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 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, tend to recall the film with the most fondness today.
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-year-old, I would say most emphatically yes. Seeing it as an adult, I can't say it scared me so much as it entertained me in a way that encouraged my suspension of disbelief to just sit back and have fun with it all. Perhaps it's due to Curtis having developed his "style" from years working in television,  but the PG-rated Burnt Offerings feels less like a feature film and more like an expanded episode of the TV show Night Gallery (a program Curtis criticized for its poor writing). Burnt Offerings is more a well-told mood piece than a 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 most people do all year. Even before the house starts acting up, all they do is clean!) However, ask someone who saw Burnt Offerings as a kid and they'll tell you it was the scariest film they ever saw...the stuff of nightmares.
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 an 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 at the peak of her '70s popularity (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 Big Mama Thornton's “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 10 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 dialogue “The Stewardess is Flying the Plane!” was made into the title of a book about films of the 1970s.
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 through sheer conviction.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The central gimmick of Burnt Offerings is that the 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. Not all of them followed through with or given a payoff.
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 a character's actions and motivations follow even a marginally identifiable 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 presuming 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 things.... can easily dominate one's life. That one is living one's life at the will and behest of the things we sought to possess, but which ultimately come to 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.

BONUS MATERIAL

Oh, and as for my Karen Black obsession: in spite of her having filmed Burnt Offerings near my family'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 in 2007, I finally had the opportunity to meet the object of my teen fascination when I went to see her in her self-penned musical play Missouri Waltz. When it came time for the post-performance meet and greet in the lobby, 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 2009 - 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

THE COOL ONES 1967

My fondness for…no, make that absolute love for this Swinging Sixties pop musical is as close to boundless as it is baseless. Baseless not in that I love it without reason (on the contrary, the list of things I love about The Cool Ones would fill up this entire post). But baseless in that my affection for this unfailingly gladdening go-go groove-a-rama has absolutely nothing to do with good filmmaking and 100% to do with the emotional, visceral, wholly subjective delight I derive from its cheery evocation of a particularly happy time in my youth.
Debbie Watson as Hallie Rogers
Gil Peterson as Cliff Donner
Roddy McDowall as Tony Krum
Phil Harris as McElwaine
Nita Talbot as Dee Dee Howitzer
George Furth as Howie
Mrs. Miller as Mrs. Miller
In the mid-Sixties, I was just a kid (ten years old in '67) but I had a teenage sister who subsisted on a steady diet of the latest 45s (7-inch, 45rpm records) and every dance TV show she could cram in between doing her homework and making sure one of us younger siblings hadn't set fire to the house or each other. After school she would rush home to watch Where The Action Is, Shindig, Hullabaloo, Hollywood a Go Go, or The Lloyd Thaxton Showteaching me all the latest dance steps (which often consisted of little more than planting your feet in one spot and shaking like you're trying to dislodge a spider that's landed on your clothes) and the words to the Top 40 record hits of the day via the Hit Parader magazine she religiously purchased every month. My sister's need for a practice dance partner (I was the only boy among four girls) granted me premature entrance into the world of teenagers, and I don't think I ever got over it. 

May- 1967
Hit Parader was a teen fan music publication that featured the lyrics to all the latest songs

The colorful mod clothes; the crazy, code-like slang; the infectiously happy-sounding music; the dances so formless and silly that you had no choice but to lose yourself in abandon...all pretty heady stuff for a bookworm little kid like me. I was much too shy (then) to ever express myself so freely in the outside world, but in our living room, with the furniture pushed to the sides to create a dance floor, I felt like I was a part of the very "happening" world of the '60s. For some reason, The Cool Ones brings back those days to me better than any of the similar films of the era, and thus, when watching it, I find it a physical impossibility not to break into a smile and surrender myself to the nostalgia of it all.
The Whizbam Dancers
Teri Garr (left) was a staple dancer in a great many of these '60s teenage musicals

The Cool Ones is a breezy, above-average Beach Party movie cloaked in a somewhat toothless satire of show business — specifically the teen-centric West Coast music scene, circa 1966. Hallie Rogers (Watson), a professional wiggler on Whizbam (a fictional teen rock & roll TV show patterned after its real-life counterparts, Shindig and Hullabaloo) harbors a burning desire to hang up her go-go boots and pursue a career as a pop singer. Alas, at every turn she finds her ambitions thwarted. Condescended to by well-meaning friends (“This is a boy’s world. Isn’t it enough to be with them all the time…and get paid for it?”) and rudely dismissed by Whizbam producer Mr. MacElwaine (Harris), frustrated Hallie throws an on-the-air fit that inadvertently sparks a new dance sensation: The Tantrum.
Psycho-Chick: Hallie makes a bold play for stardom
That's a young Glen Campbell back there being upstaged by desperate-for-fame go-go girl Debbie Watson. Campbell, cast as lead singer of the fictional pop group Patrick and the East Enders, would release his two signature hits the year this film came out: Gentle on My Mind and By the Time I Get to Phoenix. 

