Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Classic Film Spotlight — Dan Curtis's "Burnt Offerings" (1976)

by Christine Scoleri, John Scoleri and Jack Seabrook

The story

Burnt Offerings opens with what seems to be a family of three—Ben and Marian Rolfe and their young son David—heading off in the family station wagon to a vacation at a big old house in the country.

Burgess Meredith in a really bad wig

They arrive at the house and meet Arnold and Roz Allardyce, an aging brother and sister, who tell them they can rent the house for $900 for the whole summer as long as they agree to take three meals a day up to their elderly mother, who never leaves the house.

The Rolfes go home to think it over and Ben, being sensible, sees the whole setup as kind of weird and one to stay away from. Marian talks him into it and soon enough they're back at the house for the summer, with Ben's aging Aunt Elizabeth in tow. The place is old, dark and dusty, but Marian does a heroic job of cleaning it up while the guys relax. Or do they?

How boys learned to swim in the '70s.

Once the swimming pool has been cleaned and filled, Ben and David enjoy a dip, though things turn unexpectedly dark when a bit of fun turns into Ben trying to drown his son. The nights aren't so great for Ben, either, since he's troubled by a recurring nightmare of his mother's funeral, where a spooky chauffeur paid way too much attention to the young lad.

Ben and David reconcile and, that night, it looks like the old man is going to get lucky at the pool when Marian decides to go skinny dipping. But something in the house seems to exert a strange hold over her and she keeps poor Ben from satisfying his 1970s male urges out on the front lawn.

Not tonight, honey--I'm under the spell of a sentient old house.

And what of old Aunt Elizabeth, who finds herself feeling strangely tired and wanting a nap in the middle of the day? Ben is outside happily hacking away at some overgrown plants when he thinks he sees the same spooky chauffeur from his dream pull up by the house. That night, David nearly dies when a gas heater malfunctions in his room, and the next day, Marian is blaming Aunt Elizabeth, who really doesn't remember much of what happened.

I told you we should have gone to the Hamptons!

Marian is getting more and more invested in the house (and dressing more and more like an old lady), so when David drops a crystal bowl and it shatters, she freaks out. Before you can say The Shining, Auntie is near death in her bed and Ben is cowering in the corner when he sees the spooky chauffeur pull up and enter the Aunt's room, helpfully shoving a coffin on wheels toward her bed.

After the inevitable funeral, the house seems to be looking much better and Marian is dressing like she's on Downton Abbey. When Ben notices that pieces of the house are falling off in an overnight rainstorm and being replaced with new ones, he grabs David, hops in the car, and heads out—only to be stopped by a tree that falls across the road. Ben is injured and not doing much moving or talking, so when David decides it's a good idea to test out his swimming skills in the deep end of the pool, it's up to Marian to save him.

Karen Black's hair is the scariest thing in this movie!

All three finally agree that it's time for summer vacation to come to an end and they pile in the station wagon. But wait! Marian realizes she forgot to say good bye to old Mrs. Allardyce up in the attic. Big mistake! When she does not come out of the house, Ben goes in to get her and finally gets inside the old woman's bedroom. Surprise! The elderly woman sitting in a chair with her back to the door is not Norman Bates's mother, but instead Marian, who suddenly is looking old and creepy.

She pushes Ben out of the window and he falls to his death, landing headfirst on the windshield of the station wagon and getting blood all over David's shirt.

David runs out, yelling for his mother, but the house's tall chimney falls on him and crushes him. In the final scene, we hear Arnold and Roz in voice over and the camera goes through the newly-restored house—they are thrilled to have mother back and in the pink of health.

The novel

John: Robert Marasco had a Tony award-winning play under his belt (Child’s Play) which had also been adapted to a film when he wrote his first novel, Burnt Offerings (1973). Redbook magazine ran an abridgement of the novel in early 1973, with the curious replacement of Aunt Sarah for Aunt Elizabeth. The novel itself is an effective haunted house tale, and was Stephen King’s selection in Stephen Jones and Kim Newman’s Horror: 100 Best Books. The book deals more with the family's life in Queens before heading out to their ultimate vacation rental. Sadly, Marasco died in 1998 with only one other novel to his credit, a mystery/thriller,  Parlor Games (1979), that lacks acclaim of Burnt Offerings. In 2011, Centipede Press reissued the book in a deluxe hardcover limited edition of 150 copies, with an afterword by William F. Nolan and signed by Nolan and cover artist J.K. Potter.

