The Brown Shoe Diaries Halloween Movie Club.Track down today’s movie and post your comments. Good? Lame? Scary? Not scary? Bring it.
Today’s recommended feature is:
The literary antecedents of the haunted house movie go back to 18th and 19th century gothic novels and the underlying mythological matter probably from further than that. I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies this month and hadn’t fully realized how frequently the device of the haunted house is used. Real estate marketing parlance has infected our contemporary culture in the use of the word home for house, to conflate an ideal with a place. The idea being that home is about values – family, comfort, safety, legacy – and that a house is the thing that will provide all of that for a negotiated price. It doesn’t. The home/house conflation is a hollow notion. Maybe that’s why when talking about movies where people find their new place occupied by restless dead people, demons, and unsettled spiritual grudges we prefer not to have the residence of these terrible stories called a haunted home. The haunted house as depicted in Burnt Offerings I think symbolizes a deep uneasiness with the excepted idea that for every family, house is where the home is; that the values of home can always to be found through accumulation and consumption.
The family of Burnt Offerings isn’t wealthy. They are a middle-class family stumbling across a home that is not too nice for them, but rather too much, too big. When they assume the role of being able take control of the house, they discover too late that the house is consuming them. Marian and Ben, with their teenage son and septengenarian aunt in tow rent a neglected and decaying gothic mansion as their summer getaway. They are told by the off-beat sister and brother who own the house that the couple can have it all summer for $900. They only need the couple to provide care for their invalid mother who resides in the attic. Marian volunteers to be the one who looks after the old woman and set meal trays outside her locked door. The family moves in, but Marian begins to be obsessed with the photographs and antiques and spends long periods in the old woman’s parlor. She overreacts when the the boy accidently breaks a crystal bowl and admonishes him not to touch “beautiful things.” Meanwhile Ben begins to be feel depresssed. He and Marian stop having sex. He is haunted by terrifying memories of his mother’s funeral. He has disabling visions of a old fashioned hearse driven by a creepy, spectral chauffeur . Ben’s disorientations lead to a scary incident where he uncontrollably tries to drown his teenage son in the swimming pool. The aunt, at first animated and full of vigor, quickly declines into lathargy and ill health. As the family falls to pieces, the aging old house starts to repair itself; the gardens bloom and the shingles and siding literally fall off like old skin to be magically replaced by fresh painted materials underneath. The house thrives like a destructive parasite on the family’s youth and vitality. The family is dying physically and emotionally, so that the house can live. By the time they figure out it’s the house that’s killing them, they also learn that the house will not allow them to leave. The dream house becomes a prison and a death trap.
It’s a critique on the idealization of American dream. In trying to live the dream, this family learns that the cost isn’t just $900 for the summer, but the hidden costs of moral and familial values that would make such a dream worth living. Even if you don’t buy into the critique, Burnt Offerings is still a great horror movie. The scenes with the ghost hearse and the family trying to escape are all effectively frightening. But the growing uncertainty in what these formerly nice people are going do to each other, as their inner rage manifests, is the scariest part.
Burnt Offerings (1976, Dan Curtis)