World

What to watch: ‘House of Usher’ is a brilliant, unsettling take on Edgar Allan Poe

Two of the most anticipated streaming series of the season — Netflix’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Apple TV+’s “Lessons in Chemistry” — originated from the literary world. But does that transition from page to screen work?

Oh, yeah.

Here’s our roundup.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”: It’s risky to modernize or repurpose classic literary works and try to create something unique and visionary in the process. Even Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón failed with a misguided “Great Expectations,” starring Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow.

But upscale horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan could write a textbook on how to do it right with his eight-part ode to legendary horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. This inspired “Usher” infuses Poe’s tales of terror with contemporary relevance and respects the source material.

Flanagan’s macabre update of Poe’s story of familial depravity and madness serves as a table setting for an “And Then There Were None” schematic in which the ones getting picked off are soulless members of a privileged, uber-wealthy family that has built its pillar of wealth by addicting Americans to painkillers.

Lording over this dynasty is a vile twosome with a rotten childhood to say the least: brother Roderick (the underrated Bruce Greenwood) and his conniving sister Madeline (the equally underrated Mary McDonnell).

Ostensibly, Roderick is the patriarch in charge but he has a hard time corralling his narcissistic adult children (inheritors), all of whom have kinky dark sides that lead them down the bloody road to a Poe-inspired fate. Flanagan wrote or co-wrote all but one episode, and the writing is as razor-blade sharp and bloody clever as with his signature works, Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Midnight Mass” and the underrated standalone film “Doctor Sleep.”

The creepy production values are top-notch and the scares are not only frightening but disturbing. (“Usher” is more gory and loads up on more sex than Flanagan’s past series). The cast is consistently strong and features Mark Hamill going gruff as the extra-busy Usher lawyer Arthur Pym, who attempts to mop up the family’s many messes. Another treat is seeing Flanagan regular Carla Gugino as a mysterious presence popping up throughout the lives of Roderick and Madeline. It all makes for ghoulish fun that’s well-suited for the upcoming Halloween season. Make no mistake, though, this isn’t just a bingeworthy streamer; “The Fall of the House of Usher” just so happens to be one of the best series Netflix has ever produced. Details: 4 stars out of 4; all episodes drop Oct. 13.

“Lessons in Chemistry”: Ask any book club member to choose one of their favorite novels from 2022 and chances are Bonnie Garmus’ beguiling novel featuring a quirky brainiac with one of the best names ever — Elizabeth Zott — will pop up on that list. While the misfortune was mine for not reading it beforehand, I will definitely do so after watching showrunner Lee Eisenberg’s moving eight-part adaptation for Apple TV+.

I can see why “Lessons in Chemistry” found a favored spot on bookshelves everywhere. But as fans know, divulging too much about what happens to Elizabeth (played to the eccentric hilt by Oscar winner Brie Larson) would be a recipe for hate mail. Suffice to say she stars as a brilliant chemist whose career is blotted by the patriarchy ruling the science world of the ‘50s. What can be also be said is that there is great chemistry between Larsen and Lewis Pullman as hot-shot chemist Calvin Evans who shares the same passion as she and is just as equally socially awkward. A turn of events upends their careers and leads the resilient Elizabeth on a path to a subversive cooking show. “Lessons in Chemistry” could have been tighter (trimmed to six episodes), and a subplot about Black neighbor Harriet (Aja Naomi King) fighting racial injustice could be more developed. Still, “Chemistry” comes up with a winning formula in the end. And one episode that gets told from the perspective of the family dog Six Thirty (voice of B.J. Novak) tears you up — particularly if you’re a pet owner. Details: 3 stars; two episodes drop Oct. 13, with a new episode dropping every Friday through Nov. 24.

“Foe”: What unfolded well on paper doesn’t fare so well on screen in Garth Davis’ misguided but very good-looking version of Iain Reid’s ambitious sci-fi-tinged psychological drama. Its central premise about a stranger (Aaron Pierre) making an extraordinary offer that calls into the question the relationship of an isolated couple (Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan) in a farmhouse and separates them for an extended period of time is indeed intriguing, but the unpredictable turns in the screenplay — written by Davis and Reid — wind up ringing false and unraveling into a pretentious, impenetrable mess. There are big themes explored here — including AI — but the should-be unsettling material gets way too cluttered and at times becomes laughable, disconnecting us from the plight of these two, who seem to use up a hell of a lot of water during a drought that’s killing off the planet. That is just one of the puzzling aspects of a production that unfortunately squanders the talents of Mescal and Ronan and its gorgeous production values. Just read the book. Details: 1½ stars; opens Oct. 13 in San Francisco theaters and Oct. 20 at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button