Originally published October 28th, 2014
This is the second year Oliver Reed’s shown up in my month of Halloween treats. Last year saw me reviewing David Cronenberg’s decent The Brood; this year, Reed and Karen Black play a couple living in a haunted house in Burnt Offerings. Burnt Offerings was followed by several other movies that cherry-picked elements and amplified them: madness brought on by a house (The Shining); a house that’s too good to be true (Amityville Horror); a woman tasked with taking care of an old woman (House of the Devil); a woman tasked with being a caretaker only to take on the role completely (The Sentinel); a near mute character associated with death (Phantasm). Sure, time dulls any film’s originality, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the creepier elements within Burnt Offerings, but it leaves the movie with few, if any surprises.
Ben and Marian Rolf (Reed and Black) get the deal of a lifetime on a house and move in with their young son and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis). The only caveat is the past tenants’ senile mother is living in a room of the house, and as Marian becomes more obsessed with the unseen woman and the room, the house seems to regenerate with Marian’s help.
Where we saw Reed in a more therapeutic and reduced role in The Brood, he’s front and center here. I’m actually tempted to make “Oliver Reed Halloween” a thing, if only since I know of one other horror film he stars in that I’ve wanted to see (I’ll leave you to guess it). I’m unsure if other stars were approached before him and Black, but the fact they aren’t glamorous stars lends an air of authenticity; these are “real” people being attacked. Black, especially, seems cut from the Shelley Duvall school of wide-eyed acting, although Black’s Marian fares better than Duvall’s Wendy Torrance.
Black, regardless of anyone else, is the star of Burnt Offerings, playing a character possibly commenting on the burgeoning tide of second wave feminism. Ben and Marian’s tenuous marriage is evident; for reasons that are unexplained, Marian recoils at Ben’s touch and is generally distrustful of him. As the unseen matron of the house, Mrs. Allardyce, commands more of Marian’s time, the young woman becomes obsessed by the memories, gentility, and general nostalgia associated with her. She spends countless time in a room adjacent from Mrs. Allardyce’s filled with her mementos. The film subtly changes Marian’s dress throughout the film, pushing her further and further back into the Victorian era. By the end, Marian is placed in the position of choosing between home and her independence; the movie’s attempt to condemn the “angel in the house” paradigm of Victorian methodology. Of course, it’s only once the male characters are threatened that this change happens, but it’s rather bold that the movie presents itself as showing that the tired views of females in the past were just that.
The rest of the film plays out as a slow haunted house thriller characterized by slow deterioration punctuated with a few violent moments. Ben’s violent assault on his son intensely turns childish roughhousing into a near drowning. The sustained horror comes from Bette Davis’ Aunt Elizabeth. This was one of several movies Davis made as she descended into caricature, playing another “old woman” role. It’s also said Davis and Black hated each other during filming. The house slowly sucks Elizabeth’s life force out of her, the only evidence being some very handy makeup effects (although, sadly, I don’t think they needed to do a lot) showing Elizabeth’s deterioration. Davis injects a touch of class into the movie, but she really has no connection with any of the characters. She’s as isolated as Mrs. Allardyce and Marian, and yet the movie sets up a bond between her and Ben strong enough to compel him to bring her to the new house with him. This lack of characterization extends to the couple’s son, himself a pawn continuously thrown into danger.
You also have Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith as the brother/sister Allardyce. A word of caution if you believe you’re in a horror movie: NEVER trust the overly eager elderly. Heckart and Meredith bookend the film, setting up an air of unease with their cheap rent – another dead giveaway – and their unwillingness to take no for an answer. We’re not privy to their history or true background, but that’s enough to make them just as much specters than the unknown Mrs. Allardyce.
Burnt Offerings situations the haunted house film for a new generation at the time, but it’s been cannibalized by superior films that audiences coming into this fresh might see this film as a rip-off. However, the cast works with a weak plot and characters to create something at times progressive and methodical.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.