SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for all eight episodes of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” now streaming on Netflix, and several works of Edgar Allan Poe that have been available to read for more than 150 years.
Mike Flanagan never met a haunted house he didn’t want to peel back the wallpaper on and see what horrors lurk beneath.
At Netflix, the writer/director has become a Halloween staple by exploring the hallowed halls of novelists Shirley Jackson (“The Haunting of Hill House”) and Henry James (“The Haunting of Bly Manor”). On the big screen, he even helmed a Stephen King-endorsed return trip to Overlook Hotel for “The Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep.”
But for his final act at Netflix before his production company Intrepid Pictures begins an overall deal at Amazon, Flanagan gets lost in a different type of literary labyrinth –– the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Flanagan uses Poe’s 1839 short story to dismantle the dynasty of morally bankrupt Fortunato Pharmaceuticals CEO Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood), who built a legacy on his consumer’s dependence on his highly addictive opioid named Ligodone. But Flanagan doesn’t stop there: The series mines Poe’s archives for inspiration on how to gruesomely dispatch Roderick’s six children –– Frederick (Henry Thomas), Tamerlane (Samanatha Sloyvan), Victorine (T’Nia Miller), Leo (Rahul Kohli), Camille (Kate Siegel) and Perry (Sauriyan Sapkota). The line of succession is severed by fate in the form of a mysterious shapeshifting harbinger named Verna (Carla Gugino), with whom a young Roderick and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) made a deal for boundless success in exchange for the lives of his eventual offspring.
Each episode is named for the Poe story that serves as its narrative spine, but none are to-the-letter adaptations. Instead, Flanagan filters this modern take on the toxicity of power and the persistence of karma through Poe’s creations, offering a sort of Sackler-esque family slaughterfest dressed up as a greatest hits homage to the master of the macabre.
Whether you know Poe or not, here’s how “The Fall of the House of Usher” faithfully adapts –– and sinisterly subverts –– his classics.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Poe’s Premise: An unnamed man is summoned to the crumbling estate of his friend Roderick Usher, who informs the man that his twin sister Madeline has died. After entombing Madeline, the two men start to feel unsettled by the malevolent sounds of the old house and learn Madeline is not as dead as Roderick led his friend to believe.
Flanagan’s Spin: The framework of Flanagan’s series puts the audience in the hands of Poe’s favorite perspective –– an unreliable narrator driven mad. But in Flanagan’s story, the man visiting Usher at his deteriorating childhood home is notably not his friend. He is C. Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly), the assistant U.S. attorney hellbent on convicting Roderick and the Usher family for their crimes. Dupin is an original character Poe created who, despite not ever being identified as a detective, would serve as the inspiration for iconic ones like Sherlock Holmes. But Dupin isn’t part of the “The Fall of the House of Usher” story, nor are the Usher children seen in the series. Instead, Flanagan pulls at three threads key to “The Fall of the House of Usher” story — the set-up, the twist and the climax. First, Flanagan lets Dupin stand in for Poe’s narrator, who is given a front-row seat to Roderick’s reckoning. Although Dupin isn’t there for comfort but rather to get a long-awaited confession from his elusive target. Secondly, Flanagan lets the dreadful possibility of Madeline’s likely death hang over viewers longer than Poe, as Roderick constantly reassures Dupin she’s just tinkering in the basement. In both versions, Roderick’s withering mind truly believes Madeline is dead only for her to emerge in the final moments to literally scare the life out of her brother. Flanagan, however, doesn’t just entomb her. His Roderick gives her an Egyptian queen’s burial after he kills her –– complete with a hot poker up the nose and jade stones replacing her eyes. It makes her jump-scare resurrection an even more gruesome sight. Finally, as Dupin and his literary counterpart escape their versions of the Usher home in fear for their lives, the weight of the tainted Usher legacy literally brings down the house on top of the siblings.
The Masque of the Red Death
Poe’s Premise: As a plague known as the Red Death sweeps across the land, Prince Prospero and a horde of high-society people wall themselves off in a castle-like abbey. To pass the time, Propsero hosts a lavish masquerade ball with attendees welcomed to navigate seven color-themed rooms –– the final one coated in blood red. But Prospero is intrigued by the emergence of a mysterious shrouded figure, to whom he catches up in the red room and immediately dies. The enraged guests attempt to uncloak the figure only to learn it is the Red Death, and they have all been infected.
