Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
That Not-So-Fresh Feeling
A classic (and therefore from this vantage point rather boring) Big Bad House in the Boonies flick (see also: The Legacy, The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, Amityville, The Shining, Skeleton Key), Burnt Offerings does offer a few things that cause it to stand apart from the crowd. One, it features mind-boggling central performances by Karen Black and Oliver Reed, who play a married couple even though it is painfully obvious that they would hardly be seen in the same restaurant together. Second, it features a fabulously batty late-career turn by Final Crone Bette Davis. But most of all, Burnt Offerings elevates itself above its peers for one main reason: it positively reeks of vagina.
Yes, folks – despite having been produced, written and directed by men, this is the most vaginal ghost story I’ve ever seen. And I don’t just mean “now, if you look real close in this shot, Marnie’s purse looks like a big vagina” vaginal – no no, this is the big leagues. We’re talking “send Freud into hissyfits of placenta-soaked hysteria” vaginal. We’re talking “Seven pregnant women dressed as Gina Gershon’s lips reenacting the life of Georgia O’Keefe on a giant, throbbing labia” vaginal. We’re talking Lilith Fair.
The tragic tale of the plucky but incompetent Rolf family, Burnt Offerings essentially wrote the book on what you might refer to as “estate sale possession”: those stories where a random struggling middle-class family somehow finds itself either guests or caretaker of a sprawling, opulent estate, which of course proceeds to devour them mind, body, and soul. A key element of these films is the incredulity of the victims at their gossamer luck at landing such a sweet pad – and of course, “too good to be true” inevitably ends up being just that, as the raven-eyed bumpkins are summarily dismantled thanks to their latent greed and general weakness of status. The lesson seems to be simple: don’t want what you weren’t born into, and you can live a long and happy life. But if that Faberge egg on the mantle catches your eye, you may as well pack your things and hop on the next train to eternal damnation.
The flick starts out with the Rolf family (ooh, such a pretty name!) taking a leisurely drive to visit the Allardyce manor – think the opening of The Shining, only on Xanax. With the largest titles I’ve ever seen in my life, we are bludgeoned into accepting that Karen Black is starring in this – or any – picture, with the help of Oliver Reed and destined-for-cute Lee Montgomery (who would really hit his high watermark in Girls Just Want to Have Fun), who will do everything short of throw themselves in front of the furniture to keep her from gnashing it to pieces.
Once at the crumbling estate (the house was also used in Phantasm and other films), the Rolfs meet Allardyce siblings Roz (Eileen Heckart) and Arnold (Burgess Meredith), a pair of old nutters who rattle about in the estate and obviously have something to hide. Arnold is of particular interest – he’s in a wheelchair and happens to be as fruity as a glass of punch. Apparently his wrists have taken up the mobility that his legs have lost, and he flops his limp hands around as he minces on about how much he likes the Rolfs, particularly their young son. He even hustles his bony ass to the window to watch Davey while he plays in the yard, salivating over the kid as if he were the main course at a NAMBLA fundraiser buffet. This movie has already managed to out-camp the competition, and Bette Davis hasn’t even shown her pickled face yet.
Despite the place being a run-down wreck, the Allardyce siblings being completely creepy, and the financial terms of the deal making me scratch my head (wait – you pay to be a caretaker? Isn’t it the other way around?), the Rolfs are apparently interested in shacking up at this mausoleum for the summer – particularly Marian (Black), who has some sort of weakness for piss-elegant décor and spinsterish bric-a-brad and just can’t WAIT to move in. Even when the Allardyces mention that their invalid mother will be remaining in the attic for the summer and that the Rolfs will have to take her a tray 3 times a day (um, WHAT?), Marian just can’t be deterred, and she somehow talks hubby Ben (Reed) into taking the place. So let’s just recap: the Rolf family is going to uproot itself for a whole summer to take care of an octogenarian and her crumbling manor miles away from civilization, and are willing to pay Burgess Meredith in order to do it. Okay. Gotcha.
So the Rolfs pack up dotty old Aunt Elizabeth (Davis, in an alarmingly non-sinister role) and the oddly cooperative Davey (“oddly” in that if my parents had told me that I’d be changing old ladies’ diapers and beating off alone all summer in the middle of nowhere, I’d be pissed) and head to Shangri-La, where it appears the owners have left unexpectedly and left their tenants/caretakers with a set of keys and instructions as to what to feed their mother. Nice of them. The family sets about whipping the joint into shape, but it actually seems to be taking care of itself, oddly – lightbulbs replace themselves, flowers grow unexpectedly, and the pool area beautifies itself without any assistance. God, if selling the souls of my family to the devil meant that my house and garden would take care of themselves, I’d be pricking my finger faster than you could say Spic’n Span.
