Friday, August 31, 2012

BURNT OFFERINGS 1976

I’m not sure what a sociologist would make of it, but the 70s (that post- hippie, “Me” decade of Watergate, the energy crisis, and the close of the Vietnam War) seems to have spawned more than its share of movies and novels about malevolent domiciles. The Amityville Horror (1979), The Sentinel (1977), and The Shining (1980) are all films based on popular 70s horror-fiction novels that sought to update the traditional haunted house story.
Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel chronicling the gradual dissolution and ultimate destruction of a family after they take up temporary residence in a large house possessed of a deadly supernatural force, predates Stephen King’s similarly-themed The Shining by four years. I read Burnt Offerings back in 1975, as soon as I’d heard that it was to be adapted into a motion picture reuniting Karen Black with Dan Curtis, the director of the popular TV-movie, Trilogy of Terror (1975).
"There's no such thing as fun for the whole family" - Jerry Seinfeld
The involvement of Dan Curtis— the man behind the long-running Gothic TV soap-opera, Dark Shadows and a TV-based director/producer who never met a horror-cliché he didn’t like—was considerably less promising to me than the possibilities presented by the top-drawer cast assembled (always such a rarity in horror films). Karen Black, red-hot at the time, was cast as the wife; Ken Russell alumni Oliver Reed, fresh from the success of Tommy (1975), was the husband, and veteran star Bette Davis was rescued from TV-movie hell to bring her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? / Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte scream-queen gravitas to the small role of Aunt Elizabeth. Rounding out the intriguing cast were Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart and indefatigable hambone Burgess Meredith as the eccentric owners of the parasitic (vampiric?) summer rental at the center of the story.
Karen Black as Marian Rolf
Oliver Reed as Benjamin Rolf
Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth
Lee H. Montgomery as Davy Rolf
Eileen Heckart as Roz Allardyce
Burgess Meredith as Arnold Allardyce
On its release, I was happy to find Burnt Offerings to be a serious-minded, slavishly faithful adaptation of the book (with the exception of a more cinematic, crowd-pleasing ending) that avoided the usual post-Exorcist bombast and instead concentrated on mood and atmosphere. It's one of those rare films that can give you a good, solid scare when you watch it alone, yet provide plenty of unintentional laughs when you watch it with friends. Contemporary audiences are likely to find the film predictable, slow, over-reliant on tried-and-true clichés (there should be a moratorium on rainstorms in haunted house movies), and hampered by the kind of empty ambiguity that often signals poor storytelling; but it’s those who saw Burnt Offerings when they were very young (the film was rated PG) or before The Shining and the Amityville series drove the genre into redundancy, that today recall the film with the most fondness..
The Face That Launched a Thousand Bad Dreams 
Few knew the name of the ghoulishly grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) but no one ever forgot the face. 
A film critic once compared the horror genre to pornography (a 70s film critic...long before the genre's decline and the arrival of  those wretched "torture porn" movies) making the point that no matter the flaws, porn films work if you find them exciting, and horror films work if they are scary. Is Burnt Offerings scary? Had I seen it as a ten-yer-old, I would say most emphatically yes. Seeing it as an adult, I can't say it scared me so much as it took me on a fun ride. Perhaps it's due to Mr. Curtis' "style" but Burnt Offerings is like an expanded episode of the TV show, Night Gallery. It's more a well-told mood piece than good scary movie. (Perhaps the scariest and most unsettling thing is how this family considers it a  "vacation" to spend their entire summer working harder than I do in a year. Even before the house starts acting up, all they do is clean!) However, ask someone who saw it as a kid and they'll tell you it was the scariest film they ever saw.
Karen Black discovers that a long-neglected greenhouse has blossomed overnight

