The most notable asset of 1976’s Burnt Offerings is its astonishingly beautiful location: the Dunsmuir House, an actual Gilded-Age neoclassical-revival mansion. The place is so damn-all period-gorgeous, I can picture Stanford White leaping like a stag through its front door, his red velvet swing tucked under his arm and ready to install. But the house is more than just a pretty face. It’s an actual character in the film and therefore vital to the plot. Not just any bungalow will do; the atmosphere, the very presence of the building is important. And la maison Dunsmuir has presence literally through the roof; I was under its spell from the first shot. The story follows a small family house-sitting for the mansion’s eccentric owners, a pair of rich, elderly siblings who send up more red flags than a May day march (“Run!” is what comes to mind when they appear). But the family likes the house, particularly the mother, who gradually slips under its influence, keeping herself closeted in its upper rooms. And the house, it seems, lives off such human interest, to the extent that it absorbs human life to rejuvenate itself…
Well, dang it, I’m ok with that. If this house wants me, it can have me; take me, I say, I’m yours. Dunsmuir and his architect, bless them, created the house of my dreams: it’s like Garbo with pillars and a veranda, it’s perfection. Lordy, what I wouldn’t give to live in a place like that. You could probably live in a different room each week for a year, it’s that big. I don’t care if it needs a crew of thousands to clean it nor Google Maps to navigate it. After decades of cramped studio living, where the bathroom is only five paces from my bed, the kitchen cabinets are made of pressboard, and the private lives of my neighbors are an open secret, I am starved for beauty, comfort, and square feet. Oh, for a domicile with more than one room. Just think, I could open a door and walk through it into another space, and it would still be mine.
As you might guess, I react strongly to habitations in movies. Whenever I watch Leave Her To Heaven, I don’t follow the story; I just drool over the houses. Sure, evil Gene Tierney drowns her brother-in-law and causes her miscarriage, but don’t you just love that pastel decor and the subtle use of lighting over those mirrors? So with Burnt Offerings: while all its characters are battling household demons, I am battling the urge to reach into the celluloid and grab me some textured wallpaper and carved woodwork. What’s an indoor ghost or two when you can have an indoor greenhouse and an honest-to-god window seat? Films are dream vehicles in mores ways that you think; and this one offered enough visual spaces to start musing about the decorative ones.
This very effect that the Dunsmuir chateau had on me made me understand how it affected the film’s characters. Talk about your object of desire: I knew why the wife immediately fell in love with the place and why the husband was taken aback by it. It’s that kind of dream logic, when something zooms past your surface reactions and wedges itself deep into the psyche. It’s really like something out of a dream. Like The Haunting, the movie’s mansion is beset not by outer ghosts, but by its inhabitants’ inner demons; it focuses, like a skewed prism, the family’s frustrations and antagonisms. As the wife is drawn apart and into a compulsive cleaning routine (stroking the house’s expensive possession like a lover does the body of the beloved), the husband, a blocked writer with little to do, falls into impotence and despair. It’s the house’s ambiguous nature, of magnificence and decrepitude, the way it both enchants and oppresses, that magnifies the family’s dormant fears and resentments—all of which it then feeds off, like an exquisite leech.
Burnt Offerings (not the greatest title for a movie, by the way; too tempting for bad jokes) apparently wasn’t well-received on release, by both critics and audiences (it grossed well under $2 million). But I liked it. There’s nothing ‘burnt’ about it, it’s cooked to a nice simmer, like homemade soup. The story doesn’t hurry itself, especially at the beginning, which may have been the reason for the film’s tepid reception. But I appreciate that feature as an old-fashioned virtue, just as I appreciate old-fashioned home cooking. We get to know characters before plot mechanics begin to trim the cast list, we’re allowed to sink into the story as we would into a thick comforter. So when the scares do start popping up, we’re that much more frightened.
And the film does have other delights besides its decor. Mainly there are its three stars, Karen Black and Oliver Reed as the married couple, and Bette Davis (looking oh so grande-dame suave flaunting a cigarette in a holder) playing Reed’s aunt. Three monstres sacrés of cinema; and here they are, all together, amid all that lustable crown molding. (Oh, I did enjoy this movie…) Supposedly, Davis did not get along with her co-stars (why does that not surprise me?), particularly with Black; but onscreen she and Reed achieve a nice chemistry. The two often seem on the verge of flirting, and that just seems right for these outsize creatures. They’re fabulous monsters, they belong in their own special mythic realm. I could imagine Reed and Davis in their own movie series (how about “The Bette and Oliver Mysteries”?), joshing each other between plot twists; an August-December Nick-’n-Nora. I’d give a burnt offering for that.
I will add that Oliver Reed, an underrated actor, is excellent in this film. I used to think of him as just jowls and a glower, but he had range and sensitivity. He could roar but he could be subtle. And he wasn’t a hog; he gives space to his co-stars. His scenes with Black as his wife are telling; Reed allows delicate shifts in his demeanor—in the turn of his head, the way he tenses or slumps his shoulders, how his eyes follow Black throughout a scene—that let us see how much more dependent is his character. He develops this ‘arc’ through the film; it’s clear that Black, in spite of looking as fragile as crystal next to the hulking Reed (and did I mention all the glorious glassware on display?), is really the dominant one in their relationship. And it’s her dominance that leads to the family’s final undoing.
Reed is also very good with the young actor Lee Montgomery as his son, the two demonstrating that playful physicality between male relatives, of rowdiness masking tenderness. Their scene in a swimming pool (another item I lusted for), during which their affectionate roughhousing turns into savagery, was genuinely terrifying. When I watch scenes like that (especially when they’re done well, as here), I find myself wondering how the actors prepare for it. Particularly when one participant is a child and the other is a physically intimidating specimen like Reed. I assume it was carefully rehearsed and may even have used doubles, but I was caught up in its realness as I watched. The scene gets at something deep and scary in family interactions—at the buried anger, and how the pressures of intimacy can unleash rage. It’s why you don’t quite forget the film, even if you’ve seen it only once. Its horrors are rooted in the basics: in the mix of feelings about the family that sustains you and the dwelling that shelters you. These seep into you, with little overt razzle-dazzle but with a lot of quiet dread.
I suspect such quiet qualities was why Burnt Offerings didn’t please everyone originally, and why it’s a niche horror film today. It lacks gore, nudity, jump shocks, special effects, a faceless killer swinging an axe, and those repetitive two-chord musical themes that signal Something Nasty is lurking in the cinematic woodshed. But it has its own reticent virtues, and it will scare you (I haven’t even mentioned the parts with the spooky chauffeur). Let its mood and setting wash over you, let yourself sink into its rhythms as you watch.
And while you’re all doing that, you must excuse me. I’ve got a house to attend to…
For another look at Burnt Offerings, I recommend this excellent post by one of my favorite bloggers, Ken Anderson, at his terrific blog Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For..