Karen Black in ‘Burnt Offerings’

burntposterObituaries for actress Karen Black, who died at 74 on August 8 from a rare form of cancer, tended to sum up her contribution to American cinema by noting her Oscar-nominated role as Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces. Rayette  represented the kind of over-ripe, emotionally vulnerable woman that was Black’s forte and a character type that fit the contradictions of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Characters like Rayette may have been sexually liberated but they were still trapped by the emotional pain inflicted by their male companions—the easy riders and raging bulls who rebelled against the establishment.

And, yet, Black’s distinctive beauty and spontaneous approach to acting gave her a broader range than suggested by the obits that used Rayette Dipesto as a touchstone for her career. As much as I liked Baz Luhrmann’s recent The Great Gatsby, Black’s from-the-gut performance as earthy, desperate Myrtle Wilson in the 1974 version completely overshadows Isla Fisher’s turn in the same role.  And, Black proved to be deft at comedy playing opposite William Devane in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot. Black worked for several directors of the Film School Generation—Robert Rafelson, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Ivan Passer, and John Schlesinger—as well as for Hollywood veterans such as Hitchcock, Ernest Lehman, and Jack Clayton.

BLACK PLAYED AGAINST TYPE AS THE ORDINARY WIFE IN 'BURNT OFFERINGS.'

BLACK PLAYED AGAINST TYPE AS A TYPICAL WIFE AND MOTHER IN ‘BURNT OFFERINGS.’

I became a fan of Karen Black after I saw her in Trilogy of Terror, a made-for-TV omnibus of horror stories directed by Dan Curtis and written by Richard Matheson. Black stars as the lead in all three tales, including the episode titled “Prey.” The most famous of the three stories, “Prey” features Black as a woman who brings home a Zuni fetish doll that stalks her around her apartment. The actress appeared in a handful of notable made-for-tv horror films and series during the 1970s (Circle of Fear; The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver), most of which were written by Matheson or directed by Dan Curtis. Curtis is well known to a generation of horror fans for The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror, and the original Dark Shadows series.

My favorite collaboration between Black and Curtis is Burnt Offerings, released theatrically in 1976. Black costars with Oliver Reed as Marian and Ben Rolf, a couple who rent a large, secluded mansion from an oddball brother and sister. Eileen Heckart stars as the sister, Roz Allardyce, while Burgess Meredith chews the scenery as her brother, Arthur. Ben is unsettled by the pair, but Marian is charmed by their devotion to their house.  Rent for the huge estate is unusually low, but the catch is that the Rolfs must care for Mother Allardyce, who never leaves the attic rooms of the main house. Ben acquiesces to Marian’s intense desire to live in the mansion, and they move in with their son, David, and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth, played by Bette Davis. The house looks dilapidated at first, which offends Marian, who remarks more than once, “What a waste.” Unlike her eccentric characters in well-known gothic horror films of the 1960s, Davis’s Aunt Elizabeth is a hip, modern-day senior citizen, who paints, hikes, and keeps up with her young nephew. Smartly dressed with a stylish bob, she also smokes, drinks, and has “lecherous thoughts,” as she likes to joke.

THE HOUSE USED FOR EXTERIORS WAS AN ACTUAL ESTATE.

THE HOUSE USED FOR EXTERIORS WAS AN ACTUAL ESTATE CALLED DUNSMUIR.

The Rolfs are a happy family, who support each others’ talents and accomplishments—until the house begins to drive them apart and suck the life out of them. Marian becomes attached to the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce—who is never shown—and obsessed with the old woman’s collection of framed photographs and memorabilia. Her alienation from her family is suggested in a scene in which she lovingly stares at the people in the photographs while her son repeatedly calls for her to join everyone at the pool. In the meantime, Aunt Elizabeth begins to change: Her hair turns gray; she no longer has the energy to play with David; and she takes on the aches and pains of an elderly woman. The house drives a wedge between family members: Ben almost drowns David during a playful encounter in the pool; Marian no longer wants to make love to her husband. Ben begins to have nightmares about his mother’s funeral in which a creepy chauffeur with an evil sneer seems to foreshadow some horrific event.

CURTIS MAKES EFFECTIVE USE OF CONVENTIONAL HORROR-FILM LIGHTING AND SHADOWS.

CURTIS MAKES EFFECTIVE USE OF CONVENTIONAL HORROR-FILM LIGHTING AND SHADOWS.