So Marian starts spending an inordinate amount of time in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room (no one ever sees the old lady, and she never touches her food or responds to them through her bedroom door), Ben is plagued with recurring nightmares about his mother’s funeral and a creepy limo driver (Anthony James, the mincing queer from Vanishing Point), and Aunt Elizabeth is getting tired all the time. Wee Davey seems perfectly fine – when his father isn’t trying to strangle or drown him in the pool for no apparent reason. In fact, given the amount of teeth-gnashing that Marian and Ben do, David’s the only character who’s really likeable – even wacky Aunt Liz (who should really have been played by Ruth Gordon, let’s admit) seems too drunk or senile to care – one imagines that Bette and Oliver were playing quarters between takes while Karen practiced her cross-eyed stare in the mirror and Lee talked to his bookie on the phone. In fact, the number of times in this film where it looks as though the director just started rolling film while the actors were behaving naturally is alarming – Oliver Reed drunkenly thrashing underbrush with a machete; Karen Black gazing dimly at a music box; Bette Davis writhing on her bed and wailing like a wounded wildcat.
Anyway, as is painfully obvious by now, the house is out to get them, and it’s through Marian that this can happen. Sadly – and I’m about to give some shit away here – Elizabeth dies when a coffin is rammed into her in her bedroom. Wait, what?! Wasn’t that a dream sequence? Well, whatever. After the funeral, Ben decides that they have to leave the house before it destroys them (despite having just left the house for the funeral, with no repercussions whatsoever – fickle bitch, ain’t she?) and manhandles Davey into the car, leaving Marian behind. The trees on the road have other plans, though – and they stop the car from getting very far. Marian drives a shell-shocked Ben and Davey back to the house, where Davey proceeds to go swimming in front of his paralyzed father. Somehow I don’t think this is in accordance with the American Lifeguard Association “Buddy System for Young Swimmers”, but whatever. The pool (already a bit of a tender subject for Davey, considering that pops tried to murder him in it only days ago) tries to swallow Davey as Ben watches on, horrified, and Marian screams from a distant window, unable to help. Let’s not even get into the way that spacial relationships seem to fall to the wayside in this film, but it’s interesting that Marian can see the pool now even though it wasn’t visible before.
Marian saves Davey from the pool, Ben snaps out of his paralysis, and Marian finally agrees that it’s time to leave Munster Manor and head home. But when they’re all packed in the car and ready to go, Marian hesitates – she should at least tell Mrs. Allardyce, shouldn’t she? I mean, the lady’s going to want to know if the people who make all the food that she doesn’t eat are leaving, right? At this point we know that Marian is eating the food herself, for some reason – isn’t “secret eating” a sign of eating disorders? Or possession? At any rate, she goes upstairs, Ben follows her, and he of course enters the old lady’s room, at which point it finally becomes clear to the one person in the audience who hasn't figured out yet (and likely Karen Black) that there IS no Mrs. Allardyce, and that Marian is the victim of some terrible supernatural possession, not to mention a bad make-up job. Marian throws Ben out the window, much to Davey's dismay -- particularly when Ben's bloody face crashes through the windshield of the car in which he's patiently waiting. It's actually a pretty horrific image for a PG movie. Davey runs screaming out of the car, at which point the utmost chimney of the house crumbles and falls atop of him, crushing the little dear flat. In the final, unnecessary voiceover by the Allardyce siblings, we are reminded that Mariam is now possessed by Mrs. Allardyce, and that the souls of Ben, Davey, and Aunt Elizabeth have fed the house for the year. Pan across a table filled with small portraits and rest of photos of the 3, the house's latest conquests.
See? Doesn't that just REEK of pussy?
Seriously, though -- even a light skimming of this material reveals one of the most vag-centric films I can think of. Floral imagery runs rampant (and Miz O'Keefe wasn't the first or only to recognize the inherant vulva-ness of many flowers), as do images of fertility and birth. The dominant spirit in question -- Mrs. Allardyce -- is a woman, as is her victim, whom Carol Clover might argue was more easily "penetrated" by the demonic force due to her femaleness (check out her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws for an interesting discussion of possession films). Likewise, the caretakers of the home are a dominant female and a submissive, queer male -- it's no accident that Burgess Meredith is putting on his best poof for this performance. The two main victims, Ben and Davey, are both male -- and hell, even Aunt Elizabeth looks like she may pee standing up on a bad day. Even Ben's emotional "backstory" (besides being totally unnecessary) involves the death of his mother, not his father -- which would be more typical in this type of story. So we've got a dominant female presence in a female home and lots of flowers and chintz and lace. I say crank up the Sarah Maclachlan and let's get swayin'!
Sadly, even this effusive coochiness isn't able to save Burnt Offerings from the floridly overdone performances of its leads, Karen and Oliver. The two seem to be competing for the camera and milk every moment for all its worth, resulting in an almost unbearable filmgoing experience. You can even catch young Lee gazing at the two in disbelief every now and then -- it's really all quite horrid. Director Dan Curtis (of Dark Shadows fame) does a fine job of getting these walking timebombs across the finish line without too much ado, but the whole thing feels just too much like a TV movie shot through a bowl of heavy cream (seriously -- lose the fog filters, kids. This ain't Angela Lansbury we're shooting here.). In all a definite must-see for its contribution to the genre and influence on later films, and kind of fun in its own right, but neither brilliant nor ridiculous enough to get a real good charge out of.