By the early 1950's, Universal Studios had largely given up on its tradition of Gothic horror films. Arguably the last of the line was 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, the greatest of the horror-comedies but nevertheless a farce on the petrified iconography of their classic monsters. Universal's immediate future belonged to Atomic Age Sci-Fi, including the last great monster, The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. The following year, Universal went to colour with This Island Earth, but by 1960 these sorts of "genre" offerings were naught but schlocky drive-in movie fare.
Yet at just that same time, hideous things were brewing in England. Hammer Films began production of their own line of horror films that were widely seen as inheriting Universal's mantle. Produced in colour and staring legendary actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Horror of Dracula and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), and The Brides of Dracula (1960) proved that there was still interest in well-made, well-acted, well-scripted Gothic horror films. At the time, American International Pictures was a low-grade B-movie house that was known for giving miniscule shooting schedules and shoestring budgets to films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), High School Hellcats (1958), and Reform School Girl (1957). However, when one of their most prolific and reliable directors, Roger Corman, approached them to make their own series of Hammer-style horror films, they gave him the green light. Not only that, but they upped his budget and gave him a whole 15 days to shoot his first, on the gamble that this was just the sort of thing that would raise AIP's standing, not to mention their profit margins.
As source material, Corman deviated from the tradition of European writers to go with an American original: Edgar Allen Poe. Richard Matheson, arguably one of the greatest horror writers that ever lived, supplied the script based on Poe's 1839 story The Fall of the House of Usher. Then came the inspired choice to cast Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. To this point, Price was already an established actor with 20 years experience and over 80 roles in his filmography. He originally entered the craft as a dramatic character actor who took on a number of historical dramas, then transitioning into Noir thrillers for a while. In the Fifties he really began his career in horror, in such films as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958) and Return of the Fly (1959), The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959). Over the course of his career, less than a third of Price's films were horror, but they were the ones that had the most enduring popularity and public notoriety. This was due in no small part to AIP's "Poe Cycle."
When it comes to Gothic horror, one could very easily make the argument that it needs to be in black-and-white or it's not worth doing. The lack of colour strengthens the sense of the Sublime, deepening shadow and invigorating light, and today adding an implicit patina of age. By the Sixties, however, black-and-white didn't give an elegant sense of vintage maturity as it was just old. If you wanted to show that you were tapped in to the day, you had to make a film in splashy Technicolor. To compensate, Corman decided to go overboard. If one were to pick a single word to describe the colours and sets in his Poe films, it would be "lurid"... The outside of a high Gothic manor on a hill may be dark and brooding, but it is under a lurid sky or, in the case of House of Usher surrounded by a lurid green mist. The house is filled with quintessential spooky stuff - cobwebs and stone corridors and the like - but otherwise overindulges colour by painting walls in vividly lurid tones. Corman's Poe films are all purples and reds and greens with smatterings of blues and orange.
Lurid is not only an appropriate adjective for the sets, but also for the script. House of Usher is a rarity in the Poe cycle for actually baring some strong resemblance to the story upon which it is based. Some, like The Raven (1963) and War-Gods of the Deep (1965), merely used a Poe poem as a jumping-off point for some fever dream. Some, like The Haunted Palace (1963), only attached the profitable Poe name to a movie adapting work by an entirely different author (in that case, H.P. Lovecraft). As the first of these films, House of Usher manages to hew closely to the outline of The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe's brand of melancholy, madness, and oppressive gloom didn't necessarily fit with the formula adhered to by AIP's studio head Samuel Z. Arkoff: Action, Revolution, Killing, Oratory, Fantasy, and Fornication (the, yes, ARKOFF formula). This House of Usher requires less careful studies of man's descent into madness and more yelling and punching and running and fighting and things exploding in fire and whatnot. The anonymous narrator isn't just a compassionate observer of his friend Roderick, but the red-blooded fiancée of Madeline running on adrenaline. Vincent Price is reserved in his role, and one almost feels his full sardonic wit and gleeful evil wanting to break lose. Or at least, one might want it to. His charisma leaps off the screen no matter what role he is in, and he still has that voice to die for. Soon, Corman will just let him off the leash.
Corman and Price's Poe films, starting at House of Usher, are lurid, gaudy, brash, drive-in movie fare. They aren't to the same level as the early Universal Monster films, but what is? They are nonetheless very enjoyable low-budget flicks good for giving your partner a protective squeeze. They also get better at doing that after House of Usher. It was a good, and relatively successful, first kick at the can, which pays off later in the levels of dark comedy and outright insanity of succeeding films in the series.