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
One of my favorite things about Modern Gothic is when the horror is portrayed as some kind of external manifestation of some form of inner turmoil in the characters. As in The Shining (and more successfully, if in a slightly different vein, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby), Burnt Offerings nicely grafts familial dysfunction onto the conventions of the haunted house genre to create an eerie sense of tension both supernatural and psychological. When one really watches how the Rolf family interacts, it's easy to imagine that perhaps the "right people" the Allardyces seek for the house are ones living under a pressure cooker of repressed frustrations and barely constrained hostilities.
From the very first moments we meet the Rolfs, one gets a sense that all is not exactly well with this family. Pragmatic Ben and over-ardent Marian don’t really EVER see eye to eye before things begin to rapidly go awry between them. What is made explicit in the book (her domestic dissatisfaction, his creeping fear of mental illness) is only hinted at in the film, but the keen performances by Oliver Reed and Karen Black shore up the sense that the house doesn't really change these people, it merely amplifies that which is already there.
Unseen Terror

PERFORMANCES:
Always one of my favorites, screen legend Karen Black may not have been able to sustain the kind of career she once had (the partial blame for which she subtly lays at the feet of Burnt Offerings director Dan Curtis in the comically discombobulated DVD commentary for this film), but there are few actresses who can boast of having starred or appeared in as many films that have gone on to attain classic or cult status.
Black’s boom years were 1974 to 1976, a period in which it was near-impossible to avoid her on the big screen or television (her performance of “Hound Dog” on The Tonight Show is burned in my brain to this day).  The uniquely glamorous, off-beat, unofficial face of The New Hollywood, the ubiquitous Karen Black appeared in a staggering ten feature films and TV-movies in these three years, among them, some of the biggest and most high-profile releases of the era: The Great Gatsby (1974), The Day of the Locust (1975), Nashville (1975), and Family Plot (1976). And of course, one cannot forget Airport 1975, a film so iconically silly that the line of dialog: “The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!” was made into the title of a book about films of the 70s.
Bring on the Crazy
The eminently watchable Karen Black is the main reason I love this film. Even when her performance veers into the eccentric (and let's face it, they always do), she is so obviously coming from a perceived place of truth for her character that she wins you over with her sheer conviction.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
The central gimmick of Burnt Offerings is that house renews and repairs itself with every injury, drop of blood, or instance of physical or spiritual decline it can extract from its inhabitants. Dan Curtis’ television-trained penchant for close-ups and tight framing robs the film of the kind of visual scope necessary to make the scenes of spontaneous regeneration really pay off, but his claustrophobic eye is well suited to building a sense of dread out of a million little isolated details.
A history of violence is suggested by the discovery of a vintage pair of eyeglasses with a discomforting hole through the center of one lens.
Things That Make You Go Hmmm
Oliver Reed reacts to discovering all the clocks in the house have miraculously wound themselves
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Because I so enjoy a good scare at the movies, I’m almost ridiculously willing to suspend my disbelief if it better ensures a solid payoff at the conclusion. (On that point Burnt Offerings delivers mightily; it has a great final act.) But a movie has to work with me. I can accept the most outlandish plot machinations if character's actions and motivations follow even a marginally recognizable pattern of a recognizable human behavior. As soon as characters go off doing patently stupid things just to advance the plot, well, then you lose me. 
 To its credit, Burnt Offerings plays it smart most of the time. For example: To better counterbalance the swift susceptibility of the Karen Black character (who is sympathetic, if ultimately hard to relate to) and get the plot moving despite everything about the initial setup screaming, “Don’t rent that house!”, Oliver Reed’s dialog mostly has him giving voice to every doubt the audience is thinking. This is a great device that subtly pulls you in with the thinking that if a character at least acknowledges something smells fishy you're more likely to stick it out when they inevitably start disregarding common sense and doing all the wrong things.
Slightly annoying son Davy proves to be something of a disaster divining rod when it comes to who's to be the target of several "attacks" by the house in its attempts to destroy the Rolf family
Burnt Offerings is not a great horror film, but it's a good one that I enjoy rewatching a great deal. Not scary so much as eerie, Burnt Offerings plays like a supernatural parable on the risks of being controlled by one's possessions. Anyone who's ever owned a car, a home, or property can relate to feeling at times as if repairs, taxes, upkeep...the whole desire to acquire thing.... can easily dominate one's life. That one is living one's life at the will of the things we sought to possess but that ultimately possess us.
The mysterious photograph collection of vaguely startled looking people 
The Dunsmuir Estate in the Oakland Hills (near my parent's house!) was used for the Allardyce mansion. It looks considerably less creepy now.
Oh, and as for my Karen Black obsession: in spite of her filming Burnt Offerings near my parent's house in Oakland, and the previous year filming Hitchcock's Family Plot in San Francisco where I attended college, I never once made the effort to catch sight of her on location. Thirty years later, in Los Angeles, I would finally meet the object of my teen fascination when I went to see her in her play, Missouri Waltz. She was a real sweetheart, and I was near speechless. But boy, you should have seen her face when someone held out a poster of The Day of the Locust for her to sign (not her favorite movie), it was like one of those looks she shoots Oliver Reed when she has to rescue him from the attacking vines!

