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.

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The Art of Fear: Ghost Stories on October 19

The second part of The Art of Fear artist film exhibition is this Wednesday (October 19) in the upstairs lobby at Nitehawk Cinema! The event is free and starts at 7pm with films beginning shortly after – the program will be shown twice. See  you all there!

Ghost Stories, the second program of The Art of Fear, features surreal tales of love, life, and death that are brought back from the afterlife in the bizarre and haunting works of My Barbarian (Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade, Los Angeles), Aïda Ruilova (New York), and Marnie Weber (Los Angeles). Horror affect and narrative style are huge influencers in these films with inspiration deriving from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery television series, cult figures like Jean Rollin and Karen Black, and the theatrical monstrous characters from early Hollywood. Importantly, The Art of Fear is showing the New York debut of Marnie Weber’s most recent film, The Eternal Heart (2010).

PROGRAM
My Barbarian – Night Epi$ode: Curatorial Purgatorial (Pilot)
2009, Single channel video, 12 minutes, Color, Sound

Aïda Ruilova – Life Like
2006, Single channel video, 5 minutes, Color, Sound

Aïda Ruilova – Lulu
2007, Single channel video, 5 minutes, Color, Sound

My Barbarian – Night Epi$ode: Yoga Matt and Veronika Phoenix
2009, Single channel video, 13 minutes, Color, Sound

Aïda Ruilova – Meet the Eye
2009, Single channel video, 7 minutes, Color, Sound

Marnie Weber – The Eternal Heart (see trailer below)
2010, Shot on Super 8 and 16mm, digital projection, 28 minutes, Color, Sound

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