Allow me to briefly expound upon my love of haunted house movies (and books). They are, bar none, my go-to genre of horror, and my list of favorites includes many stellar examples: The Haunting, The Others, The Changeling, The Innocents, The Shining, The Legend of Hell House. There is just something so inherently nasty about the haunted house story. Your house, after all, is where you sleep, where you get naked, where you’re the most vulnerable, where you’re supposed to be able to relax and live your life safe from the prying eyes of the public. When this feeling of safety is subverted by a haunting, you feel doubly violated, as you have nowhere to go to escape the terror; it has literally invaded the place where you live. The haunted house film, when done well, gives the viewer a sense of claustrophobia and unease that cannot be matched by any other subgenre. Intense atmosphere can be wrenched from every shot of a darkened hallway, a locked door, a dusty basement or attic. Our houses are our outer shells, and when they turn on us, the results can be horrifying.
One of my favorite haunted house films of the 1970s, and one that typifies the “house as living entity” trope apparent in many films of the period, is 1976’s Burnt Offerings, directed by Dan Curtis, who was well known as the creator of the 1960s vampire soap Dark Shadows, as well as the iconic made-for-TV horror films The Night Stalker from 1972 and Trilogy of Terror from 1975.
While I feel like lots of horror fans have seen the film, what is maybe not as well known is the fact that it’s based on a classic 1973 novel written by Robert Marasco. I would consider Burnt Offerings, in fact, as one of the “big five” haunted house novels that sometimes get brought up as being among the most influential of the 20th century; if you’re curious, the other four would be The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson; The Shining by Stephen King; Hell House by Richard Matheson; and The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons. Of those five, I’ve always perceived Burnt Offerings as being the least known and least read, which is really a shame, because it’s a great book, and easily one of my favorite novels in the haunted house subgenre. It was sadly out of print for a very long time, but in 2015, Valancourt Books put out an updated edition of it, with a snazzy new cover and an introduction by award-winning horror, crime, and science fiction writer Stephen Graham Jones.
I’ve actually read Burnt Offerings three or four times, though I came to read it the first time probably back in the mid-1980s. I absolutely adored Stephen King’s 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, in which he discussed horror entertainment between 1950 and 1980 (with some sidetracks to go back to the literary origins of the genre). In the back of that book, he provided a massive index of novels and films that he hadn’t really gone in depth about in the main part of the text, but which he still thought were worth recommending. So pre-teen me decided that I was going to read as many of those books and see as many of those movies as I could get my hands on, a project that consumed the following few years, and it so happened that one of those books was Burnt Offerings. I’m not sure if the book was out of print even back then, because I actually checked my copy out of the library. By that point, I had already seen the movie, so there weren’t too many surprises; the film adaptation is actually one of the most faithful to the source novel that I’ve ever seen, though I will get into the changes that were made in a bit.
Robert Marasco was a teacher, playwright, and author, and his first novel Burnt Offerings was originally written as a screenplay which was then novelized, which is probably one of the reasons that the movie follows the book so closely. Marasco had written a Tony-nominated Broadway play in 1970 titled Child’s Play, which was a psychological horror story and nothing to do with the later film featuring Chucky (though the play was adapted into a film in 1972, directed by Sidney Lumet). He wrote another play called Our Sally, and another novel in 1979 called Parlor Games, but that was the bulk of his writing output, it seems, though he did have several unfinished plays to his name upon his death from lung cancer in 1998.
The first time I saw the 1976 film adaptation was when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was at a slumber party at an old mansion owned by the wealthy parents of a friend of mine named Tanya. This house was straight out of a movie itself, with a giant sweeping marble staircase, crystal chandeliers, back staircases for servants, and endless twisting hallways leading to rooms upon rooms that seemed to go on forever. I had never seen such a house in real life, and it was probably not the best environment to see Burnt Offerings in, because as soon as it got to the part where that infamous chauffeur made his first appearance (if you know, you know), I and all the other girls at the slumber party were scrambling to hide under the blankets on the sofa or hightail it into the adjoining bathroom to leap behind the claw-foot tub. The house around us just seemed a little too uncomfortably close to what we were seeing on the screen.
As I mentioned, both the book and the film versions of Burnt Offerings are very similar, so as I lay out the plot, I’ll just detail where the two media differ whenever I get to the relevant points. And it should probably go without saying (though I’ll say it anyway), this discussion will have spoilers for the end of both the movie and the book.
Both the movie and the novel follow the Rolfe family, consisting of dad Ben (Oliver Reed), mom Marian (Karen Black), and their son David (who is about eight in the book, but more like eleven or twelve in the movie, in which he’s played by Lee Montgomery). One of the major differences between book and film is in the book’s first act; while the movie pretty much jumps right into the Rolfes seeing the ad for the summer rental and quickly arriving at the house of horror, the novel spends about the first quarter of the story establishing the characters back at their cramped apartment in Queens, New York. Incidentally, that’s another difference, though it was likely just done for budgetary purposes: the mansion in the book is actually on the eastern end of Long Island, New York, while the film is set in California.
