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Tuesday, October 11, 2011



Considered by many to be one of the great "evil house" pictures and almost universally beloved by those who saw it as kids and found it genuinely scary, the appeal of BURNT OFFERINGS has eluded me since I first saw the film on a network television broadcast sometime in the late 1970's. Admittedly, I'm not at all into ghost stories or tales of hauntings and such as a sub-genre (I just don't usually find them scary), but I'm willing to give anything a chance and in the case of this film, a second chance, so I sat through it again the other night and came away from it with only a slightly broadened appreciation for it (due to finally seeing it uncut) and one observation about it regarding something I did not notice during my adolescence.

BURNT OFFERINGS details the story of what happens when Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black), their twelve-year-old son Danny (Lee H. Montgomery) and Ben's aged aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) agree to look after the sprawling mansion rented out by a strange pair of siblings (Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith) for a duration of two summer months. The sole snag is that they are also tasked with caring for the sibs' ancient mother, Mrs. Allardyce, who occupies a room on the top floor of the house and and must be brought three meals per day, a duty accepted by Marian. Once the Rolfs move in and the siblings mysteriously vacate the premises, the expected strange and creepy things begin to occur: Marian becomes obsessed with the unseen Mrs. Allardyce's music box and large collection of portrait photos that clearly span at least a hundred years and seem to be of unrelated people, Ben becomes violent toward Danny and nearly drowns the boy while rough-housing with him in the pool and nearly rapes Marian on the lawn until she cryptically manages to dissuade him. Ben also suffers a nightmare that vividly brings him back to his mother's funeral when he was just a boy, which also conjures up images of a creepy, ever-smiling chauffeur (Anthony James) whom he begins to see in visions while awake.

The iconic visage of the creepy chauffeur (Anthony James).

Following that and other weird events, it becomes quite clear that both Ben and Marian are being influenced by a malevolent force within the house. Marian pretty much becomes an obsessed slave to the house while Ben suffers a number of mishaps that lead him to realize he must get himself and the family out of the accursed place before it's too late...

The story resolves itself (sort of) and leaves many unanswered questions, but apparently what we get was enough to satisfy fans in the "evil house" camp. Me, I was left deeply unsatisfied and not even remotely scared by its proceedings. Anyway, what I did not notice when I first saw BURNT OFFERINGS was how it appears to have been the template from which Stephen King was "inspired" to come up with his famed novel THE SHINING. At the time when I saw BURNT OFFERINGS I had yet to encounter Stephen King — that would come about a year later when I saw the made-for-TV adaptation of SALEM'S LOT and was compelled to start reading his books — so I knew nothing of the marked similarities between its particulars and those of THE SHINING. The two works are by no means identical, but both feature a family destroyed by the baleful influence of an evil place in which they've taken temporary residence as paid caretakers, eerie goings-on connected to the past, the father becoming violent, you get the idea. A little something to consider...

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