By Craig Leask
Burnt Offerings (1976) is not a run of the mill creepy movie with weird characters being tormented by restless spirits in a crumbling old mansion. In this case, the mansion in this movie IS the restless spirit. The angle is refreshingly unique in the haunted house movie genre.
The movie was directed by Dan Curtis in 1976 for United Artists, based upon the 1973 novel by Robert Marasco. Prior to this work, Mr. Curtis had carved a unique niche for himself through his involvement in a large number of low budget but well-made macabre TV films and series including: Dark Shadows from 1967 to 1971; Trilogy of Terror (1975); House of Dark Shadows (1970); Night of Dark Shadows (1971) and The Night Stalker (1972). That cult classic spawned the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which ran from 1974-75 and also enjoys a huge cult following.
The plot of Burnt Offerings centers around Ben (Oliver Reed) and Marian Rolf (Karen Black), their 12 year old son David (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) taking advantage of a very inexpensive rent deal to secure a large, secluded, yet tired mansion for the summer. Over the course of their short tenancy, the behavior of each member of the family changes, through injury, harassment and even death. As each person’s health alters, so too does the house, absorbing each member’s life force in the process. Gradually the house improves itself in direct correlation to the breakdown of the family’s mental and physical well-being. Throughout the movie, the audience witnesses the rebirth of plants in the greenhouse, the entire residing and re-shingling of the main houses intricate cladding and the reconditioning of the estates pool, not without demonstrating the associative effects on the people involved.
The movie was shot in its entirety in and around Dunsmuir House outside Oakland California in August of 1975, requiring only 30 days to shoot. Throughout the movie, Curtis presented the house as a constant presence, either in the background or with scenes shot through windows as if the viewer is seeing what the house sees. In one scene where Ben attempts to become a little frisky with Marian out by the pool, the house is in the background, a single light on in the attic, watching, condemning.
Mirroring the breakdown in the family dynamics portrayed in the film, the production had its own struggles surrounding clashes between the three leads – Black, Reed and Davis. Davis felt Karen Black (who was 4 months pregnant at the time) was unprofessional and did not offer the proper respect Davis felt she deserved. Davis also disliked Oliver Reed, calling him a “loathsome human being” refusing to refer to him by name, and only addressing him when they shared a scene in which dialogue was required. Although Burnt Offerings benefits from such an experienced cast, one must wonder how much of their individual performances are based upon their well-honed acting skills, or on the intensity and stress resulting from their own off camera deteriorating dynamics.
It is interesting that in researching Marasco’s Burnt Offerings novel, the reviews were decidedly mixed. Some loved the book, comparing it to the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and novels by Stephen King. Others however complained about the slow progression of the tale and their disappointment in the two dimensional characters. The book concentrates on the sacrifices willing to be taken to secure commercial offerings and obtain a lifestyle one wishes to acquire. In following Marian Rolf (the mother) in the book, she clearly has aspirations, exerting a vocal disappointment on their present position in the neighborhood hierarchy, thus justifying the mansion rental. In the movie, she supports the mutual family’s desire for a summer escape rental and then becomes the house’s chosen entity as it inhabits her as caretaker. In this instance, Dan Curtis has made the leap from desired consumerist, to possessed participant, by omitting the family’s backstory. Above all, the common criticism of the book was the open ended conclusion, or non-conclusion provided by Marasco, a factor that Curtis corrected in the movie, leaving absolutely no question as to what was really going on.
Like childhood memories of how steep a toboggan hill was or how high a tire swing, revisiting these sites today is always a jarring experience when reality and memory collide. So too I find when revisiting a movie such as Burnt Offerings, which I found terrifying in my youth. There are many movies from days gone by which I often revisit and feel the same intensity and suspense I felt during my initial viewing (The Shining (1980) comes to mind). This movie, although still enjoyable, does not seem to have retained its spark. In some places it is annoyingly slow and even monotonous. Perhaps my memories of the film are based on the fact that, at the time, scary movies always wrapped up nicely in the final few minutes with the characters walking away all the better for having experienced the trauma of their ordeal. Burnt Offerings was the first movie that I can remember where there is no happy ending … unless of course, you’re rooting for the house.
As mentioned, the house used as the setting for Burnt Offerings is located in Oakland California, known locally as “Dunsmuir House”. Built by Alexander Dunsmuir, the original house was completed in 1899 as a wedding gift for his wife Josephine. Tragically, Alexander became ill and died while in New York on their honeymoon, his wife, returning home alone, died of typhoid shortly thereafter in 1901. Ironically these true events provide a haunting back story to the Burnt Offerings plotline.
The property was purchased from the estate in 1906 by I.W. Hellman Jr. and his wife to use as a summer home. In 1913 they renovated the home giving it its current appearance along with increasing the landscaping, which included the addition of the swimming pool and pool house, both of which figure prominently in the movie. The dilapidated appearance of the pool and pool house early in the movie was the actual condition of the space at the time of filming. It was “cleaned up” during the course of filming in keeping with the movie’s plot line supporting the property’s regeneration.
Burnt Offerings was the first of many movies filmed at Dunsmuir House. Movies that followed unfortunately were not high quality: Phantasm (1979) where the house was used as a funeral home; Roger Moore in his final James Bond role in A View to a Kill (1985); Mike Myers’ So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), where the mansion appears as a hotel; a Clint Eastwood movie, True Crime (1999) where the house is featured as the home of the Governor in the final climactic scene; and a bad remake of Gloria (1999) with Sharron Stone.
Dunsmuir House was also featured in many TV episodes, including a short lived, San Francisco based series starring Pamela Anderson and Linda Carter as female detectives in “Partners in Crime” (1984-85). Interesting side note, Eileen Heckart, who plays one of the two sibling owners of the house in Burnt Offerings, had a supporting role in “Partners in Crime” as Linda and Pamela’s mutual mother-in-law (as an odd quirk, they share an ex-husband).
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.