PAGE & SCREEN: BURNT OFFERINGS
Are human beings conscious agents with free will? Is there such a thing as freedom? What role does fate play in our lives? These questions have been the province of philosophers and psychologists forever, and they turn up as the largely unstated subject matter of Robert Marasco's 1973 horror novel Burnt Offerings. The film, made a few years later by director Dan Curtis of TV's Dark Shadows fame, is even less overtly concerned with these issues and functions more as a pure entertainment of the supernatural. Bear with me as we make an incomplete, roundabout, somewhat fragmented examination of this unusual story whose title appears in the Bible many times.
Around the midpoint of the twentieth century the philosopher Frank Sibley published a highly influential, much discussed essay entitled "Aesthetic Concepts" in which he largely succeeded in recasting some of the most fundamental ways we talk about our appreciation of the arts. In this paper Sibley sought to distinguish between two different kinds of concepts.
Let's imagine contemplating a sculpture. Asked to describe it, we might say, "It's curved, it's made of wrought iron, and it's about three feet tall." According to Sibley's account these attributes are non-aesthetic concepts - any person of average, normal intelligence is immediately able to identify them. We might equally say of the object, "It's elegaic, meditative, and displays a real sense of pathos," and in Sibley's terminology these are aesthetic concepts. Unlike the recognition of non-aesthetic concepts, recognition of aesthetic concepts requires a certain taste, refinement and sophistication. The majority of Sibley's paper goes on to take up issues that delve much more deeply into technical philosophy than is necessary or desirable here; I bring it up because I think this story that is what it is specifically because of our ability to recognize a very particular aesthetic concept that the it exhibits, and that is the concept of "defamiliarization" aka "making strange".
This is a notion first written about by the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century. David Lodge gives a good account of it in his book The Art of Fiction. Essentially what it means is to put an odd twist on something well known to us. I want to suggest that this is is the plan of attack used by Marasco in Burnt Offerings and also by Curtis in his 1976 cinematic treatment of the tale - to defamiliarize the asking of the ancient questions I mentioned at the beginning. I want to suggest also that there is a sense of oddness embedded into the tale that makes us nervous and that both Marasco and Curtis play up this oddness in their different ways, and that this oddness is what scares the daylights out of us. Burnt Offerings is viscerally traumatizing, and it is its weird aura that makes it so more than anything gory or frightening in the story itself (Indeed, on close logical examination, the story doesn't hold up at all. There are gaps of reason and probability in it that make it, finally, untenable. But it's none the less interesting for that.) It is about the loss of control - something that scares us perhaps more than anything else - but not obviously so.
The basics of the story are this: a family rents a house from an eccentric couple for the summer. The house immediately begins to kill them off slowly, as it has apparently been doing to successions of renters for hundreds of years. It feeds on guests in order to remain "immortal" and each group of renters contains a young female mom who somehow slowly morphs into the matriach, the old lady who lives upstairs and never comes out of her room. Over the course of two year periods the house and grounds become fantastically rejuvenated, brilliant, and then slowly deterioriate back into decepit condition until new renters come along. This story is said to have directly inspired Stephen King's The Shining - in fact King says as much in an essay - and, indeed, especially in the visual device of the photographs of all the past inhabitants of the house, the resemblance is easy to see.
The 1973 novel by Robert Marasco.
The novel begins with a long section that doesn't appear in the film at all. In the borough of Queens in New York City (the film switches the locale to California), the Rolfes - Marian, Ben, and their son David - seemed doomed to spend another summer shut up in their tiny apartment in a hot, noisy, crowded urban neighborhood. There is a long windup before they move into the terrifying haunted house, approximately a third of the book, and it probably wouldn't translate to film form very well at all. This is one of the problems with the film - it doesn't adequately set up the tension between Marian's all consuming desire to be in the house and Ben's suspicion and resistance in the way the book does. Marasco writes carefully and with subtlety; the text seems to be relatively innocent but there is all manner of menace underneath that requires perhaps a second and third reading, and reflection, to pick up on. Really the book is a kind of examination of the concept of free will in a way the movie cannot be. Curtis, on the other hand, handles the story with more spectacularity and excitement than is perhaps possible on the written page, and quite a few significant details get changed.(This is the way in which the film is far superior to the book - it's simply scarier. The moody commentative score by Robert Cobert has plenty to do with that.) I plan here to briefly pick out a few ideas along these lines of the denial of free will and the advancement of determinism from the first two chapters of the novel and then shift to musings about the picture. First let me clarify something I just said - in spirit, the script tries to stay as faithful to the novel as possible. A lot of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the book - but there are numerous changes of detail, as I stated Some of these changes spring out of concessions that have to be made because of the inherent nature of the movie medium. Others spring out of a need to have sensationalism in a horror film for purposes of creating box office. Others seem to have been made for no special reason at all. There are at least twelve notable changes, and we'll list them shortly.
