Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sounds of Ruin: Sublime Sounds in the Hands of Ruin Soundtrack for Watson’s The Fall of the House of Usher

     Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been adapted in variety of mediums since its publication in 1839. There have been comics, audio recordings, artwork, operas and films. The Roger Corman version, House of Usher (1960), might perhaps be the most iconic, with the always delightful Vincent Price as Roderick Usher. However, thirty-two years prior, two silent film adaptations of Poe’s story were released: Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (1928) was made in France while across the sea in America, James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber co-created a short, thirteen minute version simply called The Fall of the House of Usher (1928).

   The Watson-Webber Usher is perhaps an overlooked incarnation of Poe’s story, but it is an interesting interpretation, especially when taken in tandem with an alternate music score composed by British martial-industrial group Hands of Ruin in 2017. The Watson-Webber Usher is done in a surreal, expressionism style, much akin to German Expressionism that was developing concurrently during the same decade. Martial-industrial music itself draws heavily from futurism which was being developed in Europe a decade before. The Watson-Webber Usher, with the Hands of Ruin soundtrack provides an intriguing configuration: a gothic story, adapted into an expressionist film, scored with shades of futurism.

     This essay will analyze how the Hands of Ruin martial-industrial score compliments the filmic version of House of Usher. First, this essay will provide details about the Watson-Webber version of the story. Since it is such a short film, there have been great artistic and practical liberties taken with the source material to adapt it to an expressionism film. Second, what martial-industrial music is, its connection to cinema and details of the Hands of Ruin project will all be clarified. Finally, leveraging the work of Dennis Pahl in his essay “Sounding the Sublime: Poe, Burke, and the (Non) Sense of Language,” it will be illustrated how a martial-industrial soundtrack compliments Poe’s gothic story via the Watson-Webber film.

The House that Watson and Webber Built

     Watson-Webber’s The Fall of the House of Usher is a surreal short film, starring Watson’s wife Hildegarde as Madeline Usher, Herbert Stern (an architect who had no previous acting experience)1 as Roderick, and co-director Webber as a traveler. Per Hildegarde’s memoirs, the film was shot in the stables near the senior Watson’s home in Rochester during midwinter.2 Per Hildegarde, “It was Webber who suggested that a movie be made of the Poe story which, up until then, had never been filmed.”3 The original version of Watson-Webber’s Usher had no soundtrack, but was later scored by family friend Alec Wilder. It is this version that can be heard in the Unseen Cinema boxset release of the film.

     The film begins with transparent and overlaid copies of the first page of Poe’s story moving across, diagonally, and up and down across the screen in a mirrored effect. A traveller arrives at the fog shrouded, silhouetted House of Usher. Inside, both Roderick and Madeline sit down for dinner and drinks. The contents of a covered serving dish – a coffin - are shown to Madeline and she faints. Later, the traveller rings the door bells of the house, summoning Madeline. She wanders the halls in a daze, before fainting again. Images of coffins flutter by as Roderick seals his sister away in a casket. Repeating images of hammers fill the screen, signifying that she is being sealed inside.

     Soon after, Roderick too begins to roam his house, swinging his arm around as if he was still hammering. Concurrently, a phantom of Madeline also wanders the halls, her form split into multiple copies as if using a mirrored effect. Roderick encounters the traveller who shows him a blank book. At the same time, Madeline’s coffin appears, with the words “Beat, Beat” (showing that she is much alive) filling the screen as the traveller turns the pages. Madeline rises from her coffin and flings herself onto Roderick as the traveller flees into the night.

     There’s quite a few alterations between the Watson-Webber version and the source material. The narrator of Poe’s story sees their role greatly reduced to that of the traveller. The filmic version instead focuses on the relationship between the Usher siblings without much input from the narrator/traveller. Roderick loses most of his characterizations, such as his hypochondria, and instead they seem to be repurposed to Madeline. The setting remains the same, though the house in the short film is much more sinister. This is no doubt due to the expressionist art style. The house shares much in common with set pieces in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene) with painted shadows and doors and staircases at odd angles. The Gothic trappings are still there, the core Poe story still intact, though imagined through a surrealist style.

The House of Ruin

     Martial-industrial, a subgenre of industrial music, has a deep relationship with cinema. The genre freely samples dialogue and sounds from various films, compose songs specifically about films and filmmakers, and even compose their own soundtracks to films.

