By JUSTIN MCDEVITT
If I have learned anything from 1970s horror and was asked to impart my limited wisdom upon a crowd of newly married straights looking to move to the suburbs, I would humbly declare: “THE HOUSE IS TRYING TO EAT YOU.” Evil forces independent of the home itself may be at work, but more often than not, the pretty lil house you moved into to start a family will be the death of you. This week I’m breaking down the 1976 supernatural horror flick BURNT OFFERINGS. This entry into the haunted house sub-genre may not scare you with ghosts, but it will scare you with the realities of domestic life in America (was that a cheesy thesis? Yes. Do I want cheese now? Gimme cheese).
Written and Directed by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror), BURNT OFFERINGS stars Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror, Family Plot), Oliver Reed (The Trap), Burgess Meredith (Batman), Eileen Heckart (The Bad Seed), and Bette Davis (Need I really list a single fucking film of hers? NEED I!?). The film runs just under two hours, but it’s a long two hours.
Ben (Reed) and Marian (Black) are a happy couple looking to rent a home for the summer. Arriving at the house for a viewing with their son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery), they are instantly convinced that the spooky white mansion they’ve stumbled upon cannot possibly be their summer home – it’s far too grand! At first, they speculate that they must be trying to rent the guest house out back or the servant’s quarters. Stepping out of their station wagon, the quintessential Patronus of the American family, Ben and Marian approach what is undeniably a haunted house rather than driving very quickly away and going to the beach for the summer like reasonable people with some disposable income.
We meet quirky (“quirky” is nice for diabolically insane devil worshipper) siblings Roz (Heckart) and Arnold (Meredith). Arnold is definitely gay even though Roz has the gayer name. These two siblings who must do Satan stuff are very intent on getting Ben and Marian to move in. Their eagerness really comes out when they don’t at first see Davey and have to confirm that Ben and Marian have a son. Eek. Roz says, “The house takes care of itself,” in exactly the demon-y way it sounds. It already feels like this house is alive. Roz agrees to rent the house for $900 for the whole summer provided Marian takes care of Mrs. Allardyce upstairs, their sick mother. As a viewer, you feel like you’ve stepped into an alternative universe where Rosemary’s Baby, The Haunting, The House of the Devil, The Amityville Horror, and The Omen are all happening at the same time.
A few days later, the happy family moves into the house with the creepy white pillars and the sinister chimney, and the ghoulish windows (is anyone sensing a theme?). This house is so obviously haunted it looks as if it was furnished by Pier 1 Imports For The Recently Deceased. Joining them for this summer of fun is Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). She delivers a few one-liners as if she’s a female impersonator performing Bette Davis at a gay bar, but for all the acerbic banter, we are taught that Aunt Elizabeth is not a bitch. She is full of life. She likes to paint. She wears rainbow blazers. In a small way, the character seems to be a departure from other Davis roles, but the effect is that she just sort of glides around. I don’t mind. I picture her waltzing around, Gibson in hand, smoking cigarettes, and cashing all her residual checks from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Her performance is wonderful but underutilized. I think it might be strange for fans of her more overbearing works to watch this because they might leave feeling let down. The cure? Watch Dead Ringer directly afterwards for double the Bette fun.
Ben spends his days fixing up the house (which, frankly, is a weird thing to do when you’re ON FUCKING VACATION) while Marian devotes most of her time to preparing meals for The Mother and then snooping through her belongings. The pacing here is very disjointed. It feels like the actors pause and count to fifteen before someone delivers the next line. This is not a movie to watch if you are feeling impatient because the pacing will drive you mad. But if you can push through this slowest of slow burns, I think you will be rewarded.
Everyone is so pleasant to each other that it feels like a commercial for America; all that’s missing are photos of Gerald Ford and Jesus hanging above Bette’s bed. But underneath their pleasantries, there isn’t darkness, but instead an almost self-referential acknowledgment of their Leave It To Beaver existence. As Ben enters the house he says to Marian, “Hey slave!” while she vacuums the staircase. In his humor, Ben is dismantling power structures by bringing them to the surface and saying what they truly are. Her responsive laughter says, “Yes we seem like pod people, but we are not like them. We know. We’re different.” The house has a seductive quality to it, and spares no time in trying to mess with Ben and Marian. I can’t decipher tonally what Dan Curtis is going for. Is he trying to say that the house is trying to kill them for living such a cookie-cutter existence? Are we supposed to leave this film thinking that domestic life is bad and leads to murder, or all happy couples ought to be killed? Or, is it the scariest scenario of all that the suburban home life is the ideal, the safe place, the end goal?
