best left undescribed beyond noting it confirms her ability to take on a variety of roles.
Still, the shift in tone doesn't get in the way of the scares or Flanagan's tendency to craft monologues around actors whose strengths he's come to know across various films and TV series — and a few he hasn't. Beyond McDonnell, who gets a smaller role than Greenwood but makes the most of it, the key addition to the ensemble, and most notable new addition, is Mark Hamill as Usher family lawyer Arthur Pym, a gruff-voiced, dead-eyed operator who seems to be the only character not living in denial about shedding his humanity in the pursuit of wealth and luxury (or at least the one character who's not forced to confront it against his will by whatever force is tormenting his clients).
It's clever and gripping even if the course it will follow is made clear by its second episode: Each kid gets an episode in the spotlight before meeting a violent end. But even if it takes on a slasher-like predictability by pushing characters toward inventive kills, one by one, Usher also grows darker and more somber as it progresses and reckons with the real-world offenses mirrored in the Usher story. The opioid epidemic has been the subject of documentaries and docudramas, but The Fall of the House of Usher and, earlier this year, Dead Ringers both suggest that horror might be just as equipped to deal with the cost it's exacted. In a memorable late-series scene, Roderick is given a visual representation of the body count his product has created. The rest of the series plays respectful, entertaining homage to Poe. In that moment it's chilling in a way original to itself and the times it's depicting.
Premieres: All episodes premiere on Netflix on Thursday, Oct. 12
Who's in it: Bruce Greenwood, Carla Gugino, Mary McDonnell, Mark Hamill
Who's behind it: Mike Flanagan
For fans of: Horror, darkly comic family sagas
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8