I was not terribly surprised when Ryan accepted my offer to watch with me a movie Bette Davis made in the ’70s, which guaranteed “freaky, old Bette” fun. Both of us were expecting a campy, comically bad horror flick, not unlike those that became Joan Crawford’s specialty late in her career (see Trog, Strait-Jacket, and Berserk). We were both pleasantly surprised to find Burnt Offerings as a legitimate horror/thriller and Davis’ performance quite agreeable.
Davis is actually a minor character in the flick that offers screen time to scarcely more than six individuals. She plays Aunt Elizabeth who joins her nephew Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black) and their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) in renting an old mansion for a summer. The home is run-down looking from the outside, but fine on the inside. It is in a secluded wooded area nearby a nothing of a town. The entire flick takes place on this property, giving the story a trapped feeling all around.
The notion of dangerous houses is a regular theme in horror flicks, but Burnt Offerings takes the evil nature of an estate to literal lengths. When Ben and Marian interview the house owners Roz (Eileen Heckart) and “brother” (Burgess Meredith), they speak about the home as being immortal and said having the young boy around would be good for it. They were also overly pleased to hear an old woman would be staying with the family. They notify the renters that their mother lives in a third-floor room and that they will have to take her meals three times a day. She won’t be a bother or leave her room, they say.
When the family arrives to move into the house for the summer, the brother and sister are absent, leaving a note that they had to exit early. Marian climbs to the top floor to check on the mother and finds an empty tray and dishes in the adjacent sitting room. The woman does not answer when she knocks on the door, so Marian presumes she is asleep.
Marian fills her days with cleaning and sprucing up the mansion while Ben and Davey explore the grounds and clean out the swimming pool. During their first dip in the water, however, Ben is overcome with some evil force and tries to drown the boy while Aunt Elizabeth screams at him to stop. Marian easily forgives this rough-housing got out of hand. The next strange occurence is the sudden awakening of all the clocks in the house that have been out-of-order. They all jump forward to midnight and chime while everyone is asleep. This prompts Ben to leave his bed, which is when he discovers the gas furnace is leaking in Davey’s room and his door locked. Aunt Elizabeth admits to being in the room earlier but denies any wrongdoing.
Aunt Elizabeth, a woman described as energetic for her age, has become increasingly older in her appearance and too tired to leave her bed. One night she is literally green with illness. Ben and Marian try for a doctor, but he arrives after the woman has passed. Ben is now thoroughly convinced the house is evil, but Marian is too enthralled in the estate to leave it and too committed to the mother to leave her alone. When Davey is yet again put in peril, Marian is finally persuaded to part, but must return inside to tell the mother of their departure. When Ben goes after her, we find out what is behind the mysterious bedroom door.
I don’t know that I can totally unravel the mythology at play in Burnt Offerings, but suffice it to say this house is not so much haunted as alive itself. It seems to prey on the young and old alike, taking their lives as a way of rejuvenating itself, such as through the flowers in the greenhouse that resurrect themselves after Aunt Elizabeth’s death, and the shingles and siding that shed to reveal younger versions. It’s a thrilling and creepy concept that is well executed.
The hints of Marian’s madness or corruption are subtle with the gradual greying of her hair –which is restored when the family decides to leave– and her glances at the third-floor window when her personality changes. The practical effects, however few were necessary, add to the unsettling feeling the audience gets as we continually try to rationalize what has occurred. Burnt Offerings is a fantastically understated horror flick that only further establishes my growing fear of Victorian-era houses.