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Mother Knows Best: A Paradox of Femininity in Burnt Offerings (1976)

Anyone with a healthy love of Oliver Reed is more than a teensy bit familiar with Burnt Offerings (1976). Written by Dan Curtis and William F. Nolan – with Curtis at the helm – the story is a retelling of the Robert Marasco novel. The film is a creative look at the haunted house trope: instead of restless spirits terrorizing a hapless family in residence, the house itself becomes a character that feeds off the life force of its inhabitants, particularly those who are injured. The name of the film comes from a traditional religious practice of sacrificing an entire animal to appease a deity, culminating with the carcass being lit on fire upon the altar. The title in relationship to the film isn’t a stretch to apply, however, it’s not the only sacrifice. In fact, Burnt Offerings manages to create a mind-boggling paradox within its character study of wife Marian (Karen Black), by constantly contradicting the expectations of her gender role.

First, a bit of plot for recap purposes. Marian and her husband Ben (Reed) move into a charming country home in California as their summer rental (as one was wont to be able to afford renting an entire Victorian house all to oneself in the early 1970s). In tow are son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery) and Ben’s aging aunt, Elizabeth (Bette Davis). Their landlords, the Allardyce siblings (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), offer the semi-shambled home at a steep discount, but with a price: their aging mother is going to stay for the summer, but don’t worry about her because she’s a quiet type that won’t bother anyone. Soon, accidents start to befall the family, and with each accident comes a regeneration of some part of the house; likewise, Marian begins an unhealthy obsession with the house, dressing in Victorian garb and neglecting her duties as a wife and mother.

Marian’s feminine gender role undergoes a stark change once she gets into the house. When we first meet her, she’s actively involved with her son, showing signs of physical affection and concern over his well-being. Marian plays the part of involved, concerned parent well, and with good reason: in the 1970s, the bulk of child-rearing still laid with the female parent. She was responsible for feeding not just Davey, but the entire household. As she becomes more and more obsessed with her environment, she begins to pull away from the family, which impacts not only their interactions, but daily chores and routine. Furthermore, Marian at first appears affectionate toward her husband, Ben, in both a physical and emotional sense. Yes, Ben is played by notorious womanizer Reed (who always seemed a bit arm’s length with the opposite sex), but the sense the audience gets from these two is that they’re still in that randy phase where they can sneak off for a quickie. Once the family gets to the Allardyce house, however, Marian starts refusing sex. Ben even takes her outdoors to engage in some hanky-panky on the front lawn, away from the house she’s become fixated upon, but still Marian refuses. From there, Ben’s disposition begins to sour toward his wife. This change in attitude begs a simple question: how much longer would Ben have stayed in this home if his wife had pacified him with sex and continual meals? Is it the spooky goings-on inside of the house that makes him want to leave, or the fact that he’s not getting a steak with a side of fellatio?

Speaking of the house, it’s a rather demanding creature that becomes its own character in this film. The house, when we’re first introduced, is falling apart. It’s rather old and is maintained only by a pair of aging siblings. It houses a cranky old lady who doesn’t want to interact with anyone, the exception being meals being left by her locked door (#lifegoals). Like an aging, wealthy housewife, the house demands sacrifice to keep itself young and beautiful, so it begins devising ways to get its fix. Ben nearly drowns Davey in the pool. Aunt Elizabeth gets a nasty cold that is the epitome of sucking up your pride and going to the doctor. Ben cuts his hand on a champagne bottle, the poor sausage. Davey, meanwhile, gets inexplicably locked in his room while the gas heater mysterious switches on. The terror builds, and yet the house does not seem to physically pick on the one member of the family doing all the maintenance and fawning: Marian.

