You know how sometimes when you’re bored and kinda hung over on a Sunday, and you go poking around YouTube looking for some comforting 1970s horror to watch while you inhale your hearty lunch of homemade Swedish meatballs? And you know how every now and then, you fortuitously stumble across a made-for-TV movie from 1977 that you hadn’t heard of, and how sometimes that movie was written by Richard Matheson and starred Karen Black? Isn’t that fucking rad when that happens? I’m here to tell you that it is quite rad.
The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver is evidently something of a forgotten gem from the late 1970s, and despite its pedigree, hasn’t really gotten a great deal of attention; hell, I don’t think it’s ever even been released on DVD, at least in the U.S. The version I saw on YouTube had been transferred from a battered old VHS tape of the original telecast. It’s kind of a shame, because although this isn’t Matheson’s or Black’s best work, obviously, it’s still a really eerie mystery with a twist ending that totally blindsided me, which is not an easy thing for an ending to do.
Karen Black plays Miriam Oliver, an unhappy housewife straining under the controlling behavior of her buttplug husband Greg (George Hamilton), a hotshot lawyer who apparently wants nothing more than a wife who will dress like a Mormon schoolmarm, pump out babies at his command, and never leave the house or question his authority for any reason whatsoever.
As you might expect, Miriam is getting pretty resentful of the fact that she’s not allowed to work or go to college, and that Greg is pressuring her to have a child before she’s really ready (side note: Miriam’s character in the movie is supposed to be 26 years old, though Ms. Black was at least ten years older than that when this was filmed). She starts to rebel in little ways, like continuing to take her birth control pills on the sly; most significantly, she goes to the mall one day and is drawn to purchase a tight, low-cut red blouse, a blonde wig, some red lipstick, and some snazzy hoop earrings. She puts all the stuff on and is both enthralled and terrified by the fact that she looks like a completely different person. She even starts to act differently when she has her “costume” on, though of course Greg doesn’t really get it and thinks Miriam is losing her marbles. He does kinda try to be understanding, but it soon becomes apparent that Miriam is having a true identity crisis, and may in fact be “possessed,” just as the title of the movie suggests.
See, I neglected to mention that at the beginning of the film (and one other time subsequently), Miriam has been having these really creepy nightmares of attending a funeral and looking into the coffin, only to see herself lying there. She also has recurrent visions of fire, a small bouquet of dark purple or black flowers, and the sounds of a dog barking and a woman screaming. She also keeps seeing a dude with a gray sweatshirt and a sweet pornstache who drives a red pickup truck that inexplicably says “gasoline” on the side. Hmmmm.
On a whim, Miriam rents a cottage on the beach without asking her husband’s permission. He’s pissed, but after he sees how upset she is and how badly she wants it, he agrees that maybe they should rent a beach house so she can get away for a while, but of course he’s going to be the one to pick it out, because he can’t let her have one single thing. He also makes her an appointment to see a psychiatrist, and she seems relieved and compliant, though she tells him she wants to go to the appointment by herself, since he has to go out of town for a trial anyway.
Of course she skips out on the appointment, and instead puts on her slutted-up garb and heads for the beach house. A dog starts following her around, and seems to know her. She ducks into a bar in town, and as she does, she decides that because she has a new identity, she should have a new name. She sees a sign with the word “sandy” on it, and decides to call herself Sandy.
But oddly, as soon as she sits down at the bar, the surprised bartender addresses her as Sandy and asks where she’s been. Freaked out, she says her name is really not Sandy, but the bartender says she looks just like Sandy, a girl who always used to come in there. Even the drink she orders is the same one Sandy drank all the time. The bartender asks the two other shadowed figures at the bar whatever happened to Sandy, and one of them says that she moved away.
Then Miriam sits at a table near the dance floor to enjoy her drink, and who should sleaze up to her but Mr. Sweatshirt von Pornstache, the guy from her dream. She’s afraid of him, as well she should be, because he is crawling all up in her space, insisting she really is Sandy and she needs to stop lying about it. He won’t fuck off when she tells him to, but luckily Miriam is rescued by an extra from Saturday Night Fever, who asks her to dance. She tells him she can’t really dance, and indeed, at first she’s all awkward and shit, but then she finds her groove and starts disco-ing like a champ, just like those chicks on “Solid Gold.” Naturally, this makes Pornstache even more suspicious, because of course the way she dances is exactly the same way that Sandy used to.
So Miriam is getting more and more wigged out (pun very much intended) because Pornstache keeps stalking her around town, and she has the funeral dream again while she’s at the beach house, only this time the dream ends in a huge conflagration, through which Pornstache leers menacingly at her.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same thing, but I can assure you that what you are thinking is not actually what’s going on. And if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you might want to stop reading at this point. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
So, you are thinking, as I was, that Pornstache killed Sandy by burning her house down, and that Sandy’s ghost is possessing Miriam, right? I mean, the word “possession” is right there in the title.
This is not what is happening. Kinda close, but much weirder.
So Miriam gets back into her regular Mormon drag, realizing that hubby Greg is gonna be home from his trip soon and she’d better skedaddle back to the unhappy homestead. But the dog that’s been following her won’t get out of her car, and finally she gets exasperated and asks a neighbor who the dog belongs to. He says it’s Mrs. Dempsey’s dog, and that Mrs. Dempsey lives a couple blocks away in “a black house with a black fence.”
