Allow me to briefly expound upon my love of haunted house movies. They are, bar none, my go-to genre of horror film, and my list of favorites includes many stellar examples: The Haunting, The Others, The Changeling, The Innocents, The Shining, The House by the Cemetery, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Ghost Story, The Legend of Hell House. There is just something so inherently nasty about the haunted house story. Your house, after all, is where you sleep, where you get naked, where you’re the most vulnerable, where you’re supposed to be able to relax and live your life safe from the prying eyes of the public. When this feeling of safety is subverted by a haunting, you feel doubly violated, as you have nowhere to go to escape the terror; it has literally invaded the place where you live. The haunted house film, when done well, gives the viewer a sense of claustrophobia and unease that cannot be matched by any other subgenre. Intense atmosphere can be wrenched from every shot of a darkened hallway, a locked door, a dusty basement or attic. Our houses are our outer shells, and when they turn on us, the results can be horrifying.
One of my favorite haunted house films of the 1970s, and one that typifies the “house as living entity” trope apparent in many films of the period, is 1976’s Burnt Offerings. Based on Robert Marasco’s novel and directed by Dan Curtis (well known as the creator of the 1960s vampire soap, “Dark Shadows”), the film tells the story of a married couple, Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black) who rent a gorgeous neo-classical mansion for the summer, along with their 12-year-old son David (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s delightfully sassy aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis). The beginning of the film sees the couple arriving at the house, unable to believe that this enormous estate is the same one offered for a “reasonable” price in the ad they answered. The first person they meet is the obligatory toothless hick caretaker, Walker, and shortly afterward they come face to face with the owners of the house, the weirdly intense brother and sister team of Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart). The siblings offer the Rolfs the unheard-of rental price of $900 for the entire summer, provided the Rolfs are “the right people.” Ben is skeptical, thinking the whole situation is too good to be true, and monumentally freaked out by the Allardyces’ strange way of talking about the house as if it’s alive. The viewer is pretty much on Ben’s side too, at this point, since we have already seen Arnold watching hungrily out the window as David falls and cuts his leg as he’s playing in the garden. We have also seen that one of the dead plants in the greenhouse has developed a new, young shoot.
Marian, however, has no reservations at all about renting the place, as she has already been seduced by its beautiful interior, full of shining wood, sparkling chandeliers, priceless antiques, and creepy old photos in ornate frames. Her enthusiasm is hardly dampened at all when the siblings throw in one final “catch”: their 85-year-old mother will be staying in the house with the Rolfs. The Allardyces insist that their mother will be no trouble at all, that she never leaves her room and that they will probably never even see her. All they ask is that Marian make a tray of food three times a day and leave it on the table in their mother’s sitting room. Ben is extremely put out by this condition of their rental (what if the old woman dies on their watch, he rather reasonably points out to his wife), but he finally gives in when he sees how much Marian loves the house. They move in on July 1st, planning to stay until Labor Day.
From there, little things conspire to make the house seem creepier and creepier. Marian begins to spend all her time cleaning and fixing the house up, and insists that no one is allowed into Mother Allardyce’s quarters but her. Ben and David find an old cemetery on the grounds, in which all the graves are Allardyces, but none of the death dates is more recent than 1890. Ben also finds a mysterious pair of broken spectacles at the bottom of the swimming pool. The trays of food that Marian dutifully leaves for the mother are never eaten, and the old woman never responds to Marian’s knocks. Marian herself slowly begins to dress more primly, as if she is from the era when the house was built. She also takes to mooning around for hours in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room, listening to an antique music box and staring longingly at the old woman’s collection of photographs. Her hair is also slowly beginning to turn gray.
As the tension builds, the weirdness gets weirder: while horsing around in the pool, Ben succumbs to an uncontrollable bloodlust and almost drowns his son. Marian notices that certain things around the house and grounds seem to be regenerating themselves. The windows and doors in David’s room close and lock, and the gas heater somehow turns on and almost kills him. The formerly perky Aunt Elizabeth begins to quickly decline from some mysterious ailment, and eventually dies.
