If something seems too good to be true it most likely is; this age old adage is no better exemplified than in the horror genre, whether it’s a Monkey’s Paw or a cemetery that supposedly can bring back your dead loved ones, you just know there is going to be a catch. Today we will look at the 1976 film Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis and based on the book of the same name by novelist Robert Marasco. Both book and movie deal with a typical American family getting a sweet deal on a summer vacation home, needless to say it all ends in tears.
The broad strokes of the plot is about how this family moves into the big ole house, and how the evil inherent in the structure possesses one of them, and then has this person try to kill the rest of the family. Now if you are thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the plot of Stephen King’s The Shinning?” Well you’d be right, but The Shinning wasn’t published until 1975, while Robert Marasco’s book came out in 1973, and Stephen King himself has listed Burnt Offerings as novel well worth checking out, in his own non-fiction book Danse Macabre. Now even though they do share similar premises there wasn’t enough to get lawyers involved, so take that for what it’s worth, and the house in Burnt Offerings is lot smaller than the Overlook Hotel, so there’s that.
The movie opens with Marian (Karen Black) and her husband Ben (Oliver Reed), along with their son David (Lee H. Montgomery) arriving at this rundown neo-classical 19th-century mansion, to see if it would be suitable for a vacation spot. They are shocked to discover that this 37-room mansion, though rundown, is being offered at insanely cheap price, they at first can’t imagine being able to afford rent, and this leads to my first question, “What were they expecting? Are we to believe they drove all the way from the big city in response to an ad that didn’t provide a picture or even a brief description of the place?” I’m not saying these people deserved to get possessed, and killed by an ancient evil force, but a little due diligence on their part could have prevented all the horrors that followed. Yet things get even dodgier when they meet the owners; Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), a brother and sister team, who if not a few bats short of a belfry, are eccentric enough to ring warning bells in Ben’s head. When questioned about the upkeep of the house Roz informs Ben that, “The house takes care of itself.” This kind of foreshadowing should get any sensible person running for the hills.
When the prospective tenants are told that the rent would only be $900 for the entire summer Ben immediately suspects there must be a catch, and it being a definite fixer upper isn’t apparently an issue, but there is one stipulation, the Allardyces inform them of a particularly odd requirement for their rental; it seems their mother will continue to live in her upstairs room, and the Rolfs will be required to provide her with three meals a day during their stay. Great rental deal or not the weird siblings, and the idea of having the responsibility of an eighty-five year old woman, is a deal breaker for Ben, and he’s more than ready to walk away from the whole thing, but the house has already sunk it’s hooks into Marian, and she is able to convince Ben to go along with it.
Now the Allardyce house isn’t your typical haunted mansion, as there are no spectral figures roaming the halls, and nothing goes bump in the night nor do the walls bleed, but instead it is more like a vampire, in that it survives by sucking the life force from its inhabitants, feeding off their pain and suffering. When we first see the house’s large greenhouse it is full of dead plants, but after young Davey skins his knee, while playing in the yard, suddenly one of the dead plants has a fresh green sprout, and of course that is only the beginning.
Joining our little group is Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), who though elderly is full of vim and vigour, that is until the house slowly drains her of energy, making her listless and tired all the time, but the real first shots fired is when Ben and Davey’s horsing around in the pool, as things take a dark turn when Ben suddenly starts to try and drown his son. The kid survives, by bashing his father in the face with his scuba mask, drawing blood, and snapping his father out of his murderous fugue state, but what is more unusual than a father trying to murder his kid is that Marian tries to placate her husband, by telling him that he’s fine, and that there is nothing wrong with him.
It’s here that we really start to get indications that something may not be all right with Marian, at first we see her being a bit perplexed that the food she is leaving for Mrs. Allardyce is being left uneaten, but then once the food begins to disappear, as if eaten, she still doesn’t seem all that suspicious that she still hasn’t met the old woman face to face. That none of the Rolf’s have ever seen this old woman is beyond belief, even if the possessed Marian was okay with this oddity you’d think Rolf would at least demand to see the woman they are supposed responsible for. Any connoisseur of horror films will at this point come to the conclusion that; either Mrs. Allardyce is some kind of monster, or that she doesn’t even exist, and as the summer days pass we see Marian beginning to dress in Victorian clothing, while also shutting down her husband’s sexual advances, and this eventually leads to the big reveal that it is Marian herself who has been eating Mrs. Allardyce’s meals.
