After Trilogy of Terror, Karen Black would work with Dark Shadows‘ producer / director Dan Curtis on one more horror film–this time for the big screen. She wasn’t the only star to feature; Curtis also snagged the major talents of Oliver Reed and Bette Davis (not to mention great character actors Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith) for this unusual haunted-house drama. The screenplay, adapted from a novel, was done by William F. Nolan, who also adapted the first two segments of Trilogy.
Black and Reed are Marian and Ben Rolf, a couple tired of the urban malaise of decaying mid-1970s New York and looking for a place to get away with their son David and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). They’ve driven out into the country (I think Long Island, but that’s not clear) to look at a house they’ve seen advertised for a summer rental.
As they drive up, their first response is “This can’t be the place!” Not this huge and beautiful, but sadly dilapidated, house; there must be a cottage or smaller guest-house on the grounds.
But, no, this is it. Once inside, the Rolfs meet the Allardyces, the kind of nutty elderly brother and sister (Meredith and Heckart) who own the place. The rent for three months is amazingly cheap, $900 for the whole summer, but there are a couple of conditions.
First, the Rolfs will have to look after the place for themselves–the Allardyces’ handyman won’t be present for cleaning and repairs. But Roz Allardyce assures them that “The house takes care of itself.” She also asks if Marian will “love the house as Brother and I do?”
Second, while the brother and sister will be away on vacation, their 85-year-old mother will remain here. She won’t be a bother, will keep to her rooms up at the top of the house, listening to her music and working on her collection of photographs. “The memories of a lifetime.” All the Rolfs will have to do is bring her meals up to her on a tray three times a day.
One odd thing occurs that the Rolfs don’t notice. Davy is out playing in the garden while the grown-ups are discussing terms. He skins his knee climbing on the gazebo. After the Rolfs depart, one of the dead geraniums from the greenhouse that the handyman was about to throw out suddenly grows a new, green shoot.
The Rolfs think the Allardyces are a bit weird, but Marian is eager to have the house. She promises to look after the old lady herself. They agree to the Allardyces’ terms.
When the Rolfs return with their car full of belongings and Aunt Elizabeth to move in on July 1, the Allardyces are gone. There’s an envelope attached to the front door with a note saying they had to go, and the house keys, but no information about where they are or how to reach them. The fridge and pantry are fully stocked. Aunt Elizabeth observes that none of the clocks are working.
Marian goes upstairs to check on the old lady. The door to Mrs. Allardyce’s bedroom is locked and there’s no answer when Marian knocks; she assumes the old lady is asleep. There’s a lovely old music box and an array of framed photos on a large table in the sitting room. The photos go back to Victorian times, although some are in color and much more recent. (If you look closely, one is of Dan Curtis.) Marian notices that none of the people in the photos are smiling. Not remarkable for old photos, but some of them look oddly frightened or distressed.
The family settles in. Marian sets about cleaning up the house and is astonished at her progress. As she cleans, she falls in love with the house, finding beautiful objects and antiques that she calls “treasures”. She brings trays upstairs and leaves them in sitting room, but is worried when Mrs Allardyce doesn’t touch any of the food during the first few days.
Ben and Davy, meanwhile, clear out the swimming pool and work on the lawn and garden. They make a more ominous discovery in the undergrowth of the vast backyard–an old family cemetery. The most recent date on any of the tombstones is from the 1890s. Davy also finds a broken and rusted old bicycle among the tangled vines.
A more disturbing find turns up in the swimming pool after they’ve cleaned and refilled it: a pair of eyeglasses with a hole punched through one lens.
The bicycle in the graveyard might have been left there under innocuous circumstances, but one has to wonder what happened to the person who was wearing these glasses when they were broken in this particular way.
It’s soon after Ben finds these glasses while swimming with his son that the first real incident occurs. A bit of manly roughhouse in the pool swiftly turns into Ben trying to drown Davy. Oliver Reed is truly frightening in this scene, grinning with ferocious playfulness as he keeps throwing the boy down into the water and not letting him up.
Davy saves himself by smashing his scuba mask into his father’s face and giving him a bloody nose.
Marian is up at the house while all this is going on, in the sitting room listening to the music box. She doesn’t hear anything else.
Ben is very ashamed of himself and apologetic afterwards. He doesn’t know what came over him. Davy accepts his father’s apology, but he understandably doesn’t want to go near the pool again.
The area around the pool looks beautifully polished, scrubbed, and trimmed after this incident, in which a little more blood is shed.
But it’s Marian whom the house affects most strongly. In addition to her growing fascination with the lovely antiques and spending so much time up in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room–which she resents anyone else trying to enter–her attitude toward her family has changed.
For example, the night Ben and Marian talk beside the pool. Some time has passed since Ben has seen the pool, and hr notices how nice and new-looking everything is; Marian claims that she trimmed the grass around the concrete and polished the chrome. The couple goes for a night swim. She skinny-dips.