Again, I know what you’re thinking. It’s a black house because it’s all burned, right? And Mrs. Dempsey is Sandy, and Sandy’s dead, right? WRONG. We really need to quit trying to guess how this is going to end, you guys. When Miriam finds the house, it’s just a regular un-arsoned house that for some reason is entirely painted black.
An old woman answers the door and says that yeah, the dog belongs to Mrs. Dempsey, who is away until later that evening. This woman is just house-sitting, apparently. The old woman calls the dog Henry, which freaks Miriam out for some reason, and then she’s freaked out even more when she sees one of those pots of black flowers on the windowsill. Then, as she’s leaving, she glances through a window of the house and sees a painting of a girl who looks very much like her, with blonde hair, a tight red blouse, and hoop earrings. Miriam loses her shit and asks the housesitter woman who the girl in the painting is, but the old woman doesn’t know. She says that Miriam should come back after seven and talk to Mrs Dempsey, so Miriam resolves to do just that. By the way, Pornstache has been lurking around this whole time, so there’s also that.
Miriam then passes another neighbor, and asks if Mrs. Dempsey had a daughter. The guy doesn’t really remember at first, but then he says that he thinks he recalls someone mentioning that Mrs. Dempsey indeed had a daughter who died five years before. AHA!!! See, Sandy IS dead!!! WRONG AGAIN. I TOLD YOU TO STOP TRYING TO GUESS.
Meanwhile, back at the Greg Oliver Prison for Matronly Breeder Wives, hubby has returned from his business trip and is calling around to try to find out where his errant wife has gotten off to. He finds out that she skipped her shrink appointment, and surmises, correctly, that she probably went to her beach house. So he heads on over there in order to give her a good talking-to.
Miriam, still being tailed by Pornstache, returns to the Dempsey house, and here’s where the big bombshell finally comes to light. Mrs. Dempsey answers the door and sees Miriam there, her face partially in shadow. She seems REALLY cheesed off, accusing Miriam of playing a sick joke on her. Mrs. Dempsey asks who she is, and when Miriam says her name, Mrs. Dempsey is all FUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOOOOOOOOOU. Then Mrs. Dempsey turns on the porch light, sees Miriam’s face properly, and calls Miriam Sandy. Miriam protests, and asks about Mrs. Dempsey’s dead daughter in the painting. Mrs. Dempsey says that the painting isn’t of her daughter, but is a portrait that her daughter painted of her best friend Sandy. “THIS IS MY DAUGHTER,” Mrs. Dempsey shrieks, thrusting a framed photograph at Miriam. “THIS WAS MY DAUGHTER MIRIAM.” And right there in the photo is matronly Miriam, complete with librarian bun and giant seventies glasses.
What in the Samuel Langhorne HELL is going on here, you may wonder? Okay, pay attention. Five years before, Pornstache (whose real name is Mark) was supposed to marry Sandy, but she broke up with his ass and he didn’t take it too well. One night when Sandy and Miriam were at Sandy’s house, Pornstache showed up and set Sandy’s car on fire. The fire spread to the house. Sandy got away, but Miriam and Sandy’s parents died in the blaze.
So basically, the Miriam we’ve been following through this whole movie really WAS Sandy the whole time. She just felt so guilty that Miriam had died because of her that she dissociated and took over Miriam’s identity. As Miriam, she met and married Greg, and only after several years did fragments of her actual identity start filtering back to her. That was why, at the beginning of the movie, that “Miriam” kept telling Greg that she felt suffocated and that she wanted to be her “real self,” though she couldn’t articulate to him who that was. Deep down she knew she was really party-girl Sandy, but Greg had only ever known her as staid, conservative Miriam. So there you have it. No possession, no ghosts, nothing supernatural at all.
At the very end, Pornstache tries to kill Miriam/Sandy, but she is saved when Greg arrives just in the nick of time. She tells him who she really is, and he seems surprisingly okay with it, unless he’s simply planning on calling the men with the butterfly nets after the credits roll. That seems like the kind of dick move he would pull.
Gotta say, I really enjoyed this quite a lot, and I don’t think that was just the remnants of last night’s alcohol talking. The funeral scenes in particular were eerily surreal and creepy as hell, and the whole thing, while rather slow-moving, was intriguingly spooky and mysterious. Karen Black was absolutely great as the unstable Miriam, and George Hamilton was appropriately assholish, without seeming like a cartoon villain. And as I said, the ending, when Mrs. Dempsey handed Miriam the picture of herself, literally made my jaw drop. I didn’t even care that the whole “possession” title was a misnomer; I was just so pleasantly shocked by this bizarre twist that I did not see coming in any way, shape, or form.
Fans of Karen Black, Richard Matheson, and eerie 70s mysteries would do well to give this a chance, and hopefully someday it will get a proper high-quality release, because it really is quite a good example of made-for-TV horror from that golden decade. It was a total accident that I came across it, but as Bob Ross would have said, sometimes there are happy accidents. 🙂
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
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.