Jan SvankmajerEdgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher
Medium: short film
Year: 1982
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Edgar Allan Poe
Keywords: animation
Country: Czechoslovakia
Language: Czech
Format: 15 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082357
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 13 November 2013
Jan Svankmajer does his first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. He'd later do other films that draw on the same author (Lunacy, The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope), but this was the short film of his that I'd been looking forward to the most.
I wouldn't call it his best, though. It's still a good one and I'd recommend it, as I would his entire body of work, but his choices bewildered me for a while. It's unsafe to have any expectations at all about Svankmajer.
The soundtrack has a reading of Poe's original short story but translated into Czech, while Svankmajer has sometimes impenetrable fun with the visuals. For a non-Czech speaker, that's a problem. Poe's prose is dense and demands attention, but so does Svankmajer's animation. If your copy of the film has subtitles, as mine did, you'll struggle to watch them both. The best solution would be an English dub, I think, which is something I almost never say with foreign-language films. It's only a voice-over and the original's in English anyway, so that would simply be restoring the original text and allowing you to concentrate on everything properly. Unfortunately I don't know if an English dub exists.
The alternative would be to learn Czech. Study is good.
As for the visuals, Svankmajer's doing unexpected things. The first is not to have actors. The House of Usher contains no people. The camera moves around to represent the narrator's point of view, but we never see Roderick or Madeline. Coffins, yes. Furniture, yes. Human beings, no. Svankmajer also doesn't have anything obvious to do in the story's early stretches, so he goes off into claymation doodling. I don't know what else to call it. Clay rolls around and squidges itself. It's possible that this might have deep and clever meaning if one thought about it deeply in connection with the text being read at that point, but to be honest it looked like surrealism for surrealism's sake.
The house's exterior is also dull. It's a farmhouse, or something like it. That's all. It doesn't look magnificent, scary, gothic or anything else.
The random Svankmajer weirdness in the early stretch is still watchable, though, with a close-up raven and hoofprints being made by an invisible horse. Keep an eye on the vibrating hammer, nails and key. Madeline's death is where the plot starts giving Svankmajer more to get his teeth into. A coffin appears and trundles through the house, heading for the family tomb, which Svankmajer thinks is sufficiently important to give the narration a rest. Trees come alive and walk. The ground splits open, spelling out MADELINE in the cracked earth. Windows smash open.
Yup, we're into the house's fall. This is fun, although it's occasionally disconcerting to see the remains of destroyed objects looking so fresh and new, albeit now in a pulverised state. I'm thinking of that hammer. You'd expect it to turn old and rotting, but on reflection I think this expectation gap is in itself interesting. The fleeing furniture could be called a bit Disney, but I don't think the House of Mouse would have torn apart a stuffed bird while interspersing the destruction with shots of that living one. As an aside, the theme of a crumbling haunted castle is also important in The Castle of Otranto, which had been Svankmajer's previous film.
In short, well worth a spin. It's odd in doing the text so faithfully while taking liberties with the visuals, but that's Svankmajer for you. He's a surrealist. It's surreal. Mission accomplished. The most entertaining stuff's towards the end, but that's not a problem in a fifteen-minute film and in any case I'm interested in rewatching it to see if I can get more from the claymation doodles. Familiarity should help me struggle less with the subtitles, anyway.