They’re about to get all sexy in the pool when Marian sees the light in Mrs. Allardyce’s room at the top of the house (this light is always on at night). Suddenly, Marian changes her mind and doesn’t want to have sex. She climbs out of the water and heads back toward the house. Ben follows her for a talk. Apparently, Marian hasn’t been interested since they came to the house; she says she still finds him “incredibly sexy,” but pushes him away when he gives it another try.
Ben is left confused and frustrated. Marian goes up to the sitting room to listen to the music box. Still wet and in just her bathrobe, she falls asleep in one of the armchairs.
The next morning, there’s a touch of grey in her hair. Aunt Elizabeth notices it when she comes down for a late breakfast.
Elizabeth, who arrived at the house a sharp and active lady in her 70s, has begun to look old and weary. She’s oversleeping, and returns to her bed for a nap soon after getting up; Marian says she’ll bring her something on a tray. “Just like Mrs. Allardyce?” Elizabeth comments wryly before she goes back to bed.
Ben is working on the lawn that day when he has a terrifying vision that echoes a childhood memory, and a nightmare he’s been having since he tried to drown Davy. At his mother’s funeral, when he was a young boy, he was frightened by the creepily grinning chauffeur who drove the hearse.
When I wrote my review of Master of Dark Shadows, the documentary about Dan Curtis’s work, I wondered if the creepy chauffeur in this movie had anything to do with his own mother’s death when he was 13. In this DVD’s commentary, Curtis does say that the chauffeur is indeed based on an actual memory from his mother’s funeral; there was a man in a chauffeur’s uniform, not grinning at him creepily, but laughing insensitively with some of his companions in a room adjacent to the one where the funeral was held. This memory of a grief-stricken child was eventually transmuted into the most striking and memorable image in this film.
Ben hears, then sees, an old-fashioned black hearse coming up the drive toward the house. The driver from his dream grins out the car window at him. Ben hides his eyes in terror, and the vision disappears.
At midnight, all the clocks start running and begin to chime. This wakes Ben and Marian, and they smell gas when they walk past the door of their son’s bedroom. The door is locked, but Ben breaks it open to find that the gas heater is on and the window is shut. He rescues the sleeping child by opening the window and holding him outside in the fresh air.
Did Aunt Elizabeth turn the gas on? She was briefly in the boy’s room to tuck him in, but she insists the next morning when Marian questions her that she never touched the heater, nor the window or the lock on the door. She seems vague and easily confused, but Marian is also extremely harsh, as if she’s trying to put the blame on Auntie when there are other possibilities she doesn’t want to consider. Marian even becomes angry when Elizabeth suggests that it might have been the unseen Mrs. Allardyce, wandering around the house at night.
When Ben learns about this quarrel between his aunt and wife, he confronts Marian up in the sitting room. He wants to meet Mrs. Allardyce, but Marian says no; the door to the old lady’s bedroom is locked and the key wasn’t one of those in the envelope the Allardyces left them. Ben is extremely suspicious of this story, but I’m not certain if he suspects that his wife is protecting the old lady for some reason, or if he suspects that there is no old lady in that room. He only knows that there are a lot of strange things going on in this house, more than one old lady sneaking around in the night could manage. When he asks about the clocks all starting up last night, Marian claims she wound them up–but Ben also has doubts that Marian has accomplished so much refurbishment around the house all by herself.
He wonders aloud if she cares more for the house than for her family.
This idea is confirmed shortly afterwards, when Davy drops and breaks a cut glass punchbowl, and Ben sees his wife weeping over the shards as if it’s a beloved pet or even a child dead.
Meanwhile, up in her bedroom, Aunt Elizabeth’s mental and physical condition are deteriorating rapidly. She breaks a fragile arm-bone–you can hear it snap!–when she tries to sit up.
Ben and Marian have another conversation. The summer is almost over; Ben wants to leave the house now, before their lease is up in a couple of weeks. But Marian won’t hear of it. She couldn’t go. She has to take care of Mrs. Allardyce, and she thinks that her husband’s suspicions of something supernatural going on in the house are ridiculous.
He reframes the question: “Would you give it up for me, even if you think it’s just in my mind?”
Before Marian can answer, Davy shouts for them. He’s found Aunt Elizabeth collapsed on her bed in agony.
What I’ve always admired about Bette Davis as an actress is that she’s never afraid to look like hell when the role calls for it. For her final scenes in the film, poor Elizabeth really does look like she’s about to die.
Ben tries to get hold of any help he can, but all the phone numbers he dials are busy. He then sits with Elizabeth while Marian phones for a doctor. She returns soon afterwards and says that she reached the doctor… but did she really?
Ben soon hears a car coming up the drive, but when he looks out the window he sees it’s not the doctor. It’s the hearse come back again. The chauffeur stops in front of the house and gets out.
Ben then hears the thump, thump, thump of a coffin being dragged up the stairs. Elizabeth hears it too, so it’s not just his hallucination. The two wait and listen in terror, until the chauffeur bursts into Elizabeth’s room and shoves the coffin right at them–directly into the camera!
