Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Ray Bradbury Theater: Usher II

How much time do we have left to read Edgar Allan Poe before the Cancel Culture comes to censor him? Don’t think it couldn’t happen, because they’ve already declared H.P. Lovecraft off-limits. As a dissolute self-styled Southern gentleman, who lived and died in Maryland before the Civil War, it is only a matter of time before they target Poe too. Can you imagine how impoverished American literature would be without Poe? William Stendahl doesn’t need to. The futuristic reader of supernatural literature lived to see Poe forbidden by law, in Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, but he intends to give the censors a taste of Poe’s medicine in “Usher II,” a macabrely heart-warming episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, which airs on Comet TV this Sunday.

Twenty years ago, Stendahl watched helplessly as agents of the Department of Moral Climates burned his beloved library, very much in the style of
Fahrenheit 451. Since then, the wealthy bookworm contented himself with a crazy boondoggle: rebuilding the spooky old House of Usher. Of course, Investigators of Moral Climates do not take kindly to eccentricity, so as soon as he has taken possession, Mr. Garrett comes calling, with the intention of declaring Usher II morally unacceptable.

However, this time Stendahl is ready for him. He and his loyal assistant, Pikes, a former Lon Chaney-like actor, murder Garrett and replace him with an android. The phony book-burner subsequently reports to his Moral Climates associates, Stendahl has finally seen the error of his ways and invites the committee to a party to mark the end of Usher II. Of course, the festivities are inspired by the great Poe stories that none of the censors will be familiar with.

While Bradbury’s story was technically set on Mars (and included in the
Martian Chronicles), the RB Theater version, directed by Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors & The Devil’s Double) and adapted by the man himself, seems to imply an earthly setting. In all other respects, it is quite faithful to the story.

Patrick Macnee is absolutely perfect as old Stendahl, freely combining gleeful villainy and righteous indignation. The way his eyes twinkle, it is clear he was having a ball. Ian Mune also portrays Mr. Pikes with the sinister rage and mournful sadness of a vintage Universal monster. Plus, Garrett and the millennial building agent are absolutely nauseating in their ignorant moral smugness.

Frankly, this series looks like it is due for restoration, but the story of “Usher II” and Tamahori’s brisk dramatization could not be timelier. This is no longer a futuristic tale. This kind of thing is happening now. Obviously, Bradbury created two diametrically-opposed extremes in the murderous Stendahl and censoring Garrett, but he openly invites us to identify with the former. The question we should all ask ourselves is which of the two do we think the candidates we voted for yesterday would feel greater affinity for? If its Garrett, why on Earth did you vote for them? Good subversive fun, with a deadly serious message, the “Usher II” episode of
Ray Bradbury Theater airs this Sunday morning (11/8) on Comet TV (and its streams on Peacock and the IMDb app).