Sampling dialogue from films and incorporating them into songs is a long standing practice for industrial music proper which can at least be traced back to Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s.4 There are numerous examples of martial-industrial projects engaging in the practice. The following examples do not constitute a comprehensive list of sampling instances, but it should succinctly convey how ingrained the practice is for the genre. TSIDMZ samples the final dialogue between Joan of Arc and God from The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999, Luc Besson) in “Avatara In Eurasia (Yeni Ceri Mix).” Many songs off Laibach’s Kapital album use dialogue lifted from films instead of traditional sung lyrics, such as Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965, Jean-Luc Godard), in “Le Privilege Des Morts,” Lifeforce (1985, Tobe Hooper) in “Young Europa pts 1-10,” and THX-1138 (1971, George Lucas) in “Regime Of Coincidence, State Of Gravity.” Von Thronstahl’s “Polar-Expedition” samples The Thing From Another World (1951, Christian Nyby) and “The Whole Great World in Flames” samples Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch). Dernière Volonté samples Klaus Kinski from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog) in “Der Zörn Gottes.” Hrossharsgrani’s neo-peplum themed album Pro Liberate Dimicandum Est samples sword and sandal films 300 and Gladiator (2000, Ridley Scott) on tracks such as “Never Surrender,” “The Victory,” and its titular track. Kreizweg Ost, a project strongly aligned to cinema, samples Der Untertan (1951, Wolfgang Staudte) in “Für Kaiser, Gott Und Vaterland” and Mädchen in Uniform (1931, Leontine Sagan) in “Eiserne Menschen.” There are, of course, numerous others instances of martial-industrial music sampling filmic sources.

     The second relationship the genre has with cinema is in regards to its actual texts. Many martial-industrial bands pay lip service to cinema by appearing on or creating themed releases, or pen songs that honour different films, directors and actors (with Leni Riefenstahl being a popular choice). Other projects even overtly state the influence cinema has on them on. The compilation albums Riefenstahl and Leni Riefenstahl 100 - Geliebt, Verfolgt Und Unvergessen both pay homage to Leni Riefenstahl, and feature martial acts such as Von Thronstahl, Allerseelen and Turbund Sturmwerk. Allerseelen has a 7” release titled Alle Lust Will Ewigkeit / Traumlied dedicated to Riefenstahl and features pictures of her from Das Blaue Licht (1932, Leni Riefenstahl) and Der Heilige Berg (1926, Arnold Fanck) on its packaging. Gerhard Hallstatt makes references to the influence of both Kenneth Anger and Riefenstahl in his work in his book Blutleuchte. Von Thronstahl’s song “Tiefland (version)” is homage to Tiefland (1954, Leni Riefenstahl).

     Finally, and most important to this essay, there are instances where martial-industrial acts have composed scores for films. The most famous is no doubt Laibach’s score for Iron Sky (2012, Timo Vuorensola) a film about Nazis from the Moon that want to take over Earth. British group In the Nursery has made film scoring an art as they have provided alternative scores (which they call their Optical Music Series) to nine (mostly silent-era) films: An Ambush of Ghosts (1993, Everett Lewis [lost film]), Asphalt (1929, Joe May), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Robert Wiene), Electric Edwardians (films from the Mitchell and Kenyon company), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928, Jean Epstein), Hindle Wakes (1927, Maurice Elvey), Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov), A Page of Madness (1926, Teinosuke Kinugasa) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer). In the Nursery has also licensed some of their music to films, such as Gran Torino (2008, Clint Eastwood), The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese), and The Manchurian Candidate (2004, Jonathan Demme), with choice cut tracks being collected on their compilation Music to Make Movies To. So infatuated with cinema, they have even composed soundtracks to imaginary films, as is the case with their Stormhorse album.

     Following in the same vein as In the Nursery, Colin Z. Robertson’s Hands of Ruin project has a similar interest in the scoring of silent films, having done so not only with the Watson and Webber’s Usher, but also their follow up film, Lot in Sodom (1933).

When Worlds Collide: The Martial and Gothic Sounds of Poe

     Dennis Pahl asks in his essay “Sounding the Sublime: Poe, Burke, and the (Non) Sense of Language,” what role sounds play in Poe’s stories and how are they used to achieve his “aesthetic goals.”5 He posits that “one of the central aims of Poe’s aesthetics” is the “pure elevation of the soul” via “the excitement of the senses.”6 Pahl points out that “sound plays a crucial role in Poe’s work … because of its ability to produce sensory effects” for both “reader and character alike.”7 Looking at “The Fall of the House of Usher” Pahl notes that the house is “one of unsettling sounds and physical and psychological instability.”8 For example, Pahl suggests that Roderick’s guitar playing is a source of melancholy and a “sense of psychological disorientation.”9