The problem here is that Marian is the end-game food source for the Allardyce house, which places her in a bastardization of the physical and mental role of mother. While the harm of the other inhabitants are what’s necessary for the house to regenerate itself, the house needs something more: a mother, in every sense of the word. Marian’s psyche begins the first shift toward the ultimate mother of the house, as she begins dressing in Victorian clothing and doting on her home. Her affections begin to be replaced by her devotion to the house; she’s only snapped out of the trance when her son nearly dies by drowning a second time – it takes two drowning attempts, supernatural goings-on, a dead aunt, a dried up sex life, and an ultimatum from her pouting husband that he’s leaving “with or without you” for her to realize that she’s got an unhealthy fixation on her surroundings rather than the people she’s built her life around. However, that’s not the end of the story: the family doesn’t escape because she feels a duty to go back and tell the elderly woman in the locked room that no one will be bringing her dinner. Her allegiance shifts from protecting her cub to making sure an old lady has food in a killer house that holds supernatural influence. Suddenly, her loyalty is shared with a second family, and this family starts out by winning her affections, then her thoughts, then her physical body. At the end of this film, Marian is the new old lady in the room, feeding the house through her body and energy.

If this sounds like the pregnancy from hell, well, it is. It’s not enough that Marian has one child, a husband and a host of maternal/wifely duties – she must devote every last thought and, eventually, her physical being to the maintenance of the house, which is fawned upon like a new, gestating baby. Marian has to build the house back from nothing, give it her all in order for it to grow. Not only that, but Marian must also give the house those she loves for its revival to be successful: she’s ultimately the one who is being invaded, and makes the conscious decision to re-enter the house. Once she’s made this choice, the house assumes physical control of her, aging her at a rapid rate. It literally drains the life out of her, much like a pregnancy fatigues and makes mental and physical demands of its host. While not the most appetizing of mental images, you have to admit that the symbiosis outside of the passing on of one’s genes, pregnancy is a raw deal for the mother. Between the mental side effects (pregnancy brain is a thing, and it is not fun) and the physical ones (including such joys as a fatigue, constant physical illness, and general achiness and irritability), this role of motherhood isn’t one that’s glamorous upon closer inspection. Like a developing fetus, the house needs Marian to survive, and by golly, she takes on that role because that house is her new baby.

The larger issue that’s encountered in Burnt Offerings is the complete contrast these pieces provide against the expectations of womanhood versus the changing landscape of feminine gender roles. The film takes place in 1976, which was right around the time of the peak of the sexual revolution. Women were starting to take control of their bodies through abortion and birth control rights; divorce was becoming more prevalent; education and employment outside of the home were becoming more socially acceptable, providing a sense of liberation from the chained environment of the home. When we first meet Marian, we find that she’s still entrenched in the role of wife and mother: she’s clearly the caregiver, going so far as to help with Aunt Elizabeth. Marian is weak and dependent, doting and smiling. When we get to her point of breaking free of this life, she does not move in a forward direction – quite the opposite, she jumps out of the frying pan and straight into the fire. Whereas she had one child, a boatload of chores and a husband that was gagging for sex before, she shifted toward having to give up her entire personality and physical body for a house that was making a habit of sucking people dry over the centuries. Marian went from the opportunity to become a more liberated 1970s woman to regressing back into a one-dimensional note of a person. At the end of this film, she is going to stay in that room until the house uses up every last bit of her essence for its own purposes. She essentially travels backward in her journey because everyone needs her to be the one that takes care of herself. It makes the strides she makes – such as not cleaning or cooking when it’s expected, or providing sex upon demand – that much cheaper because it’s not done for her. Marian must give her entire self so that something else can selfishly live. That was not the spirit of the social revolution taking place. That was a distinct step backwards.

The worst part? Ultimately, the Allardyce house is going to burn right through this new resource like a child that leaves a light on in the kitchen. The house is going to repair itself and remain young and beautiful, but at the cost of the woman it manipulates. If the price of beauty and immortality is enslaving another person – if it demands not only the sacrifice of family in a bizarre take on the Cuckoo but the abandonment of the self –  perhaps some things are best left to die.

About Erin Miskell

Erin Miskell writes about movies and passes for normal in Upstate New York. An avid fan of inappropriate humor and schlock horror, you can find her rambling at www.thebackseatdriverreviews.com and @bsdriverreview on Twitter.

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