“…the film is poking fun at domestic life by trying to kill it.”
In between segments where Dan tries to do murders to Davey (Davey is a very patient child), Bette Davis is feeling ill, and that’s all I care about. Over the course of the film, she goes from vivacious aunt to bedridden old lady as the house exerts its influence. In the doorway, she sees a tall man in a suit with a casket. I should note: I get no Phantasm vibes whatsoever from this sequence, which is objectively weird, considering that the house used for this film, called Dunsmuir House, is the exact same house used in Don Coscarelli’s 1979 classic. The Casket Dude charges at Bette Davis and although it happens off-screen, she’s dead. This supernatural vision of hers was exactly what I needed to confirm that BURNT OFFERINGS is always doing a slow dance with camp. Now, I can say with more certainty that the film is poking fun at domestic life by trying to kill it.
Ben begins the slow descent into madness a la Jack Torrance. It’s fun to watch how the house paralyzes him in a sequence where Davey almost drowns in the pool. But there are times when Oliver Reed’s accent pulls me out of the moment. He sounds very much like Richard Burton, so as the film progresses and he battles the demons in the house, I start to feel as though I am watching the last hour of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Marian’s crazy is more understated. She starts dressing differently, making me wonder if she was stealing clothes that used to belong to Mrs. Allardyce. Her style starts to mirror that of fashion goddess Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring series. The happiest of families soon realize that the house is rejuvenating itself off of, you guessed it, their life force. It’s not that this movie reminds me of the Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House, but it doesn’t NOT remind me of Smart House either. Ben, Marian, and Davey decide it’s time to leave their summer rental. They pile into their station wagon and are about to drive off to safety, but then Marian remembers she has to tell Mrs. Allardyce they’re leaving. Mind you, we’ve never met this woman. Ben and Davey plead with Marian, but she is firm, and as she walks back into the house, we know she isn’t coming back.
An interminable length of time passes before Bed decides he too must enter the house and find Marian. Davey is the single smartest person in the film because when his dad says he’s going back into the house, Davey knows he’s an orphan now. Ben reaches Mrs. Allardyce’s room and sees the backside of the old lady, rocking in her rocking chair, another symbol of old-fashioned domestic idealism. He calls out to Mrs. Allardyce. She ignores him. Frustrated, he goes to her and that’s when we see that it isn’t Mrs. Allardyce at all, but an aged Marian.
Davey looks up at the house at the exact moment when his dad is thrown through the window, crashing headfirst into the station wagon in a segment that winds up being gorier than I would have anticipated. Davey, being of sound mind, gets the fuck out of there and never looks back and with all that trauma probably moves to New York City to be a playwright. The next day we see the house, fully restored, with flowers blooming, satisfied for another day.
Final Thoughts: BURNT OFFERINGS was one of the latest of a string of horror movies Bette Davis made in the wake of her success with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? I would have preferred her to have a larger role, or at least a badass death sequence (nobody looks good when they die in bed except for Kevin Bacon), but her performance shows that she was still very, very talented even with a lackluster script, and her rainbow blazer makes up for all of this movie’s shortcomings. I like the concept of this movie more than its execution. I wish we had more of the creepy siblings. I wish we got to the climax faster and learned more about what happens next. How long will the house be satiated? When will it start to decompose again? But I do enjoy this film’s indictment of middle-class culture: the station wagon, the perfect home, the slavish wife. In the way that slashers teach us sex = death, this film seems to purport domestic bliss = death, and I’m fully here for it. Many of us who fled to big cities grew up believing the suburbs were trying to do murders to us, and BURNT OFFERINGS confirms what we all knew to be true: THIS HOUSE IS TRYING TO EAT YOU.