The screenplay

John: Marasco had written his own screenplay adaptation, but Curtis was not happy with it. He enlisted William F. Nolan to work with him on a new screenplay. Nolan had previously scripted the telefilm The Norliss Tapes and the two segments you've likely forgotten from the Karen Black TV movie Trilogy of Terror (Richard Matheson scripted the unforgettable Zuni Fetish tale adapted from his story "Prey"). I do think the film improves on the novel's ending, but in many other ways it's a rather faithful adaptation. In a new interview on the 2015 Kino Lorber DVD, Nolan makes new claims as to how he envisioned the chauffeur character that I personally think are ridiculous; that the chauffeur was the physical manifestation of the house, preventing them from leaving—claims he did not make in the commentary with recorded for the first DVD release in 2003. And claims that are not substantiated by most of the scenes in which the chauffeur appears. While the chauffeur was enhanced from the book (the funeral flashback in the film is specifically based on a memory from Curtis's mother's funeral when he was just 13), he is present throughout the novel as in the film: introduced in an early dream sequence, appearing when Ben is working in the yard, again when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and finally when Marian drives Ben and David back to the house after they attempt to leave.

Jack: I thought the chauffeur represented Death, since he seems to appear right before a character either dies or nearly dies.

Christine: It's commonly agreed that the smiling chauffeur is one of the most frightening aspects of this film. After the attempted escape, when Ben looks over at Marian, he sees the chauffeur in her place, which might lend some support to him being a manifestation of the house (fortunately for Benji, this didn't happen during the skinny dipping pool scene, which would have been truly disturbing), though I agree this makes little sense in the greater context of his appearances. He does seem to embody death looming over the family; however, I believe the chauffeur is there mostly just to scare the pants off of all of us. He seems to be so pleased about folks dying. That's just wrong.

Christine: Dan Curtis stated in his commentary that he hated Marasco's ending and it took him 15 minutes to rewrite it, later confessing that he stole the ending from Night of Dark Shadows, where Quentin goes back into the Collinwood house at the end of the film only to be possessed and advance threateningly on his wife.

The music

John: Regular Dan Curtis composer Robert Cobert turns in what might be his most effective score for Burnt Offerings. The music box theme he created for the film is particularly haunting. In 2011, the soundtrack was finally released on a limited edition CD. Perhaps most famous for scoring Dark Shadows, Cobert worked on just about every Dan Curtis project up through his World War II miniseries dramas The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

Christine: Dark Shadows fans will likely hear some resemblance between Mrs. Allardyce's music box and Josette's music box theme, along with some other familiar notes from the daytime drama. The eerie music helps to establish a malevolent atmosphere.  

The cast

John: Despite a collection of high caliber talent in lead and supporting roles (Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor, and Bette Davis), the film is remembered fondly by most thanks to the chilling, dialogue-free performance of veteran character actor Anthony James as ‘The Chauffeur.’ James's first and last film roles were in Best Picture winners (In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven respectively), and while he had a notable career playing unsavory characters, through the simplest of smiles his chauffeur left a lasting impression on a generation of young filmgoers. Growing up watching horror films from a very early age, I quickly got past the point where they were frightening. But his smiling chauffeur made a lasting impression that I still appreciate to this day. So much so that several years ago, I reached out to the actor and was quite surprised to receive a call from him. We had a wonderful chat, I found out that he had retired from acting and had pursued his passion in fine art. He was incredibly gracious with his time, a soft spoken man responsible for so many nightmares to so many children, and he not only provided me with a contact to get a private exhibition of his work at a showing in San Francisco, he also sent me an autographed copy of his art book, Language of the Heart. His life and career is an amazing story, recently documented in his autobiography Acting My Face, which I also highly recommend.

Jack: I always think of Anthony James as the creepy guy from High Plains Drifter.

Christine: I enjoyed his interview on the Kino Lorber edition. He recounts conversations he had with Bette and how wonderful he thought it was to work with her. He also appeared with her in Return from Witch Mountain. Amazing how he did so little in this film yet had such a big impact.

John: Bette Davis also deserves credit for an impressive performance in the film. She goes from being an older yet spry woman to a withering, sickly woman on her death bed. She truly sells it in the final scene as she and Oliver Reed listen as the chauffeur drags a coffin up the stairs.

Madam, your coffin is served
Jack: I wasn't very impressed with her work in this film, though I blamed the script rather than the actress. She seems to say her lines with a bit of theatricality that doesn't fit with the rest of the performances.

Christine: I don't know how you can watch her death bed scenes and not be impressed. It's horrifying to watch as her back breaks and she collapses to the bed screaming, and disturbing to hear her moaning while her eyes roll back into her head. Any other actor may have made those scenes appear laughable. Her agonizing groans punctuate the sounds of the coffin as it bumps up the stairs and truly heighten the level of fear to a fever pitch. This is no quiet Dark Victory demise and much more harrowing than her death in Beyond the Forest. She expertly conveyed how the house was sucking the life out of her. Makeup alone would not have sufficed in making that believable. For an experienced actress with more than 80 movies under her belt, she makes it look easy. 

John: Lee Montgomery also deserves recognition for holding his own amongst the veteran cast. He would later star in the most effective segment of Dan Curtis's anthology TV movie, Dead of Night, "Bobby," scripted by Richard Matheson.

Jack: That kid was so annoying in this movie, but I found Karen Black even more annoying. I liked her in Family Plot, which came out about six months before, but not in this. Dan Curtis is no Hitchcock.