As well as introducing all the principal characters, the first couple of chapters are a veritable creative writing course on foreshadowing, on giving little glimpses of, and making quiet allusions to, the horror and evil that is to come. The story begins with Marian and David in the apartment, which is quickly followed by a scene of Ben trying to park his car in their Queens neighborhood (which must be Long Island City - the "LaGuardia landing pattern directly overhead" is mentioned); these two scenes are happening concurrently inside the real time of the fiction. Defamiliarization starts immediately with two bizarrely formulated words: "schoolshirt" and "schoolshoes," presented as one word constructions. Marian pleads with her son to clean up his room, and after he grudgingly obeys there's an ominous red signal in the form of her odd declaration, "The only time I get to see you is when I'm yelling at you. That's why I yell so much." This blueprint for poor parenting reveals an unease about her relationship with the boy which her husband Ben will also be seen to share. While he cleans up, Marian's awareness slowly absorbs the claustrophobia of the building, the area, the noisy neighbors, everything in the immediate surroundings. She has a kind of panic attack in stark one word sentences:
Summer. Apartment. Queens. The overtones were ominous. Again.
We can make a plausible case that somehow, some way, the Allardyce House (the haunted house the Rolfes will soon rent from the brother and sister team of Roz and Brother) is reaching out to her before she even has conscious knowledge of its existence. Her desire to escape the city is presented as being extremely strong, and her particular desire for that particular house, onces she reads the ad for it, before she even sees it, is unrelenting - Marasco thus dips the story in the supernatural before we really even know what is going on. The ghosts of the house are contacting her subconscious. This most definitely is a kind of determinism - she's helpless to resist it.
Ben, too, is thinking along the lines of the misery of another crowded Queens summer - in a blunt gestalt - but on smaller, more immediate terms. The first words we read the first time we meet him are:
Bus stop, hydrant, driveway. The goddamn area was getting worse than Manhattan.
After he struggles to park the car and walks to their apartment building Marasco inserts a telling scene which serves to further show how the child, David, is alienated from his parents (or they from him). Ben waits to cross the street at a red light. One of the other pedestrians is a little girl holding a bag. He asks her what's in the bag and she replies, "Ring Dings," and he doesn't know what Ring Dings are. This is odd - it has already been established that his own son David is a lover of Yankee Doodles, a similar Drake's cake that kids like. It is not possible that a parent who's aware of what Yankee Doodles are would be ignorant of what Ring Dings are. This suggests he's deeply out of touch with his son's world.
He's also on a different wavelength of perception than his wife Marian is, and about some fundamental matters. For example, in regard to the family's monetary situation, she has the thought, "And they weren't exactly broke." Shortly therafter Ben makes a remark to the effect that after nine years of marriage they only have two thousand dollars in the bank, clearly dismayed. And he repeatedly insinuates that there is no way they can afford the Allardyce house.. (Ben is a teacher, a fact that is clearly and directly brought up a few times in the novel but only obliquely referred to once in the film. The book mentions that Marian frequently temps, doing office work, and this is not pointed out in the film at all.)
Background exposition isn't the only, or even the main, strong point of this part of the novel. As noted, there is a quiet but defiinite tension about Marian's attraction to the house.. In order to be concise I'll concentrate now on this one point. I want to suggest that Marasco is making a point about free will and conscious agency in a way that definitely invokes the power of thought, mental power, brain waves, and destiny. It's spirit, or mind, taking charge of another person's thoughts and actions.
The desire to leave the city is already planted in Marian, as we've seen. Marasco begins foreshadowing the horrid events that are to follow almost immediately, when he brings up the subject of David's bicycle twice in the very early going. As David is going out to play Marian says, "No bike on the boulevard, remember..." As Ben is driving home some wild kids swerve in front of him on bikes and he thinks "Bike lecture. Tonight." These seemingly random, seemingly realistic little tidbits actually serve a larger function, which is to warn of danger, and we know this because when the Rolfes go to look at the Allardyce House for the first time David finds a bicycle in the woods, covered with blood. They make nothing of it, but we get it - something horrible happened to one of the kids from one of the many previous renting families. Events are being foretold, transmitted to the Rolfes in Queens before they even know what the Allardyce House is. The Oracle of Determinism is in full play, predicting inevitabilities as surely as a Greek tragedy.
