Monday 10 May 2010

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Director: Dan Curtis
Stars: Karen Black and Oliver Reed
'Lovely!' says Karen Black as she heads out into the country with Oliver Reed and their little snapper, but this is a horror movie so we can only guess that it isn't going to stay that way for long. They're the Rolfs, Ben and Marian, and they're interested in renting 17, Shore Road for the summer, so they're driving out to take a look. It turns out to be a huge mansion, something you could imagine could be turned into a sprawling hotel, so quite what they want it for I really don't know. They live pretty close nearby too, close enough that they can drive home to think about the price, so the motivation behind the film is a little mysterious. At the end of the day, though, the price is too good to say no to. The Allardyces, who own the place, want $900 for the entire summer, from the first of July all the way to Labor Day, which is in early September. The owner tried to get more than that for the piece of crap next door to me and that's per month too.

They do, at least, wonder where the catch is, beyond the fact that they would have to keep up the place during their tenancy. Roz Allardyce and her brother Ben both seem a little strange, though that's hardly surprising given that they're played by Eileen Heckart, the drunk from The Bad Seed, and perennial pixie Burgess Meredith respectively. The Allardyces explain the catch, while explaining that it really isn't a catch, naturally. They just need to leave a tray of food out for their mother three times a day, because when they leave, they'll leave her behind. She won't be any trouble, they say. She's an 85 year old woman who could pass for 60. She never leaves the house or even her rooms. She sleeps all the time. They won't even notice she's there. And so they move in, with Aunt Elizabeth, who's played by the biggest star in the film, Bette Davis, though in a small supporting role just as in her next film, Return from Witch Mountain.
Initially things go well. How could they go otherwise in this sort of situation? Well, this is a horror movie after all and the telling line goes to Roz Allardyce, who explains how easy it will be to look after the place. 'The house takes care of itself,' she tells Marian Rolf, and she isn't kidding. This is a sort of Picture of Dorian Gray story, but extrapolated to a building and everything in it. Little Davey falling off the gazebo is enough to prompt a dead plant to begin sprouting again. A couple of months will do the place wonders. The question comes down to what the house will do to the Rolfs while they're staying in it. The story is slow but sure to build, with surprises that aren't too surprising but with suspense that is so apparent it's almost a character of its own. The writers were director Dan Curtis, who had created Dark Shadows, and novelist William F Nolan, best known for co-writing Logan's Run, who together adapted the 1973 novel by Robert Marasco.

The escalation of suspense is the primary reason to watch this, but not far behind is the choice of actors which are something of a dream cast for this story. Karen Black is a fascinating character actor, well known for her many parts that straddle the normal and the outré, making her a perfect candidate for the part of Marian Rolf. She was also a hot property in 1976, a year after Nashville and a year before Capricorn One. Oliver Reed is just as perfect for her husband Ben, given that he spends half of the film utterly under control and the other half struggling against his demons. One of the most tormented and thus fascinating British actors, to say he was rather fond of the bottle is about the most outrageous understatement anyone could ever make. His unpredictability always brought a sense of danger to his appearances and it lends an edge to his screen work too because you never know what was acting and what wasn't.

Casting him as the screen nephew of Bette Davis was an inspired decision. 'Will you quit trying to undermine my parental authority, old lady,' Ben tells Aunt Elizabeth at one point when she has Davey show him how to work a pump, but it could as easily have been Ollie talking to Bette. You just know that they would either have despised each other enough to come to blows or become the best of friends while making this film. 'You smoke too much,' he tells her. 'I know,' she replies, 'and I drink too much and I'm a lecherous old lady and I'll never make 80.' Bette went on to make 81, perhaps just to spite the scriptwriters, and while she doesn't have the largest part in this film, it's an intriguing one. Not far off 70 at the time, she looks a decade younger when it begins but a decade older by the time her story arc comes to its conclusion. How much of that transition is make up work and how much her considerable talent, I really don't know, but it's effective regardless.
Lee Montgomery is the child who is tasked with acting opposite these three heavyweights and that's not a minor thing to do, but he does fine. He was sixteen when the film was released and already had quite a bit of experience in both film and television. Nonetheless I'm sure this shoot must have been something of a wake up call for him, given who was involved. Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart are excellently cast, but by definition get very little screen time. Dub Taylor gets even less as their handyman, Walker. Most memorable is Anthony James as a chauffeur that Ben dreams about, yet another tall white ghoul of a nightmare who torments a child. His lineage may have begun with Robert Mitchum's preacher in The Night of the Hunter, to be gradually stylised into characters like the Tall Man in Phantasm and Mr Dark in Something Wicked This Way Comes. He's certainly a freaky grinning addition to this slow burner of a nightmare.

Shot almost entirely in Oakland, California at the Densmuir House and Gardens, this refuses to let us out of the house's grip for the duration, just as it refuses the Rolfs. The house was named after Alexander Dunsmuir, a Canadian coal magnate who built it in 1899 as a wedding gift for his wife. However it proved a source for early tragedy as he died on his honeymoon and his wife only two years later. Maybe they were the first victims of the house. Interestingly, it was also used as the mortuary in Phantasm, suggesting that Don Coscarelli paid a lot of attention to this film and hauled its very seventies style into the next generation. Another connection I couldn't help but make is to Stephen King, as this (or the source novel) must have been a notable influence on him, as there are many elements here that would make it into The Shining and Secret Window, Secret Garden. The former was published in 1977 and the latter in 1990.

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Oliver Reed was a load of old rubbish specifically because he was British although his rampaging heterosexuality did go someway to redeeming him obviously.