The film unfolds slowly, with us seeing Marian gradually becoming obsessed with the house, and her possession by the demonic forces in a very Norman Bates spit personality fashion, and as pain and tragedy continue to flourish the house begins to rejuvenate. After the pool incident, Marian is shocked to find that the entire pool area has miraculously changed to a pristine condition, but later, when Ben remarks on the changes, Marian takes credit for the work. When Aunt Elizabeth suddenly takes ill and dies, the greenhouse, which was once full of dead flowers now explodes with its colourful bounty, and it is at this point that Ben finally confronts his wife about her obsession with the house, pointing out that she wouldn’t even leave it to go to the funeral, and when he declares that tomorrow he and Davey will be leaving, “With or without you” the terror kicks into high gear.
While sleeping in an armchair next to Davey, who also survived a second attack by the house, when the gas in his room mysteriously turned on all by itself and almost asphyxiated him, Ben is awoken by the sound of the house shedding its old shingles and sidings. He grabs his son and they flee, only to have their escape cut off by a fallen tree, and when Ben tries to drag the tree to the side he is attacked by the surrounding plant life.
This movie is not a special effects extravaganza, evil forces aren’t constantly grabbing our heroes and dragging them into the darkness, but instead, the film’s almost two-hour running time consists of no real showy horror moments, as the film is more about the family being mentally destroyed than it is about ghosties and goblins. The closest the film gets to an iconic horror character is the introduction of a nightmarish hearse chauffeur (Anthony James), who has plagued Ben’s dreams since his mother’s death when he was a child. His grinning visage of death will send chills down the heartiest of spines, but as terrifying as he is, and the scene where he rams a coffin at poor dying Aunt Elizabeth is pretty great, he’s just a symptom of the house and is not a real physical threat.
Director Dan Curtis and screenwriter William F. Nolan were not interested in explaining how the supernatural elements of the house worked, we don’t even learn if Roz and Arnold were even human, as they could easily be just phantoms created by the house to lure potential victims in, and Curtis and Nolan hated the ambiguous ending of the book, where the kid drowns in the pool and the catatonic dad cracks his head on the cement poolside as the possessed mother, while the she passively looks on, instead the film has Marian shake off her fugue state when she sees her son drowning, and despite the house trying to prevent her she manages to save him.
This incident awakens Ben out of his catatonic state, and Marian finally comes to the conclusion that maybe it’s time for them to leave, but as they are loading up their family truckster she decides that it wouldn’t be right to leave without going up and giving Mrs. Allardyce their contact information. This is your standard horror movie moment designed to have your audience shouting, “What the fuck are you doing? Don’t go back into that house!” and of course when she fails to come back down Ben goes in looking for her. He heads up to the room belonging to the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce and he finds the old lady sitting in an old-fashioned wheelchair with her back to him, but when she fails to respond he asks her where his wife is and when he demands that she answer he spins the chair around to discovers not some strange old crone, but his wife, now aged and looking like an evil witch.
This may have some viewers wondering if there ever a Mrs. Allardyce, but we never find out, and though this ending is not quite the “Mrs. Bates skeleton reveal” from Psycho, it’s still pretty effective, but unlike Vera Miles in that movie Ben doesn’t fare as well, he is thrown out the window, to crash face first into the windshield of their car. Poor Davey rightfully freaks out, and he races around the house calling for his mother, but he’s killed when the house’s chimney crumbles and crushes him under a load of falling brick.
Burnt Offerings is an atmospheric mood piece, with the horror being more psychological than overt, and as in Stephen King’s The Shinning it is more about the destruction of the American family unit than it is about ghosts and supernatural nonsense, but it’s slow pacing and two hour run time may find modern horror fans growing a tad antsy. It’s really Karen Black who makes this movie worth checking out, as her Norman Bates-like split personality possession is pure cinematic gold, and I must say one crazy look from her and I’d certainly run screaming from that house, but as the movie doesn’t set any clear rules as to what the house can and cannot do we get the impression that the Rolf family never have stood a chance, which does take some of the fun out of it. If you compare this film to Kubrick’s version of Stephen King’s book the film it’s not going to hold up all that well, but it is certainly worth tracking down, if only to check out Karen Black’s stellar performance.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
As a horror film there isn’t a lot of scares but the cast is great and there are a few good creepy moments.