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Excellent piece as always Ken. I don't actually think I've seen this one...though I've seen more than my fair share of 70s films with Burgess Meredith popping up in and he does look familiar here - perhaps my parents had it on one evening when I was a kid (they never really bothered with 'is this suitable for kids?' my Mum and Dad) who knows. The 70s were certainly the ultimate era for the arrival of these big doorstopper horror and macabre novels and they inevitably found their way to screen eventually with varying degrees of success. My sociology education is inclined to agree with your analysis-perhaps after the all too real scares of Vietnam and Nixon, the average American cinemagoer or reader wanted some 'out there' scares to combat the reality? Nice to see Ollie Reed, I always felt he was poorly served Stateside for film roles, but then he never really did himself any favours.

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    1. Thanks, Mark.
      Maybe you did see this movie when you were young (although Burgess Meredith sort of majored in loony roles like this in the 70s. He pretty much plays the exact same role in "The Sentinel"). One of the things I like about horror films as a genre is how explicitly they tend to reflect the social anxieties of the eras in which they are made. In the 70s Americans seemed preoccupied with examining the cracks in the American Dream.
      And I agree with you about Oliver Reed's US films; I don't think we knew how to use him. Somehow "the Brood" is fondly remembered by many (I never saw it).

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  2. Once again, you've spotlighted a movie that I enjoy so much as well! Davis's last scene may very well outdo even Baby Jane in terms of how rotten she looks. Good lord! The fact that she goes from being pulled together and quasi-stylish to completely degraded appeals to my obsession with disaster. LOL I know that the first time I saw this, I wished that I could be the one to go swimming with Oliver Reed (were his eyes ever as blue as in this movie?) He was so sexy. The kid got on my last nerve, though, but that's often the case for me. I think it's been a good two or three years since I watched my DVD, but you've reignited my taste for it. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Yes, this movie is very enjoyable in lots of ways. Bette Davis does indeed look terrible towards the middle of the film (Karen Black on the DVD commentary: "I've seen people dying in real life that didn't look that bad!"). I think it's a very effective device, only I wish we had more scenes of her when she was supposed to be "spunky". The 70s habit of using diffusion filters makes it hard to see how good she's supposed to look at the start.
      I love it that you thought Oliver Reed was sexy. In the scene where he asks Karen why she suddenly finds him repulsive, and she responds "You're incredibly sexy", the audience i saw it with howled. Me, I couldn't figure out why he coerced his wife to swim in the nude yet still kept his trunks on. I expected more from the man who wrestled naked with Alan Bates!
      And if you want to talk about how annoying little Davy is, I'm afraid you're going to have to get at the back of a very long line. Always great hearing from you!

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  3. Very fortunate you are to have met Karen Black!

    The first thing I thought about when you mentioned Ms Black's displeasure at being asked to sign a "The Day of the Locust" poster was how Sir Alec Guinness would have similar negative reactions to "Star Wars" fanatics asking him about his role as Obi Wan Kenobi and wanting him to sign things pertaining to the film.