And then, there’s Ben’s nightmare.
The night after almost drowning his son in the pool, Ben has a dream, filmed in spooky black and white, of himself as a little boy attending his mother’s funeral. In this nightmare, there is an unsettling figure of a lanky chauffeur, clad in a black uniform and dark glasses, lurking around the outer edges of the funeral party, and standing by the door of an old-fashioned black car to usher Ben inside. Ben gets into the car, and then the chauffeur’s creepily smiling face appears in the car window. The chauffeur is so eerie looking that one wonders if it was an actual person that Ben remembers from the funeral, or just a product of his subconscious. In either case, what the hell is that freaky-looking chauffeur smiling at?
As if the dream scene wasn’t bad enough, there comes a chilling sequence later in the film where Ben, who has been out working in the garden, is taking a break, sitting on the grass and drinking a beer. Suddenly, he sees the grille of a car approaching through the trees. It’s the same black car from his nightmare. It comes ever so slowly up the drive, and Ben is just sitting there watching it, shaking like a leaf. The car stops several yards away, and the chauffeur’s pale face can be seen through the window, watching Ben with that horrible smile. Ben loses his shit and covers his eyes, and when he looks up again, the car is gone.
The third appearance of the chauffeur is also a cracker. Ben is sitting with his dying aunt one night and hears a car pulling up outside. Creeping to the window, he sees the telltale black car coming around the drive. He wigs out and backs slowly away from the window back toward Elizabeth’s bed. Both Ben and a nearly incoherent Elizabeth begin to hear a noise at the door, as of someone trying to get in. Then there’s a close-up of the door, and then a loud bang as the door opens, then there’s that damn chauffeur in the doorway, grinning, his eyes invisible behind his dark glasses. There’s a full-length shot of him standing on the threshold, a shot of Elizabeth screaming, and then the chauffeur pushes a coffin into the room toward the camera, and everything goes black. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
I’d like to add here, on a personal note, that the first time I saw this film was when I was about thirteen. I was at a slumber party at an old mansion owned by the wealthy parents of a friend of mine. This house was straight out of a movie itself, with a giant sweeping marble staircase, crystal chandeliers, back staircases for servants, and endless twisting hallways leading to rooms upon rooms. I had never seen such a house in real life, and it was probably not the best environment to see Burnt Offerings in, for as soon as the chauffeur made his first appearance, I and all the other girls at the slumber party were scrambling to hide under the blankets on the sofa or hightail it out of the room. The house around us just seemed a little too similar to what we were seeing on the screen, and we could all imagine glancing behind us and seeing that smiling motherfucker standing in the doorway and pushing a coffin at us. It’s a memory that’s stayed with me for almost thirty years.
As for the rest of the film, as you can probably guess, things don’t go well for the Rolf family. Spoiler alert: everybody, including the kid, dies in various horrid ways, except for Marian, who becomes the formerly non-existent Mrs. Allardyce in the end, a living embodiment of the house.
When I was doing research for this recap, I noticed that reviews of the film were very mixed, as many filmgoers felt the ending was too obviously telegraphed, but I’ve always found that the atmospheric creepiness of the journey makes up for any pedestrian aspects to the plotting or theme. One also has to take into consideration that many aspects of the film that seem old hat to people nowadays weren’t quite the clichés they are now, and in fact, some themes in this film were quite original, but later co-opted for later films in a similar line. I also really think the acting is terrific; Karen Black is always great, and Oliver Reed is splendid, especially in scenes featuring the fun, smart-ass bickering between Ben and Elizabeth. So if you’re in the market for a classic slice of 1970s haunted house eerieness, you could certainly do worse than Burnt Offerings. The book is great too, by the way, and with that, I’ll bid you pleasant, chauffeur-free dreams.