Because the book spends so much time with the family beforehand, and particularly with Marian, we get much more of a sense of her as a character, including the weaknesses that the house will later use to exploit her. Marian is a very aspirational person, and you get a real sense that she’s dissatisfied with her lot in life; not unhappy, exactly, but it’s clear that being a housewife in this tiny apartment in a dirty, crowded city with a teacher for a husband and an elderly guy living in the building who occasionally pees on the mailboxes is not really what she had in mind for how her future was going to play out. She obviously feels as though she deserves better, which is why she pushes so hard to rent the “too good to be true” summer place and why it’s so easy for the house to seduce her into doing its bidding.
Another detail in the book that speaks to this aspirational nature is the fact that the family usually goes away every summer to a little cabin in upstate New York, but this year Marian wants to do something different, and this is the source of some of the conflict between Marian and Ben about renting the mansion; Ben recognizes that the house they rented for vacations before is suddenly no longer good enough for his wife.
In both book and film, Marian sees an ad for an isolated, bucolic summer rental that mentions a pool and lakefront access; the ad says the price is reasonable “for the right people.” Marian is excited and insistent that they at least go look at it, while Ben is understandably skeptical: what does “reasonable” mean? What does “the right people” mean? In the book, there is much more back and forth between the couple as Ben tries to talk her out of this pipe dream that she has, and Marian eventually complaining and nagging and wheedling until he gives up and agrees to go and look at the house, though he’s still pretty dead set against renting it, and silently hopes that once they get there, there will be something wrong with the place so they won’t have to.
So they drive two hours, and when they arrive, it’s clear it’s not just a house, but an entire estate on several acres, including massive gardens. In both book and film, Ben initially thinks the “reasonable” rent is only for the small, run-down gardener’s cottage on the grounds, and not the main mansion, which is spectacular but also slightly shabby and in need of some TLC.
Ben is suspicious and wants the family to turn around immediately and forget the whole thing, but Marian pleads with him to at least talk to one of the owners, Roz Allardyce, who Marian has already spoken with over the phone and who is expecting them. Ben grudgingly agrees, though when they go up to the house, the first person they meet is actually the groundskeeper, Walker, who is kind of a slovenly pig.
The Rolfes then meet the owners of the house, a weirdly intense brother and sister team. In the movie, they’re Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), though I don’t think the brother is ever named in the book, as Roz always just refers to him as “Brother.” The pair are pretty eccentric to say the least; in the book, they don’t necessarily come off as threatening at first, though the movie ramps up the sinister factor a tad, just to fuel the suspense and get the story moving forward.
In both book and movie, the Allardyces offer the Rolfes the entire, thirty-room house for two whole months (from July 1st to Labor Day) for the unheard-of sum of $900. Ben thinks there must be a catch, but initially the Allardyces insist there isn’t, and meanwhile, Marian has already become completely enamored with the place, oohing and aahing over every single antique and elegant architectural detail. In the book, her expensive tastes are made very obvious by the fact that she recognizes the provenance of various items: oh, this highboy was manufactured by so-and-so, and this china is a very rare pattern; stuff like that. She also immediately feels an affinity with the house; it’s beautiful but has lost much of its luster, as these gorgeous expensive things are all covered with dust and the mansion is slowly falling into rack and ruin. She feels strongly that she’s the person who can restore the place to its former glory. This is essentially the mansion pulling the same stunt as Hill House pulled on Eleanor in Shirley Jackson’s novel: it’s beguiling the protagonist by making her feel as though she’s found “her place.”
Marian is absolutely resolute that they are doing this, but Ben is still trying to back out of it, insisting that there has to be a catch. Finally, the Allardyces admit that yes, there is, but it’s just a teeny tiny one. Their 85-year-old mother will be staying in the house with them over the summer, as she’s too ill to travel with them to wherever they’re vacationing. Their mother is absolutely no trouble, they maintain; in fact, the Rolfes will probably never even see her, as she very rarely comes out of her room. All Marian would have to do is prepare three meals a day for her, put them on a tray, and leave them in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room. That’s literally it. The Allardyces have even left an entire two months’ worth of food in the house that will easily feed both Mrs. Allardyce and the Rolfes quite handily.
Ben is now more convinced than ever that this is a bad idea. What if the old woman croaks on their watch, he reasonably asks Marian. What if something goes wrong with the house? Will they really be able to keep up with all the maintenance on this giant mansion that is lovely but has seen better days? No worries, the Allardyces assert; the house practically takes care of itself.