Flanagan’s Twist: Indifference is at the heart of both tellings of “The Masque of the Red Death.” For Poe, it’s indifference to the plight of the average person in the face of an invisible killer savagely claiming those who can’t escape to the perceived safety of privilege. But on the show, Prospero aka Perry, the youngest of Usher kids, shows indifference to the deadly Usher legacy he blindly seeks to inherit, at least in name. Flanagan’s Roderick offers all of his coddled children an initial investment to encourage them to get rich, as he did. But Perry’s dream of an exclusive club where the wealthy need not worry about punitive things like morals or credit card limits doesn’t meet his father’s standards. Still, he plans a one-night-only version in one of the Usher’s shuttered testing facilities set for demolition, and spares no expense for his guest list. There’s only one condition: the orgy can’t begin until the sprinklers rain water down on the guests. Ultimately, his callous dismissal of anything but his vision doesn’t account for the fact that Roderick had ordered toxic acid be stored in the facility’s water supply to hide it from federal prosecutors sniffing around the family’s malpractice. So when Perry flips the switch, he showers himself and nearly 100 guests with a flesh-eating party favor. But don’t worry: Flanagan didn’t forget the signature red room from Poe’s story. Before Perry’s meltdown, he follows a cloaked, seductive Verna into a vacant room bathed in red, where he is presented with an opportunity to divert from his path of arrogance –– an option she will offer most of the Usher kids. But just as in Poe’s original, indifference proves to be a sweeter and deadlier option.
Murder in the Rue Morgue
Poe’s Premise: In his debut appearance, C. Auguste Dupin casually investigates the violent murders of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter Camille in Paris. He finds clumps of non-human hair and learns neighbors heard two voices coming from the scene of the crime –– one spoken by a Frenchman, and another language believed not to be human. Through deduction, Dupin determines the killer is an escaped orangutan, who climbed up to the women’s fourth floor home on Rue Morgue street and killed them in a fit of rage and confusion.
Flanagan’s Twist: It might seem hard to modernize a murder mystery with a monkey as its culprit, but never underestimate Flanagan. In Poe’s story, Camille and her mother are just a case to be solved. This meant Flanagan’s version had to give Camille a life to live before it carries out Poe’s prescribed demise –– a task wisely handed to Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s wife and long-time muse. Every family business needs a good spokesperson, and Camille is a pro at wielding the media to clean the mud off the Usher name. But her status as the family’s publicist puts Camille at the mercy of her own ego. When the Ushers learn one of their own might be an informant for Dupin’s criminal case against them, Roderick puts a bounty on the head of the traitor. Like a shark, Camille responds to the scent of blood in the water and zeros in on her half-sister Victorine as the mole. Victorine (the subject of a later story) is conducting cruel medical tests on chimpanzees in her lab, and Camille goes looking for leverage. Again, Verna shows up to talk Camille off the ledge of her own making, but all she can see is the long-simmering hatred for her half-sister. That blind pursuit means she doesn’t notice when one of the chimps is released and mauls her. Again, Poe only catches up to Camille’s story after she’s been crammed down a chimney headfirst. While she’s good at her job, even Camille would struggle to spin a “death by monkey” scenario to the press.
The Black Cat
Poe’s Premise: An alcoholic’s excessive drinking leads him to become violent toward his and his wife’s black cat, eventually gauging out one of its eyes and hanging it from a noose. Burdened by guilt (as he damn well should be), he adopts a similar-looking cat to cover his tracks, but is tormented by the imposter’s presence. When he tries to kill it, his wife stops him and, in a fit of rage, he kills her instead. After hiding her body in the wall, the cat disappears and he feels at ease. Until the police come by and hear a cat’s meow behind the wall, exposing his crime.