    Did Karen end up signing the "Locust" poster--or did she make the fan eat it?

    Looking at those mirror image screen captures--who guessed that Stanley Kubrick was such a pirate? Even the kid looks the same in both pictures! Jack is a much more attentive driver than Oliver. Close call between Karen's yellow neckerchief and Shelley Duvall's turtleneck creation.

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    1. Hey Mark,
      Karen Black may have had a strong facial reaction, but she was so gracious to the guy and even wrote a bit more than just her signature. Me, I was having an out of body experience. I couldn't believe I was talking to Connie White from Nashville!
      By the way, your comments on the mirror image screen caps cracked me up! (Jack, the attentive driver.)

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    2. Wow, has it been almost a year since you posted this review? Well, I'm pleased to say, I've finally managed to watch this film. Yes, Davy really is an annoying little brat! Was I the only one who enjoyed a bit of a sadistic chuckle when Oliver Reed damn nearly drowned the little brat? I also found it most amusing when, just before dunking the kid, Oliver Reed makes those "blub, blub, blub" sounds and swims about like a sea monster--take that, Jaws!

      Speaking of amusing, what about the way that Burgess Meredith, as Arnold Allardyce, leers at innocent little Davy? To me, the stroke of genius here is when dear demented Arnold tries to guess the kid's age..."eight, nine years old?" I bet Arnold was really disappointed to find out that Davy was twelve.

      I have my own list of reactions to this film. I'm sorry, Ken, but when Karen Black said, with a totally straight face, to Oliver Reed "You're incredibly sexy", I said aloud "Give her the Oscar!" Later, when Oliver Reed assure Bette Davis that she's not old, I said "Give HIM the Oscar!"

      The cinematography in this one is a real treat. I love the overexposed look of it all--it reminds me of those photographs from my very early childhood! The film has a distinct dreamlike quality, and I appreciate the fact that the film sets several of its most effectively chilling scenes in broad daylight.

      "Burnt Offerings" reminds me of two of my favourite horror films from the 1970s, namely "The Stepford Wives" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". The former, because Karen Black seems stricken with a compulsion to clean everything in the house. The latter, because of all those plants coming to life. One of my favourite parts of the film is, instead of plants withering and dying, the film managed to spook the audience by showing plants blossoming to life. And yes, the last few moments of the film caused me to gasp audibly! What a tremendous finish!

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    3. I wasn't aware when you wrote me a year ago that you hadn't seen "Burnt Offerings" before. So glad you got around to it!
      I recall when I saw this film at the theater, Karen Black telling burly ol' Oliver Reed that he was incredibly sexy did indeed garner a big laugh. Too big.

      Also, by what I read online, you're not alone in your annoyance with little Davy.

      Glad you commented on the cinematography. A great deal of the hazy glow the film has was done by a lab technique known as "flashing", and it was very popular in the 70s. They used it to great effect in Day of the Locust, Lucky Lady, and The Great Gatsby.
      High Definition DVD buffs hate it because the images are not as crystal clear when restored digitally, but like you, I personally like the effect.
      Fun observations you make about the film. I'm glad you saw it and I'm even happier that you liked it. Thanks for sharing the experience, Mark!

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  4. "that the house doesn't really change these people, it merely amplifies that which is already there."
    So right. And that's the difference with the Shining, which also has a person whose sanity was transformed after he entered a house of ill reputation (not THAT reputation!), but Kubrick didn't care for his characters, yet he played them - save for Jack Torrent - for sympathy. I still haven't come to terms with Stanley's Shining and I doubt I ever will...
    I find the Rolf family interesting, but not sympathetic. Which is most evident in the one who is usually cast as The Adorable Kid: Davy. If one draws sympathy, it's the Reed character.

