Column: Slicing Score: House of Usher (1960)

By Maria Mitchell

House of Usher (1960). Composed by Les Baxter.

Sibling rivalry is a real bramble in the craw once one is found ingratiated in its fury. If anyone thinks death is going to make it any better, Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” says, Don’t hold your breath.

Les Baxter’s score to Roger Corman’s film, House of Usher, is a subtle one. Its subtlety mimics the quiet, clinical tiptoeing of a jealous, scheming sibling. It is an accurate backdrop for Poe’s dark family drama. In this film, there is a considerable age difference between Roderick and Madeline Usher. This is one major change from the original story, which cast Roderick and Madeline as twins. This is most likely because the film centers on the “actions” of the house, whereas in the short story, Roderick, Madeline, the visitor, and the house are all characters of equal magnitude. It would have been hard for the score to have four themes of equal power. Instead, the music to Usher centers mostly on the house.

Little notes, dramatic notes, spaghettified notes, and sudden notes all become little bricks building an edifice in desperate need of a wrecking ball. Some scores are more mechanical than others, interpreting the theme with only what is expected from them. I found this score to be a dud as far as expressing emotional music but fun in its exploitation of suspenseful musical jumps. It lacked the enduring bittersweet sound of Baxter’s score to The Dunwich Horror, but its weird leaps of sound keep House of Usher from having the more-soap-opera feeling of The Dunwich Horror.

Clocking in at over an hour, House of Usher‘s soundtrack is long but no longer than some of Baxter’s other American International Pictures-produced scores. Baxter often wrote long, convoluted scores for AIP. His orchestras seemed determined to match every frame of the story, note for note. This doesn’t always make for the best scores. It can be overkill. I found a lot of Usher to be overkill. What annoyed me most was that I didn’t hear a unifying theme in the thing. Maybe I’m more tone-deaf than I’d care to admit, but I just don’t hear it. I don’t hear a theme that encapsulates the story in the kind of short, concise, musical phrases that AIP exploited often, as in the soundtrack to The Haunted Palace. If I’m wrong about Usher, I welcome opposition. Otherwise, I’ll stick to my position that Usher has no concise, memorable music. This was disappointing to me. A short, musical phrase starting on whole steps and halted by a sudden half-step, piped with woodwinds over the brooding Usher tarn, would have really livened up the creepiness score for me. Its fun suspense, in the finished product, is a little too Vaudeville-meets-Merry Melodies cartoons to be scary for me.

Les Baxter’s music often popped up in romantic movies and he is probably best remembered for his theme to the television series Lassie. I’ve never thought of his music as being a cornerstone of horror-film music, though not for lack of talent on his part. It often felt restrained in its execution, especially here in Usher, as if Baxter’s orchestras were instructed to leave a lot of good stuff out of the finished score and pad it with a lot of filler.

For a long time, the totality of film music has been regarded by both producers and observers of film as being little more than “filler”. It’s tricky scores like this one that contributed to the formation of that reputation. Usher is not distinctive enough to stand on its own without the film, so there’s little point in listening to it separate from the film in order to better experience the emotions of the film without the distraction of visuals.

I think its lackluster score, alone, is reason to give Usher another try in the arena of sound. I have yet to hear the musical interpretation of Fall of the House of Usher that I want to hear.

House of Usher‘s soundtrack is available through Amazon.com.

Bio: Maria Mitchell is a writer of dark fiction who reviews film scores that pulse with a beat to match.