Saturday, May 19, 2018

Vamp or Not? Burnt Offerings

I was contacted by Adrien who wanted to mention the 1976 Dan Curtis film Burnt Offerings to me. Based on a novel by Robert Marasco it was a film that Adrien felt should be on TMtV.

I’m always happy to get suggestions and this is one that deserved, at the very least, to have the ‘Vamp or Not?’ treatment and also contained tropes within it that would emerge perhaps more famously in other (horror) films in years to come. It also boasted a small but astounding core cast. So, why the ‘Vamp or Not?’ – well, if we have a vampire here it is a vampiric house.

David and Ben
The film starts with a car and in it are Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black, Children of the Night (1991) & Night Angel) and their son David (Lee Montgomery, Dead of Night & Mutant). They are going to see a country house that is up for rent (at a reasonable price). When they arrive it is a mansion rather than a house and Ben assumes there must be a cottage/gatehouse for rent. They knock at the door and it is eventually answered by the handyman, Walker (Dub Taylor).

Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth
He confirms it is the main house that is for rent and goes to get the lady of the house, Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). Whilst they are waiting David goes to play outside and Marian discovers the conservatory, but all the flowers are dead. Roz makes her appearance. They are renting the house out through summer and it is reasonable, she confirms, but wants to check their suitability first. She asks a few questions and we discover that Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) will be coming with them. They are soon joined by Roz’s wheelchair using brother, Arnold (Burgess Meredith).

Karen Black as Marian
The rent is just $900 dollars for the summer but there are catches – they must see to the house upkeep through the summer (Walker, it becomes apparent, will not be there). Also, their mother will remain in the house, she is elderly and they will need to bring her a tray of food three times a day. Ben is suspicious and asks for time to think about it. Back home, in bed (as sirens wail outside) it is clear that Marian has set her heart on spending summer there and Ben confirms they’ll take the house. When they arrive to take tenancy, however, the siblings have gone, leaving them a note and keys. Marian tries to check on Mrs Allardyce but she does not open her bedroom door and, indeed, doesn’t touch the trays left for her for at least the first week.

The film slow burns, with a layer of uncanny enough to keep the viewer on edge but without doing too much. The personalities of Ben and Marian change. His a little, a game of rough-housing with David, in the pool, turns violent and he later admits that he wanted to hurt his son – though that seems to shock him back to normal but he becomes suspicious of the house and Marian’s behaviour. He also starts dreaming of his mother’s funeral, from when he was a child, and hallucinating the hearse and driver – who has become the personification of death in his eyes. Marian becomes obsessed with the house and Mrs Allardyce’s rooms. In the room are photographic portraits and the siblings mentioned her collection (and suggested they numbered into thousands).

the flowers in bloom
The most marked change is with Aunt Elizabeth who turns from an elderly but still sprightly woman to a weakened old lady who becomes more and more confused. This culminates with her becoming frail and, suddenly, whilst in bed we hear a crack. This is her arm snapping, her bones have become so frail, and as they wait for a doctor both her and Ben see the hearse driver come into the room and she dies. After her death the flowers in the conservatory are suddenly in full bloom and Marian does not attend her funeral (refusing, off screen, to leave the house and Mrs Allardyce).

terror in the face of death
The idea of someone becoming obsessed with the building would be explored after this by Stephen King in the Shining (and later still by Kubrick in the classic film of King’s book). However this does seem very much to be the house devouring the energy of the occupants (we’ll come back to Marian) rather than assimilating (Jack, in the shining) someone into its ghostly menagerie. This is underlined later when, during a storm, Ben hears a cacophony, which is shingles being knocked off a low roof as wood slats peel from the house revealing new slats beneath – the house devours the occupants and renews itself.

obsession leads to possession 
This scene leads to Ben trying to escape with David, through the storm. However a tree falls on the driveway, blocking their escape. Ben tries to move it but tendrils of vegetation wrap themselves around his leg, pulling him over – this concept would be taken to a further extreme later in the Evil Dead. As for Marian, we see her start wearing clothes she has found in the house, eating Mrs Allardyce’s meal tray and slowly becoming the house’s matriarch. As we never see Mrs Allardyce we might assume that she was never there – perhaps she is a personification of the house itself, which could then be indicative of a vampiric possession of Marian.

So… the house devours life energy. It takes this slowly, it would appear, or quickly (through accidental death, as nearly happens with David when he is almost suffocated as gas leaks into his room). It can alter the perceptions of the residents (causing hallucinations and altering moods). This life energy allows it to renew itself (becoming younger, as it were). It is apparent it has killed a large number of residents (as the portraits are said to go into the thousands). All in all, I think Adrien was right and this is Vamp.

The imdb page is here.

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