Flanagan’s Twist: Video-game seller/player Leo is less interested in his family’s fame and just wants to wallow in the wealth. It’s only when his vices — drugs, promiscuity, etc. — get him into trouble that he actually starts to become desperate. After drunkenly killing the cat of his boyfriend Julius (Daniel Chae Jun), he rushes to replace it. Verna, disguised as an animal shelter worker, offers him the chance to show a little humanity by rescuing other cats in need but all he wants is what he can’t have –– the perfect replacement cat she says is unavailable. Instead, he throws money at the problem against her advice. Soon, the new cat and Leo are waging war with each other. The sharp claws of guilt begin to leave a mark –– literally –– until Leo is tearing the walls out of their luxury apartment to catch the cat. Eventually, his obsession with defeating his furry foe leads him to dive off the balcony and to his death. Thankfully, Julius is never the significant other in the wall like in Poe’s story, and Flanagan’s version even reveals something about the Ushers. Leo’s indiscretions (being unfaithful, killing a cat) haunt him more than murder ever could. The Ushers are well acquainted with blood on their hands. For them, the little things cut deeper.
The Tell-Tale Heart
Poe’s Premise: An unnamed narrator speaks of being driven to murder by the cloudy, “vulture-like” eye of their elderly roommate. Despite meticulously planning to carry out the deed while he sleeps, the old man wakes up, and the narrator kills him quickly to silence the sound of his pounding heart. They dismember the old man and stow the pieces under the floorboards to hide the crime. But when the police are called for a wellness check, the narrator begins to hear what they believe to be the old man’s heartbeat growing louder under the floor, driving them mad enough to confess.
Flanagan’s Twist: “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of Poe’s most beloved and adapted stories, and Flanagan goes quite literal in his take. Victorine Usher wants to give her family’s reputation legitimacy after decades of questionable medicinal contributions to society. Her vision, carried out by her girlfriend and actual doctor Alessandra “Al” Ruiz (Paola Núñez), is to patent a vaguely revolutionary device that seems to provide an artificial heartbeat. Stuck doing trials on medically paralyzed monkeys, Victorine’s aspirations are outpacing regulatory oversight. With a sickly Roderick selfishly demanding she enter human trials immediately, Victorine enlists a naive human participant without Al’s consent. The patient is Verna in yet another disguise, testing Victorine’s willingness to sacrifice a human life for her ambition. When Al threatens to expose Victorine, she kills her without hesitation. But soon, Victorine begins to hear a squishy beating noise, almost like the croak of a frog if it had a cold. It grows louder and louder, to the point she begins to lose her grip on everything that isn’t the sound. By the time Roderick visits her to apologize for his reckless persistence, Victorine is so delusional she willfully shows him Al’s mutilated body that she ripped open to try and use the device on. The noise haunting her was the device squeezing Al’s long-dead heart. Faced with what she did, Victorine shoots herself in front of her father. Along with “The Black Cat,” Poe doesn’t kill his narrator so they can tell their tales. But Flanagan is happy to let Verna put a period on Leo and Victorine.
Poe’s Premise: This episode draws from two unconnected Poe stories: “The Gold-Bug” and “Tamerlane.” The former is a story set in South Carolina about a man who loses his fortune and works with his slave Jupiter to hunt down a treasure buried by the pirate Captain Kidd after finding a gold scarab-like bug. Conversely, “Tamerlane” is a poem loosely inspired by a Turco-Mongol conqueror named Timur Lenk or Tamerlane, who cast the woman he loved aside to pursue power.
Flanagan’s Twist: Flanagan’s adaptations take pleasure in twisting Poe’s warped worldview, especially when it comes to Roderick’s first-born daughter, Tamerlane, aka Tammy. In the middle of launching her own health and wellness brand named Goldbug –– which totally isn’t a knock-off Goop –– Tamerlane is beyond stressed. To let off steam, she and her fitness guru husband Billy (Matt Biedel) pay sex workers (hello again, Verna!) to fill the role of the dutiful and attentive wife while Tamerlane watches and, ahem, enjoys the view. But in time, the man who would do anything for her isn’t enough. She believes she is better than Billy, and rejects him. Left with only her work, she completely fumbles the launch and goes home to a house where every wall, including the bedroom ceiling, is a mirror reflecting her failure. Believing she sees Verna’s seductive substitute in all of them, she smashes every mirror until the shards have impaled her like a pincushion. The conqueror “Tamerlane” is the strongest Poe connection here, with “The Gold-Bug” story merely providing the branding (aka the treasure) Tammy sacrifices everything to secure. But the scarab does harken back to the on-screen Usher family’s affinity for Egyptian artifacts.
The Pit and the Pendulum
Poe’s Premise: A man is sentenced to death during the Spanish Inquisition and awakens in a dark cell with a pit in the center. He is repeatedly left unconscious and wakes to find his situation worsening. Eventually, he is tied to a board and made to look upward at an image of Father Time swinging a slowly lowering pendulum. But he manages to escape before he is dissected by the blade or forced into the pit.