So there’s a lot more back and forth, but eventually Marian gets her way, and the Rolfes take possession of the house on July 1st. Coming along for the summer adventure is Ben’s delightfully sassy aunt Elizabeth (played by Bette Davis in the movie).
From this stage, in both the film and the novel, little things conspire to make the house seem creepier and creepier. Marian begins to spend all her time cleaning and fixing the house up, and demands that no one be allowed into Mother Allardyce’s quarters but her. The trays of food that Marian dutifully leaves for the mother are never eaten, and the old woman never responds to Marian’s knocks (though the food starts looking partially eaten once Marian begins to suspect that there isn’t actually anyone in the room). Marian herself slowly begins to dress more primly, as if she is a much older woman. She also takes to mooning around for hours in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room, listening to an antique music box and staring longingly at the old woman’s collection of photographs. Her hair is also slowly beginning to turn gray.
Further, Ben and David find an old cemetery on the grounds, in which all the graves are Allardyces, but none of the death dates is more recent than 1890. Ben also finds a mysterious pair of broken spectacles at the bottom of the swimming pool, and a busted tricycle with a bit of blood on it stashed among the weeds.
As the tension builds, the weirdness gets weirder: Ben starts having blackouts and acting more violent, at one point almost raping his wife, and then later succumbing to an uncontrollable bloodlust while horsing around in the pool with his son David, nearly drowning the kid. Ben also starts having really disturbing nightmares, which are described in the book but given vivid and terrifying life in the movie.
The night after almost drowning his son in the pool, Ben has a dream, filmed in spooky black and white, of himself as a little boy attending his mother’s funeral. In this nightmare, there is an unsettling figure of a lanky chauffeur, clad in a black uniform and dark glasses, lurking around the outer edges of the funeral party, and standing by the door of an old-fashioned black car to usher Ben inside. Ben gets into the car, and then the chauffeur’s creepily smiling face appears in the car window. The chauffeur is so eerie looking that one wonders if it was an actual person that Ben remembers from the funeral, or just a product of his subconscious.
As if the dream scene wasn’t bad enough, there comes a chilling sequence later in the film where Ben, who has been out working in the garden, is taking a break, sitting on the grass and drinking a beer. Suddenly, he sees the grille of a car approaching through the trees. It’s the same black car from his nightmare. It comes ever so slowly up the drive, and Ben is just sitting there watching it, shaking like a leaf. The car stops several yards away, and the chauffeur’s pale face can be seen through the window, watching Ben with that horrible smile. Ben loses his shit and covers his eyes, and when he looks up again, the car is gone.
Meanwhile, Marian notices that certain things around the house and grounds seem to be regenerating themselves; although she is dutifully cleaning and maintaining things around the place, or so she thinks, she doesn’t remember doing most of the stuff that’s occurring. She obviously didn’t have the time or wherewithal, for example, to repair and power wash all of the previously cracked and discolored paving stones surrounding the pool, or to sand and refinish all the wood trim along the mansion’s walls. She’s been having blackouts of her own, actually, without being completely conscious of it; though she’s convinced she’s been spending hours and hours of time fixing up the place, she’s actually been spacing out in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room and not doing jack.
So what the house in Burnt Offerings is, basically, is the same thing that Hill House is, or the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, or the “house next door” from Anne Rivers Siddons’s novel of the same name. These aren’t haunted houses in the sense of being inhabited by ghosts; rather, they are what is termed a “hungry house,” one that is like a living entity that insinuates its way into the people who are staying in it and attacks their weaknesses, either luring them into carrying out its wishes, and/or turning them against one another and then draining their energy to feed itself or restore itself. We see this foreshadowed early on in the movie when the family are still negotiating with the Allardyces: Arnold is shown watching greedily out the window as David falls and cuts his leg as he’s playing in the garden, and minutes later, one of the dead plants in the greenhouse has developed a new, young shoot. It’s implied in both the book and the film that the Allardyces do this particular rental deal every few years, suckering in a family for the summer and then leaching the life from them in order to keep the house (and by extension, themselves) spick and span, and possibly immortal, though this is not explicitly spelled out.
Later on in the story, the windows and doors in David’s room close and lock, and the gas heater somehow turns on and almost kills him; it’s insinuated that Aunt Elizabeth went in there in a daze and did the deed, though she’s so confused that she can’t remember exactly what happened. Aunt Elizabeth herself, though formerly perky and spry, begins to quickly decline from some mysterious ailment, and eventually dies. As she’s lying in her deathbed, as a matter of fact, there’s another horrifying appearance by the chauffeur from Ben’s dream: Ben is sitting with his dying aunt at night and hears a car pulling up outside. Creeping to the window, he sees the telltale black car coming around the drive. He wigs out and backs slowly away from the window back toward Elizabeth’s bed. Both Ben and a nearly incoherent Elizabeth begin to hear a noise at the door, as of someone trying to get in. Then there’s a close-up of the door, and then a loud bang as the door opens, then there’s that damn chauffeur in the doorway, grinning, his eyes invisible behind his dark glasses. There’s a full-length shot of him standing on the threshold, a shot of Elizabeth screaming, and then the chauffeur pushes a coffin into the room toward the camera, and everything goes black.
