The House is Bad

I haven’t updated this blog in forever but that will soon change. And what better way to start than by sharing with you all the new issue of OneplusOne Journal, Occult, Magick, Evil and the Powers of Horror. Vol II, that includes my essay The House is Bad. I wrote this essay ages ago and it explores houses in the films The HauntingHouse of Usher, and Burnt Offerings that aren’t haunted but are, instead, evil by birth. Touching upon subjects I’m very interested in (space, place, and horror), I’m thrilled to have the first concretized bit of writing from me on the subject is finally published. 

An excerpt is included below but I encourage you to read read the entire issue (downloadable here) because it includes an interview with Graham Harman on H.P. Lovecraft and the horror of politeness in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, amongst other stellar reads. Good stuff.

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haunting-angles

Cinema was born with a house that was bad. In the late 19th century, George Méliès not only laid the foundation for moviemaking but he also established the association of horror and the home with his fantastical short, The Devil’s Castle (1896). Over one hundred years later, the idea of the “old dark house” remains unshakable; the recent phenomenal critical and commercial success of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) is but one example of audiences desiring classic ghostly interventions within the familial space. But while the ubiquity of the house as a site from which spirits, psychotic murderers, and demonic forces come forth is genre commonplace, there are a select few films that expound upon the house itself as being evil.

So, what is an evil house? The evil house is considered here as Deleuzian/Bergsonian durational space, one that exists in a temporal status where there is a collapse of pasts and presents, interior and exterior, memories and events. The beginnings for a bad house lay in its construction; the time in which all of the above became embedded into its foundation or, as Roderick Usher says, the house contains, “every evil rooted within its stones.” In the bad house, the horror is unseen. It is not a portal for ghosts nor is it the manifestation of awful historical events. It is a vibrant living being born and transformed from wicked environments that systematically lure, destroy, and, occasionally, protect its inhabitants. Read the rest…

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Burnt Offerings: the vampiric house

Burnt Offerings is the second film in Nitehawk’s series THE WORKS – KAREN BLACK. It is the only horror film featuring Black in the program that also includes Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Airport 1975, Family Plot, and The Day of the Locust. The following text was originally written for Fangoria…

Burnt Offerings is pretty much the perfect horror movie. Psychological, mysterious, and haunting, it breaks away from many of the more gruesome exploitation films of the early 1970s while being very much distant from the American slashers that were to follow. Featuring an all-star cast of Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and Bette Davis, Burnt Offerings offers a truly original take on the haunted house. Rather than the home being an area that the dead occupy, as we’re accustomed to seeing in haunted house films, the home here is very much alive…and it needs to be fed.

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Fairly faithful to Robert Marasco’s brilliantly vivid 1973 novel of the same name, Dan Curtis’ (also director of Trilogy of Terror) version of Burnt Offerings retains that fuzzy, hazy, confused and uncomfortable sensation that pulsates throughout the narrative of the book. Epitomizing the phrase “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is,” the film centers around the Rolf family (Ben, Marian, and Davey) who have rented a gothic country house for the summer as a means to escape their hectic life in the city. The strange owners of the house, the Allardyce siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith in a wonderful flamboyant performance as the wheelchair bound “brother”) and Roz (an in-control and raspy voiced “sister” Eileen Heckart), should have been the young family’s first warning. The ridiculously low rental price for the summer announcement following by the catch that the Rolfs would have to take care of the Allardyce “mother” during their stay should have been their second. But the lure of the house is too strong for Marian and so she enters her family into ruin.

Immediately Marian becomes obsessed with the house. She cleans, straightens, swoons over its interior as the life begins to drain out of her. She spends increasingly more time in the never-present Mrs. Allardyce’s room, becoming one with it. Her hair becomes gray, clothing becomes Victorian. And she’s not the only one who changes. Aunt Elizabeth, a spry swearing-smoking-cursing 74 year old (played by the powerhouse Bette Davis) literally begins to crumble before our very eyes while young blood Davey becomes the main target and Ben (the manly Oliver Reed) descends into violent madness. Ben’s hallucinations include one of the more unforgetable images in horror film: the thin, grinning chauffeur. He is the source of Ben’s nightmares (presumably stemming from the funeral of his parents at a young age) and, subsequently, the source of nightmares for numerous viewers since Burnt Offerings’ release.  