Flanagan’s Twist: In many ways, Flanagan saved the most upsetting story for Roderick’s oldest child, Frederick. Earlier in the series, Frederick’s wife, Morelle (Crystal Balint), attends Perry’s invite-only orgy and is the only survivor of the acid bath. After she’s been left disfigured and completely dependent on her family, Frederick begins to punish her for being seduced by his youngest brother. He drugs her to keep her quiet in their home hospital suite, refuses to change her bandages and even wallpapers her room with a collage of their wedding photo. Frederick himself descends into a debilitating drug addiction as he tries to better position himself as Roderick’s successor, going as far as to oversee the demolition of Perry’s party factory. Wanting a glimpse of what lured his wife away from their marriage, Frederick goes inside and mistakes his drugs for his wife’s paralytic. He is incapacitated but alert as the demolition begins, with the titular pendulum formed by a serrated bit of building that slowly swings over him as the walls crumble. Gone are Poe’s allusions to the Spanish Inquisition and the escape of his narrator. Instead, Flanagan lets the first and final Usher offspring slowly watch death descend on him, with Verna at his side espousing why he’s the worst of them all. One twist on Poe’s story –– it’s Morelle who escapes Frederick’s cell of torture just in time.
Poe’s Premise: “Once upon a midnight dreary,” a man sits by the fire and mourns the loss of his love, Lenore. When a raven flutters in from outside, it sits atop a bust of Pallas and watches the man. Questioning the raven about the torments of grief and the possibility of moving on, he discovers the raven can parrot one word in response –– “Nevermore.” Locked in the dead-end conversation, the man is frustrated to realize he will never be free of his grief.
Flanagan’s Twist: Literally and figuratively, the ancient figure of Verna is Flanagan’s raven. Not only does she take the form of it to watch over Roderick in good times and bad. Verna’s looming specter also represents the temptation of power Roderick and Madeline Usher succumbed to in their youth. Verna’s deal for them was simple: they will have all the success they desire, but the bloodline will die with them. Poe’s narrator constantly asks his raven questions knowing the inevitability of its singular answer –– “Nevermore.” Nothing will change how the narrator feels about his lost love, and nothing can change the fate Roderick and Madeline sealed long ago for their family. But for both stories, the painful loss of Lenore is the emotional gut punch. In Flanagan’s story, Lenore may be Roderick’s innocent granddaughter, but she’s still part of the bloodline, which Verna reluctantly points out before she sends her into a peaceful, eternal slumber. The Usher kids were lost causes of inherited greed from the jump, but Lenore was the empathetic future that could have broken the cycle. And yet, she was born of the same deal and therefore fated to be among its casualties. Never to be forgotten, just as Poe intended.
BONUS POE: The Cask of Amontillado
Poe’s Premise: A nobleman named Montresor plots revenge against a man named Fortunato during the Carnival season. Tempting Fortunato with a tasting of Amontillado wine, the two men venture into the catacombs under Montresor’s home where he chains up his drunken acquaintance and begins to entomb him with a brick wall. When Fortunato comes to, he pleads with Montresor, who only remarks that no one will hear his screams from behind the wall.
Flanagan’s Twist: While it is not one of the titled episodes throughout the series, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is an undeniable and consequential adaptation of “The Cask of Amontillado.” The series ends with the reveal that on New Year’s Eve 1980, the night they made the fateful deal with Verna, Roderick and Madeline drugged and killed his despicable boss at Fortunato Pharmaceuticals, Rufus Griswold (Michael Trucco). That name is no coincidence. Rufus Griswold was Poe’s real-life nemesis, who falsified the author’s obituary as a post-mortem slight in 1849. Maybe as a means of carrying out some century-old justice for the author, Flanagan turns Griswold into the villain that first drove the Ushers to a point of no return. Roderick and Madeline also build a brick tomb for Rufus like Poe’s story, but they do so into the foundation of Fortunato headquarters. There’s that name again –– Fortunato. It is both Poe’s victim in his story and the namesake of the very company Roderick sold his entire bloodline to gain control over. It might be Rufus in the wall at the end of the series, but it was the Ushers who sealed their fate over a spiked glass of Amontillado.