Strobe lights, heavy bass, top-shelf drugs, lingerie-clad revelers gyrating in lustful ecstasy—at first glance, a kinky, decadent rave scene feels far from the 19th-century world of Edgar Allan Poe. But in Netflix’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher, it’s just one set piece that works to cleverly bring the author’s work into contemporary times.
Mike Flanagan’s eight-episode anthology series draws upon multiple short stories, remixing its source material in seemingly unfaithful ways. Take the titular Ushers. As originally written by Poe, Roderick Usher is a sickly man afraid of his own shadow who lives in a dilapidated home with his sister, Madeline, a thin, weak woman who seems to “care about nothing.” But Flanagan transforms the wan duo into bespoke-suited industry titans. He styles his Roderick Usher (played by Bruce Greenwood) closer to Logan Roy, as a silver-haired patriarch with six children who runs a pharmaceutical conglomerate that peddles addictive painkillers. Meanwhile, Madeline (Mary McDonnell) is transformed into a narrow-eyed ambition machine—a woman who cares about everything. This doesn’t even begin to cover the abundant differences between Poe’s stories and Flanagan’s series when it comes to time period, cast size, and story arc.
But what’s notable about the Netflix show isn’t just the invented plotlines or its fresh take on Poe’s characters. If anything, Flanagan gets away with all this reimagining because he preserves what is arguably the most crucial element of Poe’s work: its Gothic mood. Even when portraying scenarios outside of Poe’s purview—for example, a Black lesbian scientist managing millions in biotech funding or a redhead Gwyneth Paltrow wannabe trying to launch a wellness empire—Flanagan imbues each episode with an atmosphere of dread and gloom that mirrors Poe.
In the short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe spends the bulk of his time describing the castle in which Prince Prospero and his courtiers wall themselves off from the diseased public. “But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held,” the author writes, pulling the reader away from a disastrous ball held by Prospero and toward a lengthy description of seven gaudy, bizarre rooms in his castle. He devotes nearly 300 words to an ebony clock. These diversions create, in Poe’s words, “disconcert and tremulousness.” The story ends with the death of all the revelers at the party, but by that point their dying seems like an afterthought. They’re mere casualties of the all-consuming unease that Poe has carefully conjured.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” works in a similar fashion, dedicating much of its length to the insane ravings of its narrator. “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I have been and am,” opens the story, immediately unsettling its reader. So effective is Poe at casting a spell of uncanny eerieness that the dismemberment that occurs in the story’s final moments feel like an inevitable outcome rather than a shocking climax. The poem “The Raven,” too, uses its narrator’s lamentation and the refrain of “Nevermore” to create a melancholy murkiness that eclipses Lenore and her death.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, Flanagan commits to mood with the same intensity, starting with the show’s look. This isn’t the well-lit Scandinavian horror of Ari Aster’s Midsommar; nor is it the campy baroque of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. Flanagan applies a foggy, slate-colored palette to high-tension boardroom scenes and beautifully outfitted apartments alike, alternating it with the inky, claustrophobic darkness of the Usher family home’s living room: scenes in which Roderick Usher recounts the gruesome, untimely deaths of all his offspring while sitting across from Detective Auguste Dupin (Carl Lumbly). The effect is one of creeping doom that works much like Poe’s scene-setting in his short stories. Music is also central to Flanagan’s ode to Poe’s gothic sensibility: Lush strings strain across a scene of Madeline passing through a homeless encampment to visit a boarded-up bar. Metallic thundering echoes in scenes of Leo Usher (Rahul Kohli) being slowly driven mad by the specter of a black cat.
Counterintuitively, by sticking so closely to Poe’s emotional tenor, Flanagan is free to inject something of his own: a sense of moral outrage. Poe’s original works aren’t parables with clear lessons. In the hands of another writer, “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been a scathing takedown of the powerful who shield their eyes from the suffering of the poor. But Poe dwells more on feeling than fable, leaving the work of assigning meaning entirely to the reader. For example, in his story about the Ushers, how these scions of a once-wealthy family made their money, why they own their decrepit mansion—all of this is beyond Poe’s interest.
But in Flanagan’s retelling, the Ushers are a clear analogue to the Sackler family. They’ve made their billions off Ligadone, a fast-acting opioid marketed as nonaddictive while causing widespread dependency and death, much like OxyContin. The horrific demise of the Usher children and the family’s downfall are the comeuppance for the greedy, destructive Roderick. Each episode, named after a different Poe work, follows a different Usher descendent, unraveling their particular pathology and tracing how their father’s actions have determined their fate. If Succession’s finale portrayed the mega-wealthy’s punishment by their private emotional torture, Flanagan gives us a story of one-percenters stalked by a supernatural arbiter of justice (played by a chameleonic Carla Gugino).
The show tells the story not just of a crumbling home but of a ruined society, using Poe’s aura of fear and dread to point an accusatory finger at the rich and powerful who profit off the deaths of the masses. A good adaptation is faithful to the essence of the original material. A great adaptation manages to be faithful while using the original to build something new. In Netflix’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the preservation of mood pays proper homage to the author’s words. The show’s social commentary, in turn, allows a retelling of an old story to resonate powerfully in our current moment.