Another example of forecasting: "She had dusted just a couple of hours ago and already there was a layer of soot on the windowsill in their bedroom." Again, this seems like nothing at all...until we reflect for a moment on the condition the Allardyce house is in when they first arrive - a wreck, unkempt, weeds, mold, dust, everywhere. Dusting and cleaning are going to be two of her main activities in the house; it is almost as if she is practicing for the role she is going to assume in the house.
At another point, after the piano playing of their downstairs neighbor begins to drive them crazy, Marian makes a joke that is an eerily accurate description of later goings on in the house:
"There's no one down there, you know," she said confidentially, "just a piano playing itself. And feet above us that run back and forth. No real people, just resident sounds".
Shortly thereafter they argue about whether or not to respond to the Allardyce's ad. He says no, but then: "But of course he'd go along with her, just as he had for the past several years."
She observes with crazed irony, "It could be so good for us if it worked out. No worrying about Davey and that damn bike." At the Allardyce house Davey falls and hurts his knee badly, is attacked by his father in the pool in a drowning attempt, almost killed by a gas heater with a mind of its own, etc.
Marian gets directions from the Allardyces on the phone; when Ben remarks they're a little hard to follow, and maybe perhaps they should try one of the other places first, she objects.
Marasco is careful to show us the Rolfes driving on a dirt lane where "the trees overhead seem to lock together," and on this lane, later, this will be shown to be quite a prescient little observation. Ben even has a twig snap against his arm, which is hanging out of the window.
There is some discussion, when they first approach the house, as to whether the place being advertised is indeed the house or the guest cottage. Marian thinks (italics in the original): Please let it be the house.
Later, in chapter three, FATE is specifically mentioned for the first time in regard to Marian's attraction to the house:
But it was something close to fate, as much as meeting Ben had been ten years ago. It was only a house and it would only last two months, not a lifetime, but the depth of her reaction surprised even her when she thought about it, which was often. Having met Ben and not having married him was inconceivable to her in retrospect; the same was true of the house.
Interested readers should read the book closely to marvel at how Marasco uses defamiliarization to theorize about human freedom and the nature of personal responsibility for one's actions. As an aside I also want to point out that Burnt Offerings has a lot to say about the nature of relationships - about how a woman can gain psychological power over her man - and about the structure of the family unit. Due to considerations of space I haven't gone into these at all here
The film Burnt Offerings begins with the Rolfe's station wagon cruising along a winding road as it carries them to check out the Allardyce house for the first time. This marks the first departure from the book, where the family car is a Camaro. Here are eleven others:
1. In the book Marian is mesmerized by a sound in Mrs. Allardyce's room described as a hum; in the film it's a little music box.
2. While Ben and Marian discuss the terms of the rental with the Allardyces David, in the book, falls on some rocks on the shore and badly hurts humself. In the film there is no shore. He falls off a gazebo he is trying to climb.
3. In the book Ben needs to get working on his master's degree; in the film it's his doctorate.
4. In the book the bloodied bicycle is found by Ben and David on their first visit to the house. In the film this happens after they've already moved in. Additionally, they find it in a graveyard full of generations of Allardyces, a scene not in the book at all.
5. In the novel David is eight years old, in the film he's twelve.
6. In the novel the recurring dream about the hearse driver starts as a result of him being at the death of a neighbor of Ben's family. In the movie it's Ben's mother who has died.
7. In the film the hearse driver first appears at the Allardyce house while Ben is clearing the brush around the road. The bumper of the car is actually described as brushing the back of Ben's leg. In the film Ben has stopped working and is sitting on the lawn drinking a beer. The chauffeur smiles at him from a distance.
8. In the penultimate scene when Marian is driving the car in the rainstorm, in the book, Ben is mysteriously transported to the back seat when the image of Marian becomes the chauffeur; in the cinematic rendering he remains in the front seat.
9. When Ben and Marian are negotiating the price with Roz Allardyce, she first asks for seven hundred in the novel, and Brother angrily tells her to go back and ask for nine. In the film she asks for nine right off the bat.
10. In the novel Marian and Ben have a conversation about the tiles and boards falling off the house whereas in the film they do not - he witnesses it alone.
11. The ways Ben and David die in the film are contrived, blood and guts, gory movie deaths; in the novel they expire with less fanfare and drama.
The house and grounds are obviously in horrible disrepair, which makes the fact that a handyman named Walker ( as played by Dub Taylor, he is the only comic relief in the film) who answers the door says he "keeps everything spic and span" pretty funny.
Curtis shoots the great majority of scenes from a low angle, the camera gazing up at the characters; the first sign that something is seriously wrong is in the person of Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), who immediately begins acting defensive about the house and asking if the Rolfes will "love it as Brother and I do." She serves a critical function though. In a scene where she answers the telephone the camera zeroes in on her hand, and it looks exactly as the hand of her mother Mrs. Allardyce will look in one of the film's final scenes - a genetic replica.
