August 31, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Burnt Offerings (1976)

by Nick Schager

Burnt Offerings
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Sam Raimi-produced demonic-possession thriller The Possession.]

There's nothing more dangerous than a malevolent swimming pool in Burnt Offerings, a hoary haunted-house thriller that, among its many missteps, features no offerings that are actually burnt. In the case of the evil pool, however, writer/director Dan Curtis (creator of TV's 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows) does find a way to make watery horseplay seem downright unnerving, via a scene in which Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed)—spending the summer at a Victorian mansion in the California countryside with his wife Marian (Karen Black), son Davey (Lee Montgomery), and aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis)—takes an afternoon dip with the boy. Beginning harmlessly enough, the father and son's goofing off takes a sharp, dark turn when Ben unexpectedly begins dunking and thrashing Davey with a violence that's disquieting, with the crazed look on Ben's face merely further heightening the sense of harmless fun turning terrifying at a moment's notice. Culminating with Davey halting his father's sudden abuse with a swift smack to the face that bloodies Ben's nose, it's a sequence of alarming vigor, and all the more notable for its deviation from the film's otherwise stolid, sluggish manner.

Burnt Offerings

Based on Robert Marasco's 1973 novel, Burnt Offerings trots out a scenario as old as the hills: the Rolfs wend their way from the city to the country to the aged home of Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart) and her wheelchair-bound brother Arnold (Burgess Meredith), which they rent from July 1 to Labor Day despite the fact that the proprietors are obvious creeps. Offering up their turf at a curiously low rate, the siblings require the Rolfs to care for their 85-year-old mother Mrs. Allardyce, who resides, and never leaves, an upstairs bedroom. Ben is immediately suspicious, but Marian is so taken with the residence that they're soon ensconced: Ben works on fixing up the place and his wife becomes obsessed with bringing food trays to Mrs. Allardyce's door and spending an inordinate amount of time listening to a music box while cleaning and gazing at old framed portrait photos. If you're already suspecting that Marian might be possessed by the vine-covered house—which has a habit of mysteriously renovating its spaces—and that something might be fishy about the hermit-like Mrs. Allardyce, then you've probably seen Psycho, or The Exorcist, or The Haunting, not to mention subsequent, similar efforts like The Shining and The Amityville Horror, all of which trade in this sort of spookiness to superior effect.

Burnt Offerings

Compounding the film's derivation is a pace that mistakes methodical for menacing, when in reality it proves only monotonous—Burnt Offerings never drums up suitable suspense because it's so slowly paced that every move is telegraphed two scenes beforehand. Curtis wraps his images in a haze of soft lighting that does occasionally lend the action a disorienting dreaminess, but mostly it just enhances the self-seriousness of the script, which is so deadly earnest and somber that no humor or believable humanity—except for a few offhand moments of levity between Ben and Davey—ever materializes. A constant array of zooms into close-up, often triggering transitional dissolves, also contribute to the ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere. A score of deep, ominous tones, alas, winds up being a leaden means of adding gloom to a narrative that's short on disturbing developments, save for a recurring bit involving Ben's flashback-visions of a limo driver from his mother's wedding who wore dark, round glasses and flashed a legitimately insane, unsettling smile. Nothing much happens in Burnt Offerings, and when something does, it generally comes off as hackneyed—especially with regards to the secret about Mrs. Allardyce, which is actually given away midway through the film for anyone paying even the slightest attention.

Burnt Offerings

The scant traces of engaging drama come courtesy of a cast that's just hammy enough to make up for the persistent dearth of excitement. Reed in particular digs into his role with ferocity: sweating and trembling with bonkers intensity, he delivers a coherent portrait of mounting guilt, trauma, fear and fury, even if the story never does anything of interest with his recurring visions of funereal specters. The incomparable Davis seems similarly adrift in a part that asks her to be first quaintly colorful (wearing clothes with bright, busy prints and a round-rimmed hat, strutting about with a cigarette, cackling alongside Reed), and later unhinged and incapacitated. It's a turn that's not unbecoming so much as simply unmemorable, a squandered opportunity given that Davis' trademark feisty flair is exactly what the enervating proceedings require. Alas, a spark only arrives at tale's conclusion, courtesy of Black and her crazy-kooky eyes, which after a film's-worth of attention from Curtis' infatuated camera, receive a magnificent close-up that—far more than the rest of this second-rate Shining—oozes legitimate Kubrickian malice.

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at August 31, 2012 1:42 PM