Of course, she’s immediately sacked: “How dare you flip your wig on our time!” scolds McElwaine flunky George Furth. But lucky for Hallie, her musical nervous breakdown has caught the attention of washed-up-at-24 former teen idol Cliff Donner (Peterson). With Cliff's help, plus the assistance of eccentric pop music impresario Tony Krum (McDowall) — “Tony Krum? Like, he’s zero cool! Everything he touches gets well!” — Hallie at last lands the opportunity to realize her dream of pop singing stardom. But will true love, ethics, and a modicum of singing talent derail Hallie’s teen dreams before they even start? Well, you'll have to tune in, turn on, and stay cool to find out.
"She's young,ambitious, and therefore dangerous. It takes a few
years on a girl to know how to mix a cocktail of ambition and desire."

As movies satirizing teen culture and the music business date as far back as Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), there’s really not much that’s particularly surprising or fresh in what The Cool Ones has to say about the mercurial nature of show biz, fickle teenage fans, the randomness of fame, or the absurdity of pop trends. In fact, fans of The Flintstones are apt to note similarities between the plot of The Cool Ones two episodes of the animated series: 1961 - Fred becomes an overnight teen singing sensation named Hi-Fye. 1965 - Fred stubs his toe and inadvertently creates a national dance craze called "The Frantic." But what The Cool Ones benefits from is a light touch and a wry self-awareness.  
Have a Tantrum
No question about it. The grooviest song in the entire score and my absolute favorite is the infectiously percussive "The Tantrum."  Why this song wasn't released as a single is beyond me. Although The Cool Ones failed to produce a soundtrack album, a few of its songs were covered as singles released by other artists. Frank Sinatra recorded "This Town" for his 1967 album The World We Knew, and Nancy Sinatra sang it on her 1967 TV special Movin' With Nancy. Petula Clark's rendition of "High" (the ski-lift number) appeared on the B side of her single "This Is My Song." 
Olivia Newton-John resurrects Debbie Watson's 
black T-shirt and tiger-print mini for 1980s Xanadu.

The Cool Ones doesn't take itself too seriously and things move along at a brisk pace thanks to the crisp direction of Gene Nelson. A former dancer, singer, and actor (Oklahoma!, Tea for Two) who won a Tony Award nomination for his role in the original Broadway production of Follies, Nelson directed two Elvis Presley movies and worked extensively in TV, directing episodes of Star Trek, Gilligan's Island, and Debbie Watson's 1965 TV show Tammy. The producer of The Cool Ones is actor Willliam Conrad, to whom I owe an invaluable cultural debt for producing film vehicles for Connie Stevens (Two on a Guillotine - 1965) AND Joey Heatherton (My Blood Runs Cold -1965). 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Well, I’d say it’s a neck and neck tie between the music and the dancing. Each of which is capable, at various points in the film, of being both marvelous and ludicrous…frequently simultaneously.
With a soundtrack of some 20-odd songs (accent on the odd), The Cool Ones is virtually wall-to-wall music with practically every member of the cast granted the opportunity to burst into tuneless song at one point or another. The songs are a delightfully mixed bag of groove-a-riffic pop ditties, duets, ballads, and plot-propelling book-type numbers of the kind found in traditional movie musicals. 
Warner Bros produced The Cool Ones and therefore saved a fortune in royalty fees by peppering the film's soundtrack with old songs from their vast music library. There's a great deal of amusement to be had in hearing go-go arrangements to such conservative standards as Secret Love, It's Magic, and Birth of the Blues
The Cool Ones is rumored to have initially been conceived as a project for Nancy Sinatra and her longtime songwriting partner Lee Hazlewood. (Debbie Watson does all of her own singing, but sharp ears might recognize Sinatra's trademark deadpan vocals on The Tantrum.) If that's true, it goes a long way toward explaining the relative ambitiousness of the film's soundtrack of original songs. The late-great Lee Hazlewood (These Boots Are Made for Walkin', Sugar Town) contributes many fine and very danceable tunes to the film's score, along with composer Billy Strange and several others. Even at its weakest (Gil Peterson is seriously rhythm-challenged) the music in The Cool Ones is never less than enjoyably cheesy and fun.
Roddy McDowall acquits himself very nicely singing a number whose title might well have
 echoed the actor's own thoughts about his career at this stage: "Where Did I Go Wrong?"
The Cool Ones features guest appearances by several pop groups from the '60s whom you've likely never heard of. Top to bottom: The Bantams, The Leaves, and my personal favorite, T.J. and the Fourmations, materializing in full performance out of an elevator.