Like Curtis’s other horror ventures, Burnt Offerings benefits from a heavy atmosphere and gothic trappings created by the traditional visual conventions of the genre. Low-key lighting makes Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room seem eerie and menacing, while repeated shots of Marian straightening mirrors hints at a doppelganger for her character. Birds-eye angles from the attic look down on the Rolfs as they enter the house, suggesting that bad luck or ill fate is watching their every move. Odd-looking low angles of Marian make her appear both sinister and dominating. As Marian enters the house for the first time, she is shot from below in front of a half-moon window. The panes in the window form a web-like image behind her, suggesting the house has her trapped. Burnt Offerings was shot at the Dunsmuir House and Gardens in Oakland, California, which is a 37-room estate with a pool and outbuildings on 50 acres of land. Using an actual mansion added authenticity to the exterior scenes, grounding the supernatural in a natural-looking world—a trend in big-budget horror films at the time. Despite the stylish touches, Burnt Offerings is too flawed to be a great horror film, or even a good one. Too little exposition about the house’s origins and evil purpose creates a frustrating vagueness rather than an engaging sense of mystery. And, repeated scenes of the Rolfs’ ordinary lives and family interaction become tedious, delaying the evil machinations of the house for too long.

MARIAN LOSES HERSELF WHILE LOOKING AT THE OLD PHOTOGRAPHS.

MARIAN LOSES HERSELF IN MRS. ALLARDYCE’S OLD PHOTOGRAPHS.

However, the personal, intimate interaction among family members is crucial to understanding how far the Rolfs are driven apart by the house. Their all-American normalcy is displayed early on as they kid around during the drive to the new house. The camera is placed inside the car, giving us the illusion that we are part of the happy family, too. Davis, Reed, and Black all had reputations for playing larger-than-life or emotionally charged characters, but in Burnt Offerings, they offer natural, subdued performances as a typical family. As an ordinary wife and loving mother, Black plays against her star image as the brassy, sexy working-class girl. Marian dresses conservatively in nondescript skirts and blouses until the house starts to change her, and she begins to wear beautiful, distinctive clothing from another era. Her only revealing costume is a low-cut nightgown in a scene in which Ben tries to be romantic, but Marian rejects him. As Marian falls under the spell of the house, Black contains her performance, revealing her character’s alienation and repression through controlled expressions and a minimum of gestures. Overall, it is a restrained performance compared to the showy roles that brought her critical acclaim–but one that is perfectly suited to the character.

THE HOUSE TURNS DAVIS'S CHARACTER FROM HIP GRANNY TO VULNERABLE OLD WOMAN.

THE HOUSE TURNS DAVIS’S CHARACTER FROM HIP GRANNY TO VULNERABLE OLD WOMAN.

The destruction of the nuclear family through outside forces and the alienation of generations were themes familiar to audiences of the post-Vietnam era. But, I found other inferences from the story to be worth pondering. Marian is the epitome of the housewife, with the emphasis on “house.” She wants every room to be perfect, frowning on Ben’s smoking and forcing David to drink from a creepy silver goblet because it matches her dinner setting. Her obsession with the house is at the expense of her relationship with Ben, and it destroys her identity as a woman with sexual desires and interests of her own. In other words, she exchanges her identity as a unique, vibrant woman for that of a housewife. In effect, Marian the housefrau is the monster in this horror film. As such, her character works as a criticism of traditional gender roles.

Fans of Trilogy of Terror will want to check out this second collaboration between Dan Curtis and Karen Black and to see the actress in a different kind of role. Burnt Offerings can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, which I don’t recommend. Thankfully, it is also available on DVD.

22 Responses Karen Black in ‘Burnt Offerings’
Posted By Michael Laws : August 12, 2013 12:35 pm

Both this film and Trilogy of Terror scared the heck out of me as a kid. Even today, I can’t shake the willies every time I think of that final image from Prey as Ms. Black awaits her mother’s arrival.

As far as Burnt offerings goes I actually watched it again relatively recently, and was surprised at how well it holds up. It definitely does have its flaws, but there’s simply something about Curtis’s style that never fails to draw me in. Perhaps it is simply nostalgia, but for me there are few directors who could always be counted on to produce a certain atmosphere of sheer creepiness that seems to permeate his films.

Posted By Shuvcat : August 12, 2013 12:57 pm

Nice piece. I do hope TCM is planning on showing one or both of these classic films soon to honor Ms. Black’s memory.

Posted By william serritella : August 12, 2013 2:23 pm

Great article! I enjoyed reading it very much. Your blogs always bring back fond memories of being in your class.

Posted By avmckee : August 12, 2013 3:14 pm

Always remember her in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” from 1982. Along with a great cast, she was very watchable then. Thanks for the post!

Posted By DevlinCarnate : August 12, 2013 5:56 pm

her performance as the slightly ditzy outsider in Five Easy Pieces will always be her hallmark,but it was her willingness to tackle slightly skewed roles like this that i’ll remember her for,she was not the typecast “mom” and Oliver Reed and Betty Davis were not the the typical “dad” and “grandma” ,so thanks for acknowledging Karen Black,who like Sandy Dennis,gets lost amongst the current crop of famous for being famous actors/celebrities that show up for the opening of an envelope

Posted By SergioM : August 12, 2013 7:11 pm

By coincidence Burnt Offerings was the subject of the today’s Trailers from Hell

http://trailersfromhell.com/burnt-offerings/

And I definitely agree about Black’s performance in Clayton’s The Great Gatsby which is far superior to the overblown, frantic Luhrumann version

Posted By Susan Doll : August 12, 2013 7:58 pm

William: Thanks for the kind comments about my class. I need the encouragement as I start the new semester. This week begins school for full-time faculty; next week classes start.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 12, 2013 7:59 pm

avmckee: JIMMY DEAN featured a terrific cast, including Black. I remember it fondly, but it is not a movie that you see much today.