    Labeling Oliver Reed as sexy is an understatement! There has never been an actor with so much undiluted testosteron in his eyes and in the lines of his mouth. That mouth alone is a Nature's miracle. Ollie was incredibly RAW. He didn't just sweep me off my feet in 'Women in love', he crushed me. Where other late blooming teens wanted to marry their fathers, I swore I would drag Ollie to the altar, even if it would take restraint belts and a whiskey IV. On top of that I sofar had seen men naked only in (semi)biblicals like Ben Hur and Spartacus, and that was Hollywoodian make-believe nudity, there always got something in the way between camera and actor. Remember Huston's 'The Bible'? I was waiting for the great moment of Adam's Creation. And he was never finished properly!
    (A few years ago I found the original Spartacus movie poster in Google. Two gladiators in the arena both fully nude, measuring each other up. It had been withdrawn in 1959 as too, well, too unsettling for schoolboys who were going to watch the movie together with their gym teacher. So in a panic I googled for an image of the Greek Disc Thrower statue, to assure myself that no idiot from Hollywood had dressed him in one of Kirk Douglas's silly arena speedos!

    In 'Women in Love' Alan Bates was the sexy intellectual, but Ollie was Marvel's Supermacho. And British enough to look natural in a silk chamber gown and a classic smoking (which I vehemently declared unfit anyway).
    In 1972 'The Triple Echo' teamed him with Glenda Jackson again. An underrated movie in which he had a wonderful if not hilarious role. It made me a fan for life. He had a wonderful voice too, deep and husky.

    Sorry for butterflying from one movie to another...

    In realtime Oliver was every mother-in-law's nightmare. A bit unsettling then to see him in 'Burnt Offerings' as an average family man. The coupling with Karen Black also seemed somehow unusual. But fifteen minutes into the film it was like I had seen them playing together for decades.
    So, one of the better 1970's horror movies, although it owes it all to Reed, Black and a particularly impressive Davis.

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    1. Hi Willem
      I have never read such a wonderful (and amusing) hymn to the charms of Oliver Reed! It really seems like he got a lot of young boy's fancies stirred up during his heyday. I never got to see "Women in Love" until many years after its release, but had I been permitted to see it when it came out, the testosterone duel of Bates and Reed would have likely caused me to pass out in my seat.
      I also never got around to seeing The Bible, but in my hometown they had an ENORMOUS poster of Adam over the marquee that mesmerized me no end.
      I have "Triple Echo" on a YouTube list of films to watch, I hope it hasn't been removed, you make it sound very interesting.
      lastly, i have to concur that seeing both Oliver Reed and Karen Black cast as average folks was quite jarring for me when I was young. The idiosyncratic pairing of two of the least "average" actors you're likely to ever come across is what really got me excited about the film in the first place.

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  5. Just watched this for the first time in at least 20 years. Not as scary as I remember, but what a cast! A horror film budgeted at this level today wouldn't come close to this caliber of acting. The scene that always stuck with me, even more than the ending, is the pool scene with the father and son. So primal; it still works beautifully and Reed is amazing in it, especially when he slithers off under the water after the kid smacks him with the goggles ( I bet this played very well with audiences of the time, coming just a year after Jaws!).
    Many people (myself included) probably remember this from television, where it ran frequently in the late 70 and 80s. With Dan Curtis directing, it works well for that medium. Tight shots almost always look better on tv than long ones, and, unlike many horror films, not a lot of this film takes place in darkness, which is always problematic for television (or at least the television technology in use back then). I wish the DVD looked and sounded better than it does, though. It looks little better than VHS, and, with this cast, deserves a better transfer.

    Still, I enjoyed revisiting this film more than some other, more ballyhooed works from the period. It's more interesting than The Omen, more fun than The Shining (and with a better ending, in my opinion), and superior in just about every way to The Amityville Horror.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! The cast for this film really is outstanding and elevates what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill haunted house film beyond the pale.
      Interesting too, your comments regarding Dan Curtis' TV roots and how they (perhaps inadvertently) helped to make this a film that plays very well on TV - especially in the pre HD days.
      Love that pool scene!

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