In this special feature on Hatched called Love letter, we wax lyrical about those in film whom we adore. This particular love letter is to the intelligent, boozing, hell-raiser, Oliver Reed (1938-1999). Inspired by the long awaited UK DVD release of banned Ken Russell film The Devils, I explore some of my favorite movies starring Reed: Burnt Offerings, Venom, I’ll Never Forget What’s I’sname, The Jokers, and The Devils.
Oliver Reed…exuded an animal magnetism and a sense of danger rare among British actors; these qualities made him a natural choice when the script required a woman to be either terrorised or seduced. Obit in the Telegraph
In his 1973 novel, Burnt Offerings, Robert Marasco constructs an inventive narrative on the horror genre staple of “the evil house”. Visualized in its cinematic incarnation by director Dan Curtis three years later (featuring an unbelievable cast of Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis, and Eileen Heckart), the filmic version offers what is, in my opinion, one of horror cinema’s most satisfying slow burns. Burnt Offerings continues the post-modern tradition of horror striking within the confines of everyday life (specifically the house environment found in Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby) but does so by embracing the mundane routine of family, relationships, and work.
Wanting to escape the dirty city and find solitude to write/relax in the countryside, the Rolf family answers an advertisement for a too-good-to-be-true summer sublet. At first the offer and experience is relatively normal save having to feed (but not interact with) the mysterious “mother” who lives upstairs and providing general up-keep. As the weeks roll on, Marian Rolf (Karen Black) becomes increasingly domestic, paying more attention to the improvements on the house than to her family. She becomes gray and visibly older, possessed. Accidents happen, tempers flare amongst usually loving family members, and with each successive cut/bruise/bloodshed, the house becomes younger…alive.
The relationship between the house (castle) and gender (women) is prevalent in popular culture but enthusiastically explored within the Gothic and horror traditions. From Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 up to the very recent Paranormal Activity movies, we have seen a myriad of stories about the family in relation to a main female character/victim/protagonist. Particularly in 1960s and 1970s cinema, there exist a slew of horror films that specifically address domesticity and the new wave of feminism: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Horror Hotel (1960), Season of the Witch (1972), and The Stepford Wives (1975). Not surprisingly, the domain of the house is never far away when dealing with the evolving role of women in society. Burnt Offerings takes this trope one step further by not simply placing the women in the house but by establishing that the woman becomes the house.
In the most Deleuzian sense of the term “becoming”, Marian Rolf quite literally morphs into the house’s structure. Slowly but surely she sinks into a trance, a love affair with the house that ends in her family’s (husband, son, and aunt-in-law) demise so that she can provide the most essential function of a woman – to become the heart of the home, to become “Mother”. What’s most terrifying with Burnt Offerings is the idea that one can’t fight fate. It simply doesn’t matter how much Ben (Oliver Reed) loves his wife, no matter how important their son is, no matter how awesome Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) is; the end result is that Marian belongs to the house. A cruel morality tale for women is one that says we can never escape our mothering duties.
But while Marian is at the crux of the change, it is Ben who is both aware and impotent to alter these developments. He grapples with the inevitable loss through a series of haunting discoveries. One vivid childhood memory returns: the thin chauffeur from an attended funeral drives back into his life. The vision of this well-dressed grim reaper with his humming engine is the stuff of true nightmares (it’s a significant horror film moment). His presence means the end is near but it also means a realization for Ben. Something amiss is happening, turning the family into angry, aging, disaffected people. He tries to escape but cannot. Even in the final moments when he convinces Marian to leave, he winds up failing, following her into the house and then out the window.
Having read the novel after seeing the film, I easily pictured Oliver Reed as I flipped the pages. He captured Ben’s fallibility, love for his family, frustration as a writer, and generally aware persona as no one else I could imagine. As his wife is “brought up” and presented to the “Deity” (that is, after all, what burnt offerings means), Ben suffers an emotional crisis but also manages fills in the gaps. He becomes the main provider for his son, a relationship stronger tested by the house, but winds up brutally loosing it all.
The thought of a house having a life-pulse, one that needs to be “fed”, is tremendously terrifying. That there is an unexplained central figure that drives this life force forward through time only makes it that much more frightening. Add on to that the implied relationship between this domestic space and women, we wonder: was Marian chosen? What about those women who came before her? And, perhaps worst of all, does it really matter?
As fate looms in the foreground of all of our lives, we hope that it will be much kinder to us. And, if not, hopefully we have someone like Oliver Reed’s Ben as an escort into the afterlife.
End note: Burnt Offerings stars another one of my favorites, Karen Black, who may just get her own love-letter on Hatched too.