Monday, May 5, 2008

Some Semblance of Excitement

What is it about various 70s horror films that manage to be somewhat scary and creepy, even if they don’t really work? What is that bizarre nightmarish tone they sometimes lock into? Was there something in the film stock? Were the 70s just that scary a time? If I were more of an expert on Dan Curtis, maybe I’d have a better idea what to say about 1976's BURNT OFFERINGS, which he wrote the script for with William F. Nolan and directed, but even though I have a sort of ‘Wha? Hah?’ response to it, there are things about it which are pretty unnerving anyway.

Oliver Reed and Karen Black play Marian and Ben Rolf, a couple in search of a house to rent for the summer with their son David (Lee Montgomery) and aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and they come upon and old, decrepit mansion being offered by a pair of siblings played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart. After some hesitation, the family decides to stay there for the summer and while the brother and sister will be away, there is one slight catch: their extremely elderly mother will remain in the house, though there will be next to no communication with the woman beyond the necessity of leaving food in front of her door.

It’s a little difficult to get past the opening section because after being confronted by that decrepit house and bizarre brother & sister act, it’s hard to imagine why any normal person would want to spend an afternoon there, let alone a whole summer. Of course, we’re talking about a married couple played by the rather unique pairing of Oliver Reed and Karen Black, so maybe normal doesn’t factor into this. Since we never see them out in the real world, after a while it makes them seem like a family of hermits and when more people are seen, however, briefly, much later in the film, it almost seems jarring—by that point, we’re desperate to see someone else, anyone else, yet it almost seems wrong. The film was shot on location at the Dunsmuir House, a real mansion in Oakland which can also be seen as Tanya Roberts’ residence in A VIEW TO A KILL. According to the official Dunsmuir website, BURNT OFFERINGS will be screened on the front lawn one night in late June.

The whole thing seems like a slight precursor to THE SHINING, but it never fixes in on one simple notion like ‘Dad’s being possessed by the spirit of the house’, making it sometimes difficult to spell out exactly what is going on. There is an effective sequence involving Oliver Reed almost seriously harming his movie son in a swimming pool yet what happens there isn’t necessarily followed up on, so is this just a red herring? A blind alley? Certainly it’s hard not to think of Stephen King seeing this (or maybe reading the book it’s based on) and the recurring flashback Reed has of a certain chauffer recalls some things King would later do as well (possibly in PET SEMATARY?). BURNT OFFERINGS seems to be deliberately missing a scene that explains exactly what is going on and while this is in some ways a good thing--no long speech filled with Gobbeldygook for one thing--it still leaves more than a few points open to debate. The film was shown this past Saturday night as the midnight show at the New Beverly and someone who wasn’t there asked me if there was much laughter during the movie and maybe there was a little, but not that much. By a certain point I got the feeling that the audience in this late hour was studying the film, analyzing it, not sure if they should laugh or be scared or what. Because of the hour I may have started to drift off once or twice but never fell asleep, yet I would sometimes think to myself is this long conversation between Reed and Black still going on? Why didn’t anyone tell me that this movie was 115 minutes, anyway?

Say what you want about Oliver Reed—he was a lunatic, a scenery chewer, whatever. The truth is that there’s enough humanity in that madness that you believe his bafflement when even he doesn’t comprehend what he’s done. I’m not sure I could ever buy him as a suburban dad I guess he’s supposed to be here but maybe pairing him with someone like Black—and an actor like Burgess Meredith who does most of the real scenery chewing in his brief role—certainly keeps things off kilter.

But maybe I’m slightly baffled by the whole thing because within its strange performances and genuinely creepy moments is a rather lethargic pace and an overall feel that suggests maybe it would have been more appropriate for Curtis to make it as a TV movie. It could have aired on ABC on a Sunday night, run closer to 90 minutes and it would have been one of the top-rated shows of the week. Of course, then it wouldn’t have had Reed and Bette Davis in the cast and maybe even the most effective moments would have been toned down. As it is, I freely admit that if I had ever watched the movie late at night on TV when I was a kid it would have truly scared me. Hell, some of that whacked out 70s imagery is potent enough that it would have gotten to me if I’d watched it by myself late at night now.

With the sort of finale that seems almost par for the course for 70s horror, when the film ended I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. I didn’t know if I liked it, if I had any satisfaction from seeing it at all and had the strong desire that I wanted to get home and go to sleep. And yet when I got home some of the imagery, especially a shot or two from the end, suddenly appeared in my head and at that time of night I didn’t really want it there. I guess that’s some sort of answer. Actually, the ending reminded me slightly of a mediocre film from a few years ago. If I said the title that would ruin the ending of both of them but while the structure was similar, in the case of the newer film it was all sensation with, if memory serves, a pop song over the end credits. In the case of the end of BURNT OFFERINGS, it was a true feel of dread that stayed with me. Hell, I knew there was something wrong with that house from the start, yet I stayed there. And just like the people in the movie, I guess I paid the price.


Anonymous said...

Originally, the film began with a few scenes showing hellacious city living, with Reed fighting for a parking space with a spot-stealing Dan Curtis cameo role, and a couple of scenes outside and inside their tenement apartment basically establishing their pleasant comraderie and their desire the get the hell out of the city for the summer. In a bedroom scene, Black proposes renting a summer place, but Ben says they can't afford it, which makes her go cold on him. When he agrees to entertain the idea she reponds to him physically.

Curtis cut these out, feeling that the film doesn't begin until they get to the house. I've got some great stills from these, but the scenes themselves were destroyed or tossed out over the years.

Apart from this, the film is exactly as scripted. One scene that was in the book and an early draft of the script had the Dub Taylor character returning half-way into the film, to see how the house was coming along, and speaking conspiratorially to Marion, who seems to understand that possessing the house means sacrificing her family.

There certainly is a wonderful nihilistic, gloomy vibe to 70s horror. The photographic style is certainly part of it and the gloomy Bob Cobert music helps it along. Curtis was originally going to shoot it in Scope, but chickened out, according to him, probably because the feeling it would require extra time to light and setup shots.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Very interesting to learn all that, thanks Darren. And you're right about the vibe that seems to pervade movies like this, the sort of feeling that you almost can't put your finger on. I wonder how different the movie would have been if he'd gone ahead and actually shot in in Scope?