After more weirdness with Brother (the great actor Burgess Meredith), the Rolfes (played by Karen Black and Oliver Reed with a disquiet chemistry) are about to leave when David runs in, having injured himself in his fall. In time we'll find out, along with David, why "children are good for the place" as the house tries to kill him no less than four times.
The family, now joined by Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis, in one of her last roles). move in. Curtis inserts a shot from a vantage point that will be crucial later on, from the old lady's window at the top of the house, looking down at the family car. I should here state something I haven't up till now, which is that one of the conditions of the whole rental deal is that Marian bring the old lady Allardyce a tray with three meals a day up to her room. She is simply to leave it outside the door. No one ever sees the old lady, which is one of the great stretches of the film that really doesn't hold up For an entire week the woman doesn't touch the tray at all, and after that Marian stops worrying about it because her psyche has been fully seduced by the house and all its terrible secrets.
And these terrible secrets are strongly hinted at by the huge collection of photographs on the table outside Mrs. Allardyce's room - her "memories of a lifetime." They are all headshots, some quite old, of people who look terrified or disturbed, and they transifix and fascinate Marian. The last scene of the film tells us who all these people are.
The first time we see Marian hypnotized by the music box something else is also going on in the pool, which somehow has turned from a decrepit shambles into a wonderfully usuable recreational facility. Ben and David are swimming, Aunt Elizabeth sits by poolside. When Ben makes a deep dive he finds a pair of eyeglasses with a cracked lens at the bottom of the pool. He is clueless, but we know it's a relic from some past nightmare much as the bicycle was. In the blink of an eye, after horsing around a minute with David, he's trying to drown him in the pool, holding him underwater, while Elizabeth screams in terror on the sidelines. He only stops when David bashes him in the face with his diving mask, drawing blood.
That night he has a dream, and here Marasco in the novel and Curtis in the film are forced to rely on transparently contrived flashbacks which have to be introduced in order to explain the dream. It's the sort of semi-cheap desperate last resort we see in hundreds of stories - when you can't coherently explain the character's current behavior, introduce something disturbing from their past that still haunts them now. The dream he has is of a sinister smiling chauffeur the image of whom has tormented him since his mother's funeral when he was a little boy. From here on in the pace really starts to pick up and the chilling episodes accelerate greatly.
I think the film's most serious depiction of evil and suffering, and of complete helplessness for that matter, occurs with the character of Aunt Elizabeth. I'm not sure if this was actually Bette Davis' very last role or not, but it's easy to see why see is regarded as one of the great Hollywood icons. There's even one scene where we clearly see where the expression "Bette Davis eyes" comes from. Aunt Elizabeth has decided to pay a surprise visit on Mrs. Allardyce, but when she knocks on the door it's opened by Marian. As they chat about Mrs. Allardyce Curtis shoots the scene from behind Marian , over her shoulder, and we see Elizabeth's eyes straining into the room trying to get a look at the old lady.
The thing about the way the house kills off Elizabeth is that it's internal, from within her body, like a sudden super rapidly growing cancer, or something - she is powerless to fight. In other instances this is not the case - David has the ability to fight off Ben when he tries to drown him, Ben is able to carry Davey to safety when the gas heater goes beserk, Marian rescues David from the pool when it suddenly develops high waves, Ben is able to ram the car into the trees when they try to block his path, etc. But Aunt Elizabeth has no such recourse. Her shocking decline is truly gut wrenching - at one point we actually hear something snap inside of her, a sound that sounds like it might be her bones cracking.
In the future I hope to complete another essay on the film alone that will look at it in much more detail, but for now I'd like to end this one by spelling out something I mentioned earlier, which was that the story simply doesn't hold together under scrutiny. Here's why: Down throughout the years the Allardyces have rented the house to seemingly dozens of families, and the house has killed them all. (In the novel sixteen family names are mentioned.) The pictures of the victims are on display in the house. The question veritably screams itself - no one comes looking for these dead folks? Nobody back home where they came from misses them, or knows where they went for the summer and comes to investigate? No one is going to miss the Rolfes and send the police to inquire at the Allardyce house? It just seems too unbelieveable for words that no one would notice the "coincidence" that hundreds of people have gone to spend summer vacation at this same house and they've all been killed or disappeared.
So...these have been some of my opening thoughts on Burnt Offerings. Hopefully within the next twelve months I'll be able to come up with a more thorough, more complete examination of the film version of this exceptionally rich horror tale.
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