‘Mrs. Allardyce! Mrs. Allardyce! It’s me, Marian Rolf. I’m really worried about you, Mrs. Allardyce!’

I honestly think that watching this film is the most fun I’ve ever had, cinematically speaking. It’s definitely the best ‘haunted house’ film I’ve ever seen, bar none, and I’ve seen THE HAUNTING (1963), based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, which is bone-rattlingly scary and leaves you wondering exactly whose hand you were holding in the dark…

I’m very susceptible to the whole there’s-a-scary-old-woman-in-the-attic-who-never-goes-out kind of thing in movies, and this vintage horror classic has this in spades. The suspense that is present all the way through the movie continues right to the ending, leaving the viewer both shocked and, ultimately, feeling like they’ve had one hell of a roller-coaster ride.

BURNT OFFERINGS tells the story of a nice normal family, the Rolfs, who rent out a magnificent but somewhat ramshackle nineteenth-century mansion in the California countryside for the summer. Ben the dad is a writer, Marian the mom is a housewife and then there’s twelve-year-old Davey, the tousle-haired All-American kid who loves his sport and his big old rough-housing bear of a Pa.

The owners of the house, the decidedly odd brother-and-sister duo, Roz and Arnold Allardyce, smilingly inform the Rolfs that the only condition attached to their staying at the house is as follows: while Roz and Arnold are away, their elderly mother will continue to live in her suite of rooms at the top of the house for the duration of the Rolfs’ tenancy. She likes her privacy and will require nothing from the Rolfs but three meals a day brought on a tray to her rooms.

The first shiver of the night courses down my spine at this point. An eighty-five-year-old woman they never get to see, living behind closed doors at the top of the house…? Feck that for a game of soldiers. I’d be out of there before you could say ‘breach of tenancy.’

I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night for fear that I’d wake up to see the old lady standing over my bed with a carving knife. I immediately get a sort of PSYCHO vibe from the whole thing here. I’m not the only one…

Ben Rolf, the husband, played by beefy heart-throb Oliver Reed, isn’t too keen on the idea either. He tells his wife Marian- the beautiful Karen Black- that he’s having second thoughts. It’s too late, however.

Marian has already fallen head over heels with the place, which in fairness could be truly beautiful if it were tidied up a bit, so in they all duly move for the summer. Ben, Marian, their son Davey and Ben’s Auntie Elizabeth, played by a wonderfully game old Bette Davis.

Shit gets real serious real fast, if you’ll excuse my French. In an unprecedented break from character, Ben Rolf almost drowns his son in the swimming-pool out back of the house. The previously feisty Auntie Lizzie feels like the energy is being sucked out of her by an unseen force.

Both Lizzie’s hair and Marian’s is turning grey at an astonishing rate, as if something- or someone– is draining the colour out of it. Davey is almost killed by a gas heater in his bedroom that no-one can remember switching on.

Marian has taken to wearing old-fashioned, Victorian-style clothing and spending hours up in Mrs. Allardyce’s ante-chamber, looking at the old lady’s vast collection of framed photographs of generations and generations of men, women and children, who’ve presumably all lived in the house at one time or another, and playing her music-box.

Ben accuses Marian of becoming too obsessed with the house to give a toss about him or Davey. He’s right. Marian has developed a strange relationship with the house that bodes ill for her and Ben’s marriage and for the Rolf family as a whole.

Ben has started, or, more accurately, re-started having horrible visions from which he has suffered since his mother’s funeral years ago. The vision involves a funeral-car driven by a grinning ghoul of a chauffeur. Ben’s relationship with the greatly-changed Marian is at breaking-point and, to top it all, not a single member of the family has seen the elusive Mrs. Allardyce since they moved in.

The door to her bedroom remains resolutely locked. That consistently, uncompromisingly locked door is probably the single most frightening thing about the film for me. Not even once is it ajar a smidge. Not one clue do we get as to what lies beyond the locked door.

Don’t let it be a horrible corpse, I prayed throughout the film, the first time I saw it. My fear of horrible corpses definitely started with PSYCHO, just in case you’re interested. Bloody film. It has a lot to answer for, even if it is one of the best horror films ever made, and one of my all-time personal favourites.

Anyway, massive spoilers ahoy, poor old Auntie Lizzie falls violently ill and dies. After her funeral, Ben sees the house physically ‘regenerating’ itself in a terrifying scene that involves falling slates and crumbling brickwork, but at whose expense is the house actually regenerating itself? Ben thinks he’s worked it out. He grabs his son and makes a dash for it in the car.

The house prevents their leaving, however, by uprooting a tree and throwing it into their path. Ben hits his head and is driven back to the house by Marian who, somewhere along the line, has turned into the evil death-car driver of Ben’s nightmares…

Things don’t end there, believe it or not. Ahoy, me hearties, there be more massive spoilers ahead, yarr. As big as the white whale itself. Tell me, have ye seen the white whale on yer travels? A fair whopper be he, and this gold doubloon be for the man who sights him first, yarr, and, um, yay…! Ooops, wrong film. Sorry, folks.

Marian finally agrees to leave the house after Davey is almost drowned in the pool again. The pool? Again? Seriously? The three remaining members of the family pack up and are ready to leave when Marian tells Ben that she needs to just run upstairs for a minute to tell Mrs. Allardyce that they are leaving. Ben begs her not to go back in the house but she goes back in anyway. And doesn’t come back out…

Ben goes upstairs after her and finds the door to the old lady’s bedroom unlocked for the first time… That’s it. I’m not telling you a single other thing in case I give away the ending, not even if you tickle my neck. That’s my Achilles heel. I’ll be watching this fantastic horror film again tonight, that much I’ll admit to. I’ll be watching it with the lights on, however. And I won’t be watching it alone.

Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Vampirology. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
Her new book, THIRTEEN STOPS EARLIER, is out now from Poolbeg Books:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s