PERFORMANCES
Acting of any kind usually gets in the way in movies like The Cool Ones, which run on charm, energy, and personality. Watson and Peterson make for a photogenic, likable couple totally devoid of any real chemistry, but they have real screen charisma and are certainly easy on the eyes.
That actually goes double for the molded-in-plastic good looks of Gil Peterson, the world's worst lip-syncher but best wearer of tight pants I've ever seen. With his chisled profile, Young Republican haircut, and stiff countenance, Peterson is more convincing as a Thunderbirds marionette than as a late-'60s pop star. But thanks to his one-size-too small wardrobe, he makes for terrific male eye-candy in a genre noted for it's propensity for zeroing in on the shimmying backsides of female dancers in bikinis. 
Dee Dee Goes for the Gusto
Nita Talbot's butt-grab greeting assures us were not in Frankie & Annette territory anymore

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
If the music in The Cool Ones sends me over the top (to use the vernacular, it's wiggy!), then the dancing is just out of this world. It's fun, energetic and just a blast to watch...I get all charged up seeing it. The unbilled choreographer is Toni Basil (of '80s "Mickey" fame) a Shindig! alumnus and student of David Winters (West Side Story), the great-granddad of go-go choreography. It's his distinctive style that's most apparent in the film's ensemble dance numbers. And while Winters never went on to have a career comparable to that of Hulabaloo dancer Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls), he choreographed several films (Billie and Viva Las Vegas), many popular TV specials (Movin' With Nancy), and went on to direct and produce films. 
Dancers in The Cool Ones are recognizable from any number of '60s teen musicals.
The Whizbam dancer in the top screencap with the incredible bare midriff is Anita Mann, pictured here with Davy Jones dancing in THIS VIDEO. A terrific dancer, Mann went on to choreograph Solid Gold (and even took a couple of dance classes from me back in the 80s!)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I adore the mad, mod fashions. The so-bad-it's-good dialogue (it surprises me how often I find it to be genuinely funny. The scenic, time-capsule locations in Palm Springs and Los Angeles (much of it taking place just a block away from my old apartment on La Cienega near the Sunset Strip). That odd running gag about a mystery man coveting Cliff's vintage automobile. There's even the film debut /swansong of atonal '60s novelty act, Mrs. Miller (not to be confused with Merv Griffin's professional audience member, Miss. Miller). It's a silly movie and it never apologizes for it. Maybe that's my favorite thing of all. 
Roddy McDowall pretty much coasts on the same performance he gave the previous year in Lord Love a Duck  (a superior satire, but not nearly as much fun) while effortless scene-stealer Nita Talbot and veteran actor Robert Coote provide stronger support than the film sometimes deserves.

The Cool Ones was a bomb when it came out, but I have a hunch that had The Cool Ones been made just a few years earlier, it might likely have been a hit. The world was changing fast and pop culture trends even faster. The Cool Ones -- which feels like a movie from 1965--came on the scene at a very pivotal time. It was released just months before the hippy-dippy Summer of Love ushered in the era of psychedelic rock. A time so drastically different in look and sound that The Cool Ones, with it's clean-cut teens and well-scrubbed leads, looked as dated as a hula hoop.
Now, so many years later, The Cool Ones feels like right-on-on-time. Lumped together in a movie vision of the '60s fueled by Bye Bye Birdie , Elvis musicals, and Beach Party movies, The Cool Ones fits right in. It may not be a classic on any score, but truly fun and entertaining are incredibly hard to come by, and on that score, The Cool Ones rates top on my list. Although its many pleasures harken back to my distant youth, the enjoyment it gives me as an adult brands it a timeless favorite.
And then, of course, there are still some things that just never go out of style.


BONUS MATERIAL

In 1962 Gil Peterson released an album of easy listening standards. Songs like "I'll Be Seeing You" and "In the Wee Small hours of the Morning." I've no idea how the LP did, but I can't believe sales were helped any by that weird, Kean-esque artwork on the cover. 

In Stephen Rebello's 2020 book Dolls! Dolls! Dolls! chronicling the making of the film Valley of the Dolls, it's revealed Gil Peterson appeared opposite Patty Duke in a deleted scene that had him playing Neely O'Hara's co-star in the movie "Love and Let Love."

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2012