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Poe Relations: Avant-Garde Veteran Revisits His Haunted Past

Strange and sublime: Harrington in Usher
photo: Anthology Film Archives
Strange and sublime: Harrington in Usher

A founding figure of the second wave of the American avant-garde, Curtis Harrington was born in Hollywood—or somewhere just down the street. In 1942, Harrington, then 14, made his first film, a version of "The Fall of the House of Usher." The story of siblings doomed to follow each other into death's maw, the film was uniquely cast: Harrington himself played both parts. Nearly 60 years later, Usher (2004)—an elaborate home movie with a professional veneer shot mainly in Harrington's little pink house—closes a circle. The 36-minute film, which receives a one-week run during Anthology's retro, is flush with evidence of Harrington's trademark blend of the strange and the sublime: disarming close-ups of agonized longing, a ghoul from beyond the grave dressed in a Victorian nightgown, and the director himself locked in death's embrace. Now in his late seventies, Harrington has had a career that could serve as a haunted-house tour of Off-Hollywood, or the car pool lane to Hell. In the early '60s he made Night Tide, in which Dennis Hopper has a love affair with a mermaid, for producer Roger Corman, and in 1967, Universal gave him what might have been his big break with Games, a creepy modern-day haunted-house flick starring James Caan and Simone Signoret. What's the Matter With Helen?—starring old-school shriek queen Debbie Reynolds—quickly followed. Perverse and intensely personal films, both fell victim to studio indifference, and Harrington's mainstream career seemed to evaporate like the mist from a broken fog machine.

 
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