Christine: Well, Hitchcock is no Dan Curtis either. To each his own style. Bette Davis also worked with Hitchcock in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Out There--Darkness" (Season 4, Episode 16).

That's a photo of Dan Curtis we see next to the new additions to the collection.

Christine: Though we only saw them briefly, Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart are quite delightful as the quirky Allardyce siblings who give the impression that things aren't quite what they seem at the too-good-to-be-true deal of a summer house. Dub Taylor provided some toothless authenticity as the useless handyman of the shabby manse.

The house

John: Interiors and exteriors were shot on location at the Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California, which would later be used as Morningside Mortuary in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. The production designers did an amazing job dressing the exterior of the house to look dilapidated from the outside in the beginning, so we can truly appreciate it's literal rebirth as the story progresses (and adding an additional chimney where warranted by the screenplay!). I was particularly impressed when touring the house several years ago to realize that they had in fact shot almost entirely on location, from the pool to the living room, to the upstairs bedroom where Bette Davis took her last breath in the film. And yes, I took great pleasure looking out the window to the driveway below where the hearse pulled up in the film.

Christine: All we needed was for Bette to say, "What a dump!" when the family drives up to the house. It goes through quite a transformation during the movie.  

In summary

John: I will always have a soft spot for Burnt Offerings. I enjoy the film today as much as the first time I saw it on television in the late 70s.

Jack: I don't know why I never saw this movie before now. I was 13 in 1976 and was aware of it. I had talked my parents into letting me see The Omen not long before this one came out. Seeing it today, it's not a great movie but it's not a bad movie, either. I like that there is no gore until the very end, and that's used in a way that it is very effective. Oliver Reed was a hot property in the mid-'70s but seems a little out of place here. The biggest problem is the direction by Dan Curtis, who overuses low angle shots. The film would seem like a TV movie if it weren't for the cast. Fun to watch, but I doubt I'll come back to it.

Christine: Burnt Offerings is an underappreciated film that has a lot going for it and is really quite frightening if you're paying attention to the details. The title of the film alone implies there will be sacrifice. The looks of horror, dismay and surprise on the faces in Mrs. Allardyce's photo collection create a real sense of unease from the get-go. The subtle clues that the house is feeding off the family, the geranium that regenerates after Davey's fall, the light bulb that suddenly starts working after Ben cuts his thumb opening champagne, the antiquated, broken eyeglasses Ben finds at the bottom of the pool before turning into a raging madman, the greenhouse of decaying flowers that bloom to life after Aunt Elizabeth dies--these allow us to understand why the family remained in the house, oblivious to these connections, and work to build suspense throughout the film. One of the truly frightening moments comes when Ben decides to grab David and leave. For the viewer it creates tension, because we know the family needs to escape the evil house, but we can understand Davey's fear that Dad's gone off his nut again, as well as his anguish over leaving his mother behind, as he attempts to fight off Ben in his reluctance to leave. When the trees throw themselves down to block their path and vines wrap around Ben's legs to pull him down as he struggles to break through the foliage, we realize that escape is hopeless and the family is doomed. We are allowed a small measure of hope when Marian goes back to wearing her '70s garb and breaks a window in her beloved house to get to David to rescue him from drowning, but we know when she decides to go back into the house, as the family readies to depart, that it's all over. Burnt Offerings is unique when compared with some of the other haunted house films such as Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and The Shining, because this is the only film where none of the family makes it out alive. That is truly macabre.


Walker Martin said...

It's been 40 years since I last saw this movie at the drive-in(I still miss drive-ins). I just ordered a copy for $4.70 plus postage on amazon.

AndyDecker said...

The chauffeur is unforgetable. When I first watched it I liked the family dynamic, but never was sold on Reed being married to Black. Still the tension in the marriage was nicely done.

As I was in an impressable age, the ending was an absolute surprise. The movie is in the top three of the Haunted House category. But James as the silent chauffeur was more frightening then 5 Jason's or Freddy's together. Nightmare stuff even in the sun. I wonder if the screenplay put that much emphasis on the character as he later had on screen. One of those lucky breaks of movie making.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Hi John. Sorry I haven't been able to comment on your entry earlier. Have been very busy lately. I enjoyed reading your fab article on "Burnt Offerings". I've always liked this film.

Also, I'm hosting another blogathon. This time the idea was proposed to be by another fellow blogger. Anyway I would like to invite you to join in. The link is below with more details.


angelman66 said...

Great article on one of my all time favorite guilty horror pleasures! Just watched it again for the umpteenth time the other night. Agreed, Bette Davis has a tour de force with her key supporting role, and Anthony James practically steals the film as the creepy chauffeur. He scared me to death when I first saw this with my dad at the tender age of 9. Heckart and Meredith add to the films camp value, and Black and Reed carry the story compellingly. True, this has many shades of The Shining though it predates the film by a couple of years.
Loved finding this via a photo of The Chauffeur on the Aging Broad with a Scrapbook blog. Looking forward to looking around on your cool blog!
- Chris

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for stopping by! This was a fun film to write about. I hope you find some other posts of interest on our blog.