Where’s Marian while this is going on? She said she’d go downstairs to watch for the doctor to come, but she’s up in the sitting room, listening to music box. She’s also eating the dinner on a tray she brought up for Mrs. Allardyce.
That’s the end of Aunt Elizabeth. When Marian enters the greenhouse, the previously dead flowers are now all in glorious bloom.
A lot of people attend Elizabeth’s funeral, which raises some questions. Are these local people paying their respects to a woman they didn’t know, or friends and perhaps other relatives of Elizabeth’s who’ve come out to the country when they learned that she had died? None of them come back to the house with Ben, as you’d expect visitors to do. If friends from New York or elsewhere do know that the Rolfs are staying here for the summer, won’t they wonder what happened–and this is a spoiler for the ending–when the rest of the family doesn’t return to the city in September? One can imagine the local people thinking that that nice family who was renting the Allardyce place have gone home, but is no one else going to worry or check up when the Rolfs are never heard from again?
The one person who didn’t go to the funeral was Marian. She seems fairly indifferent to Elizabeth’s death, and is more upset when Davy doesn’t want to drink his soda-pop out of one of the silver goblets she’s set the dinner table with.
Now that his aunt’s funeral is over, Ben intends to leave the house tomorrow, whether Marian comes with him or not.
Marian doesn’t see why they should have to go. “All we ever wanted is here,” she tells him, “for as long as….” and she falters.
“It’s not ours,” Ben reminds her. They wouldn’t have it for much longer, and he doesn’t want it anyway.
It rains that night, and the house sheds its old clapboard siding and worn shingles like a snake’s skin, revealing new ones underneath. When Ben looks out the window and sees this, he finally begins to understand what’s going on. He grabs the sleeping Davy and runs out to the garage to get in the car and leave immediately.
Davy puts up a fight. He thinks his father’s his lost mind. Perhaps he’s remembering that incident at the swimming pool and is terrified about what Dad might do to him this time.
As Ben takes the car down the drive, a tree falls to block them. Instead of going back and trying to drive away across country, Ben gets out and tries to push the tree out of the way. Vines leap up and wrap around his legs (a nice, practical special effect where the film is run backwards). Once he fights free of the vines, Ben gets back into the car to try and ram his way through, his son beside him screaming and hysterical.
After Ben’s efforts to escape prove useless, Marian comes out of the house and coolly takes change of car. She backs it out of the drive and returns it to the garage. Ben stares at her.
“You are accepting this,” he realizes. “You are part of this.”
For a moment, as she turns to look at him, Marian turns into the grinning chauffeur. Ben goes into shock.
The next morning, a doctor comes to house and tells Marian that Ben needs hospitalization in the city. But when Marian reassures Davy that his father is going to be all right, she says Ben just needs to rest and there’s no question of them going home.
Ben is still catatonic next day, the last day. He’s sitting by the swimming pool, staring blankly, while Davy tries to bring him back to himself. The boy shows Dad how he’s learned to swim (so he must have gotten into the water some time since that first time). But the pool is not a safe place for Davy. Once he’s out in the deep end, waves come up out of nowhere to try and drown him.
I think it’s a slight misstep in characterization for Marian to be the one to rescue him while Ben is still struggling to get out of his deck chair. Seeing her son in danger brings her back to herself, when she should be far gone under the house’s spell by this time. At least, Ben is now out of his catatonic state and the family is, for once, united.
The Rolfs are going now. They’ve packed their things and are getting into the car (which shows no sign of damage from the tree-bashing). But before they drive off, Marian says she must go up to tell Mrs. Allardyce that they’re leaving.
Ben and Davy sit in the car and wait. When Marian doesn’t come out, Ben goes back into the house after her, up to the sitting room. For once, the door to Mrs. Allardyce’s room is open and he goes in…
Let’s just say that the woman he finds there is neither the aged Mrs. Allardyce nor the Marian he was expecting, and it doesn’t end well for him. Nor for Davy outside.
When the Allardyces return, they are delighted to see the old house now in full refurbished and restored glory, and add a new photo of the house to the ones that decorate one wall. There are also some new photos upstairs. And Mother, of course, is upstairs where she should be.
The novel’s ending was “no ending,” as Dan Curtis put it in his commentary; he cheerfully admits that he ripped off the ending of his own Night of Dark Shadows to graft on to this story. In both, the people who are about to escape the haunted house foolishly go back inside one last time, to their doom. For years, I had conflated the two in my memory, confusing what happens to Ben here with a character in that movie, until DVD viewing cleared that up.
In spite of one or two plot deficiencies, Burnt Offerings has several impressive horror set pieces, especially those involving Curtis’s contribution of the creepy chauffeur. It also has the advantages of a set of really top-drawer actors in the important roles. It’s not quite up to George C. Scott in The Changeling, where I feel I could watch a movie about that character even if he hadn’t moved into a haunted house, but Black and Reed do imbue the Rolfs’ marital problems and quarrels with a significance that lesser performers wouldn’t have managed. And Bette Davis is Bette fricking Davis.