After Elizabeth dies in the book, her photo appears among the dozens of pictures in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room, which is what causes Marian to realize that the house has actually killed all the people in the photos, and further twigs onto the fact that this has been going on for a century or more. By this point, though, she is too far gone to care, as the hungry essence of the house has already completely taken her over. In the movie, the photos featuring the Rolfes aren’t shown until the very end, as a final reveal.
Perhaps the second major difference between the novel and the film is in the third act; though the ultimate outcome of the story is the same, the way it specifically happens is a bit different. In both book and movie, Ben goes into a kind of catatonic state after the death of Elizabeth and the last terrifying appearance of the chauffeur, and at one point is sitting on the deck while his son David swims in the pool. David begins to drown, and Ben is unable to do anything to help him.
Here’s where the two media diverge some, though: in the movie, Marian sees what’s happening from the window of the sitting room, and is able to snap herself out of her house-induced trance for long enough to rush down and save David’s life. In the book, however, she still absolutely sees her son drowning from a window and sees that her husband is helpless to aid him, and though she does attempt to get out of the house, all the doors are locked and impassable, as though the house is preventing her from saving him. She eventually breaks the door to the terrace, but it’s already too late; she sees the house regenerating itself around her and realizes that her son is dead. She seems less upset about that, though, and more upset that the house would turn on her after she already gave it everything. After her outburst, she goes to pound on Mrs. Allardyce’s door, which actually opens to admit her for the first time ever, after which a seemingly vast and cosmic force completely consumes her, turning her into “Mrs. Allardyce.” It’s not really clear if Ben dies, or if he’s just left in his vegetative state, as a kind of living death.
The book actually goes a great deal into Marian’s head in the final parts of the story, so we really get a sense of how detached and cold-blooded she’s become. This is touched on in the movie, but it’s decidedly less extreme; Marian does start to care less about her family as the film goes on, though she still retains some sense of herself that comes and goes. In the book, though, she just goes almost completely heartless and indifferent, and the reader understands that Marian as she was is really no longer in there; she has become nearly used up by the force animating the house, the force that disguises itself as a never-seen old woman behind a door.
I’m not saying that the movie doesn’t kill the kid (and Ben) off; it totally does. Ben actually dies after he goes up to the sitting room to get Marian so they can get the hell out of the house, but when he sees her in there, she looks like a freaky old lady, having essentially become the non-existent person known as Mrs. Allardyce. It’s implied that Marian/Mrs. Allardyce throws Ben from the window, causing him to smash down on the windshield of his own car, which was pulled up in front of the house for the purpose of quickly absconding. David, who is already in the car, sees his father die right in front of him, and understandably jumps out of the vehicle, at which point bricks from the house’s chimney come raining down on top of him, crushing him to death.
I will note that even though the novel and the film are extremely similar, I would recommend both if you like the story of one or the other. This isn’t a case of “if you’ve seen the movie you don’t have to read the book,” which in my opinion is almost never true anyway; despite the almost identical plot beats between the two media, they’re very different experiences, and both worthwhile, in my humble view. The book, as most books do, goes much more into the inner lives and thoughts of the characters, giving a lot more context to things that are only hinted at in the movie, while the movie is able to effectively convey a lot of the visual scares that are only described on the page.
As a sideline, while I was doing research for this recap, I noticed that contemporary reviews of the 1976 film were very mixed, as many filmgoers felt the ending was too obviously telegraphed, but I’ve always found that the atmospheric creepiness of the journey makes up for any pedestrian aspects to the plotting or theme. One also has to take into consideration that many aspects of the film that seem old hat to people nowadays weren’t quite the clichés they are now, and in fact, some themes in this film were quite original, but later co-opted for later films in a similar line. I also really think the acting is terrific; Karen Black is always great, and Oliver Reed is splendid, especially in scenes featuring the fun, smart-ass bickering between Ben and Elizabeth. If you’re in the market for a classic slice of 1970s haunted house eerieness, you could certainly do worse than Burnt Offerings. The book is likewise fantastic, a slow burn of insidious horror, and although some things about it are dated (particularly the very early 1970s gender politics, which haven’t aged all that well), it’s still a classic, and recommended to anyone who’s into haunted house horror.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
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