Posted By Stacia : August 12, 2013 11:03 pm

I finally watched Burnt Offerings about three weeks ago, after having it in my to-watch pile for ages, and absolutely loved it. Even the moments where you know precisely what’s going to happen were so well done that “knowing” didn’t spoil a thing. The moment where Reed swims away after the incident in the pool, like a crocodile whose nose has just gotten punched, was brilliant.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of comments about the film being dull and not good (John Darnielle was inspired by the film for some songs on Heretic Pride, IIRC, and says in an interview that there are long stretches where nothing happens), but I disagree. I’ve always loved Curtis’ films, starting with the Jack Palance Jekyll and Hyde, and love the tension in those periods where nothing allegedly happens. And I do think in retrospect so much of what Curtis deploys in his films is old hat nowadays, thus loses its punch. My only complaint, if you can call it that, is that Meredith and Heckart were just a little too hammy for my taste.

Posted By Doug : August 12, 2013 11:07 pm

As a guy, Ms. Black’s most distinctive feature which drew me in were her eyes.
“Black contains her performance, revealing her character’s alienation and repression through controlled expressions and a minimum of gestures.” That subtlety, for me, marks a solid actor confident in her or his craft. Karen Black did fine work, and I would love to see “Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere except for old VHS which is unworkable.

Posted By Nim Kovak : August 13, 2013 6:25 am

She’ll be dearly missed … I now have this one lined up to watch next … Can’t remember yet if I may have seen it as a kid …

I always found her to be a fascinating, slightly strange or off-beat actress somehow … She’s great in Family Plot (as is Barbara Harris I think)

Anyone interested in witnessing her pretty eccentric, almost wacky, sense of humor should definitely watch the extended interview clips included as extras on the Trilogy of Terror disc … Her riffing on the (pseudo?) – Freudian theory of female “fear of entry” (& how it informs horror actresses) is really a hoot!

Posted By jtransistorblast : August 13, 2013 11:25 am

It’s interesting to see the similarities between Burnt Offerings, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (particularly the last few shots of both films), though there are certainly just as many differences.

Posted By Stacia : August 13, 2013 11:29 am

Agreed, JTransistor. I was on Twitter right after watching Burnt Offerings, joking that Kubrick had some ‘splainin’ to do.

Posted By jim` : August 13, 2013 2:20 pm

Thanks Susan. I’ve never seen _Trilogy of Terror_ and look forward to it. It’s on Netflix as a DVD.

Posted By Maryann : August 13, 2013 2:48 pm

Thanks for the remembrance of Karen Black, an actor I enjoyed. It also reminded me of her sister Gail Brown who was a cast member of my favorite soap of the past Another World. I never understood why she was not better known. She also had a remarkable resemblance to her sister.

Posted By swac44 : August 13, 2013 5:13 pm

Karen Black’s sister was Gail Brown? I wonder if they were any relation to film comic Ben Blue?

Black never disappointed in her screen work. I first saw Trilogy of Terror as a 9-year-old, when it aired on the local Midday Matinee movie show. It was a snow day, so all the kids stayed home from school and saw it (this was before everyone had cable and dozens of channel) and it was all anyone could talk about the next day, with many of us doing our impressions of the Zuni fetish doll on the playground. No one would fess up to being truly scared by it, but I’m pretty sure that little monster, and the image of Black from the very end, haunts my dreams to this very day.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – You Will Never See Its Like Again : August 14, 2013 10:01 am

[…] good example was Burnt Offerings, just written up recently by fellow Morlock Suzi Doll.   I never saw it in the theater upon […]

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 12:04 pm

I wouldn’t say that the Jack Clayton version of The Great Gatsby is “far” superior to the overblown new version. Neither one is very good. Black did make an impression in it though. I forgot that Isla Fisher was even in the new version, and I think she’s hot.

Posted By SergioM : August 15, 2013 12:14 pm

I’ve always liked it and at least the Clayton version wasn’t made for 14 year old with extreme ADD like EVERYTHING Luhrmann does

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 5:08 pm

Now THAT point I will agree with.

Posted By lrobhubbard : August 20, 2013 10:13 am

Calling BURNT OFFERINGS “dull” completely misses the point; looking at it as an extreme black comedy about home ownership is a lot closer to the mark.

Posted By ESassaman : September 7, 2013 8:35 pm

5 words: The Day of the Locust

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