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Architecture, domesticity, and women are the narrative backbone of haunted house stories. From The Castle of Otranto on up to Psycho, the role of the woman and her downfall are often told through the relationship to the home. So, while Reed’s “Ben” is the character with whom the audience identifies with on this horrifying journey (he trys desperately to save his family even when in a near catatonic state), it’s Karen Black’s “Marian” is the one whom the story centers around. Marian – her body, soul, and mind – become absorbed into the Allardyce house and, through the deaths of her family, experiences a re-birth which places her as the new motherly soul, the beating heart if you will, of the home. One could very much view Burnt Offerings as commentary on the second wave of feminism, much like The Stepford Wives, because it firmly and forcefully re-places the woman back into her proper place as “mother” and caretaker.

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In a role that could easily be over-the-top, Black plays Marian with a quiet subtlety that has to be one of the best performances in horror film. Black establishes her obsession with the house so steadily and convincingly that when she returns back into the house, we don’t yell at her to not go up the stairs as we do in other horror films. Instead, we sympathize with her compulsion recognizing, as she has throughout the film, that what is about to happen to her is inevitable. Because we know, through Black’s depiction Marian, that the Rolf family structure has to be obliterated to preserve the Allardyce family. This can only happen through the rejuvenation of the home and this home is vampiric, sucking the blood from its victims in order to become new again, everlasting, to remain part of a mysterious other-worldly cycle.

Our mother…is back.

Burnt Offerings: Gary Simmons and Karen Black

As a precursor to their Bloody Women panel discussion tomorrow night, the ICA London asked the Twitter-verse to name our favorite horror ladies (mine: Barbara Steele, Dara Nicoladi, Karen Black), and it sparked thoughts on how the role of the women and even the “Final Girl”often directly manifests in artists’ work too.

Take Gary Simmons frenetic paintings in his 2010 exhibition Midnight Matinee where images from the Texas Chainsaw MassacrePsychoAmityville Horror, and Burnt Offerings referenced familiar architectural places found in horror films: the house, the gas station, and the cinema. Interestingly the paintings themselves mimic filmstrips, a further collision of art and film. And if you’re wondering how this relates to women…

I’m just beginning research on the role of architecture in visual art stemming from a direct relationship to horror cinema (think of the aforementioned Simmons, Mike Nelson, etc). Amongst other structural functions such as spatiality and establishing a sense of unease within the familiar, the house/home in horror films challenges the forced and/or changing ideas of domesticity throughout the decades. One example of this is also one of the films Simmons references, Burnt Offerings (1976) starring my horror heroine Karen Black. The movie is about a young family who takes care of a mysterious house one summer to escape the city however they wind up as literal house food. The house kills most of family, save Black’s character, who is gradually yet forcibly absorbed into the house becoming its official “mother” and caretaker. The film can be read as a reaction to second wave of feminism in the United States, a return back to traditional and fundamental women/mother/Victorian ideals.

Simmon’s usage of the Burnt Offerings house facade reinforces the notion that we (i.e. the audience, viewer, or visitor) can never really judge a book by its cover; that what lurks behind the front door to an old house or behind the cinema screen curtain can be an unexpected yet real horror. His blurred reflection of the house establishes a visual tension that reminds us that physical and mental ‘interiors’ are infinitely complicated and that there can be a serious danger in the projected appearance of perfection.

Images:
Gary Simmons Burnt Grid, 2010 – Pigment and charcoal on paper – 12 panels
Still of Karen Black in Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis, 1976)
Gary Simmons Between Offerings, 2010 – Pigment, oil paint and cold wax on canvas