     Pahl posits that “Poe makes efforts to dramatize the way sounds become instrumental to, and often underlies, the power of words.”10 Pahl calls attention to the sequence of when the narrator reads Roderick “The Mad Trist” as Madeline rises from her tomb,11 with sounds such as a “most unusual screaming or grating sound” which occurs concurrently as the dragon is bludgeoned and emitting “a shriek so horrid and harsh”.12 Pahl concludes with “the power of language, and of the sublime sounds coming from that language, ends up not only giving vitality to dead matter, but also bringing the being the nerve-shattering experience that leads to and includes the house’s thunderous fall.”13

   The question now becomes have the sounds that Poe wrote on paper been successfully interpreted by the martial-industrial sounds of Hands of Ruin in the Watson-Webber Usher? Watson and Webber go to great lengths to replicate Poe’s sound in their silent film, especially at the end when, as Madeline leaves her encasement, the screen is filled with texts that read “crack,” “ripped,” and “scream.” The words don’t simply appear on the screen, but they flutter or jolt about, sometimes with letters upside down, sometimes backwards, with a variety of striking typefaces. This sequence perfectly replicates on screen what Poe was trying to accomplish in his text.

     Hands of Ruin, on the other hand, needs to juggle both the Poe text and the images from the Watson-Webber film to fully capture Poe’s usage of sound. Per Robertson of Hands of Ruin:

I used a mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds throughout the soundtrack. The film has one foot in the Gothic world of Poe and one in the modern and abstract world of experimental cinema. The mixture of old and modern sounds therefore seemed appropriate.

In the Hands of Ruin version, the film starts off with a low ambient hum that is found in drone and dark ambient music. As the traveller on horseback approaches the House of Usher a throbbing, rhythmic percussion is added. In a martial-industrial sense, this is quite apropos: the silhouetted traveler on horse back does have a military image about him, as if he is a scout or a cavalrymen. In a sense, the traveller is invading the House of Usher for only when he arrives does the sequence of events (Madeline fainting, being sealed away, etc.) commence. When Madeline drinks from her glass and is shown the coffin in the serving tray, the percussion escalates, becoming more bombastic, complimenting the high-stakes nature of the scene.

     In the next sequence, Hands of Ruin incorporates diegetic music in the form of bells: as the traveller arrives at the door, he pulls a cord to ring the door bell. Of course, it isn’t one bell that is rang, but a multitude of them. Even when the action has moved on past the traveller ringing the bells, the sound/music repeats a few more time, in essence shifting from diegetic to non-diegetic. This adds to both the surrealism and the unease of the sequence; the Hands of Ruin bells then become both the practical sound effect as well as part of the music, both of which lure and disorient Madeline. Hands of Ruin takes advantage of blending the music into a diegetic source a second time as the many hammers rain down on Madeline’s coffin. In these sequences, the martial drumming in the score not only compliments the action via the rhythm, but can be inferred as to coming from the hammers as well.

     It is the final, climatic sequence of when Madeline leaves her tomb that is the most important to both the original Poe text as well as the Watson-Webber version, and the Hands of Ruin soundtrack captures the sound for this sequence perfectly. As the various words fill the screen, the hands of Ruin becomes its most bombastic and jarring yet. The sequences of staircases moving upwards like gears have both a “gear-like” and “marching” effect to them, which compliments the martial and the industrial qualities of the score. The rhythm becomes more sustained and more intense as Madeline “marches” to Roderick’s quarters. This sequence is all about movement, and the inherent nature of martial-industrial music is the idea of marching forward. One of the effects of martial drumming in the era of antiquity was the destabilize the enemy, and such a destabilization occurs in this sequence: a resurrected Madeline is mad had she throws herself atop the frightened Roderick. Visually, the sequence is already shocking, but the Hands of Ruin soundtrack truly brings out the sublime elements in both the visuals as well as the adapted Poe text.

     The end result is that the Hands of Ruin alternate martial-industrial soundtrack is successful at not only complimenting the Watson-Webber Usher, but also capturing the sounds of Poe from his text. While perhaps not adapted verbatim the various creaks and screams alluded to in the text, the Hands of Ruin instead concentrates on replicating the power of Poe’s words as interpreted by Watson and Webber: anguish and melancholy.

End Notes

1. Hildegarde Lasell Watson, The Edge of the Woods: A Memoir, (self-pub, 1979), 108-109.

2. Ibid., 108.

3. Ibid.

4. Simon Reynolds, Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 101.

5. Dennis Pahl, "Sounding the Sublime: Poe, Burke, and the (Non) Sense of Language," Poe Studies 42, no. 1 (2009): 41, accessed July 28, 2018,

6. Ibid., 42.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 47.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 48.

12. Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (Los Angeles, CA: Shadowridge Press, 2017), 47.

13. Pahl, “Sounding the Sublime,” 48.

14. Colin Z. Robertson, “Soundtracking The Fall of the House of Usher (1928),” Greatwritersfranzkafka, last modified February, 2013,


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