(Spoiler alert: This is an analysis of the film, including the ending.)
Horror cherishes its endings. They let it expose audiences to sublime dread, semi-reveal to them its cruel secrets, and unnerve them with devastating crescendo. Burnt Offerings’ apocalyptic ending–Horror’s greatest–does all three. The mid-70s Gothic Horror film introduces its viewers to its malignant Mrs. Allardyce, paralyzes them with her horrific “truth,” and wipes out its guest family in a paroxysm of broken windows and broken bodies. A Gothic apocalypse, the family and their memory are consumed by their baleful house, their “era” ended to be replaced by another.
The finale reflects another ending: the tense post-Vietnam/Watergate fever dream ending in a president’s resignation and a country left leery of its leaders and traditions. This angst extended to the family. Mothers, fathers and families sold these myths, so they and their value became profoundly suspect. Few genres captured this better than Horror and its disdain for comforting traditions and bonds. The Omen preyed on the period’s familial distrust and confirmed paranoia of a wicked establishment. The Exorcist horrifically carnalized epochal fears of Evil infecting our youth. Burnt Offerings, however, did much more. While decimating its family and its bonds, it horrifically reflected its period’s erosion of its sacred traditions of marriage, family, and progress, relegating them to the detritus of its Past. In doing so, Burnt Offerings moves its family and audience to an uncertain nexus: the family subsumed by the house’s sinister anti-history, the audience left horrified and tainted by the period’s troubling uncertainty.
This uncertainty was considerable and deeply felt. After a nightmarish, unpopular war ended–leaving thousands of Americans dead and even more disillusioned–and a president resigning after being revealed a criminal, Americans lost faith in their societal institutions and endured and/or embraced cultural breakdown and experimentation. The institution of Marriage suffered as divorce rates rose, promiscuity became pastime, and discos and singles bars became playgrounds for erstwhile and present husbands and wives. And films inevitably arose manifesting this aimless, sybaritic ideology. Saturday Night Fever chronicled Romantic and romantic thrills of nocturnal single life, while Looking for Mr. Goodbar preached of and presented its horrific possibilities. Film also expressed the anxieties and cultural breakdown of American marriage. Kramer vs. Kramer explored divorce’s threat to traditional gender roles while lesser films like A Change of Seasons vulgarly visualized the carnal opportunities divorce offered. Those films, however, weren’t Horror films. Restricted to the quotidian, no matter how hedonistic, they had little access to the period’s Sublime. They couldn’t adequately portray or reflect the spiritual disintegration of the mid-70s and the nightmares it produced. They also couldn’t portray or reflect our horror at seeing our 30 years of post-war stable domesticity coming to a shattering close. Burnt Offerings did, shattering its family and audience alike.
As with most Gothics, the center of Burnt Offerings is its house. A neo-classical mansion sitting white and clean in a 1970s remote California countryside. its uncanny atemporality and alienness jar the viewer before it does its incoming guests. The house’s own nature and “actions” in the film bears out this recoil. A literal predator, it consumes its inhabitants to resist the entropy of Time and continually revert back to its nascent state. With each occupant devoured, the houses dead foliage re-blooms, old shingles give way to new, and/or its pool and surroundings are completely rejuvenated. The remains of its victims are stolid pictures framed in atemporal frames, arranged as grim trophies in unsettling asynchrony.
Its new guests, the Rolfs, arrive in synchrony with each other and their world’s culture and history. As philosopher Martin Heidegger famously noted, that synchrony is vital to authentic existence in the world instead of alienation from it. Such alienation leaves one disconnected from the past, in a spiritless present, fumbling towards irrelevance and death. Bound in a tri-generational loving nuclear family in 1976, the Rolfs have avoided that malaise plaguing many of their contemporaries. The father and mother–Ben (an atypically milquetoast Oliver Reed) and Marilyn (an atypically normal Karen Black)–are a young attractive couple who, after 13 years, still enjoy a healthy sex/romantic life. Their 12-year-old son, Davy, is ebullient and well-adjusted and enjoys a playful verbal-sparring relationship with his father. Completing their loving clan is Aunt Elizabeth (a typically spry Bette Davis), who fortifies Ben’s position as paterfamilias, a steward securing his line’s future and its past.
The house–and it’s two “children”/attendants/familiars, Arnold and Roz Allardyce–begin erasing this synchrony immediately upon the Rolfs’ arrival. Roz’s quarry is Marilyn. She aggressively, but unctuously, enlists her to care for her “mother.” Manipulating Marilyn’s palpable motherly instinct, Roz draws her into mothering hers: the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce living upstairs in her locked attic room, surrounded by her asynchronous “collection” of eerie photos. And to be sure the house itself is included in the deal, she assertively asks, “Will you love the house as brother and I do”? The wheelchair-bound Arnold–a creepy Burgess Meredith–disturbingly sets his sights on other prey–rambunctious Davy. Upon hearing Roz note “there’s a boy, too,” Arnold wheels hungrily to the window, looks lasciviously at Davy, and purrs, “Oh God, what a charming little boy.” His rapture finalizes after watching Davy fall from a tree and bleed, as a once dead plant in the house sprouts three vibrant green leaves.
This is creepily carnivorous. The house and its environs are beginning to feed on the Rolfs and their bodies. However, it is also temporal. If a zeitgeist is the spirit of a time, the house is a nichtzeitgeist, a spirt of non-time. Its graveyard of Allardyces ending in 1890 suggests it had survived historically along with its family by consuming them or through uncanny symbiosis. The end of the Allardyce line, outside the sub-human vestigial Roz and Arnold, demanded the house live outside of time, disrupting its occupants historical time to do so. If the house is to ingest the Rolfs into its non-Time, it must break their bonds with Time and their normative familial positions galvanizing it.
Its easiest prey is Aunt Elizabeth. A familial addendum to the nuclear Rolfs, an aunt to Ben, and a relative removed to Marilyn and Davy, she does not share the close bonds of the other three. Also, as the oldest, her connection to the current zeitgeist is the weakest, her own “time” the closest to fading into the past. This makes her the one closest to death, the easiest to draw towards it…and the house does so voraciously. Like the dying foliage around the house, Elizabeth begins to decay. Her hair grows increasingly pale white. Her bawdy liveliness and painting flora in the yard gives way to late morning rises quickly followed by mid-afternoon naps. Even worse, she becomes increasingly addled, unsure whether or not she closed Davy’s window, leading to his near death from a house-initiated gas leak. A pariah to Marilyn and a pity to Ben, she retreats to her bedroom, suffers an inexplicable broken back, and a horrific death next to a cowering Ben.
Ben could do nothing; he was undergoing his own consumption and decay. The head of the family with historical support for his authority, he immediately became the house’s biggest target. Before it could devour him and the rest of the family, it had to break him, rending him from his temporal position, and reducing him from potent patriarch to whimpering whelp. It uses the increasingly swayable Marilyn to sexually humiliate him, undermining his patriarchal confidence. It also partially does this by drawing him out of his time and into it’s non-one. Leaving a pair of 19th c. glasses from one of its earlier victims, it physically draws Ben in, reducing his temporal stability and bearings. With Ben now open to its sway, the house can reduce him to the child of his past by reproducing his once-vanquished nightmares of it. He had been traumatized at his mother’s funeral as a child by a leering chauffeur seeming to take pleasure from his grief. Haunted by nightmares of that encounter in childhood, adulthood and manhood had purged those reveries. The house whispers them back while carnalizing them into Ben’s present reality. Sitting on the lawn, drinking a beer, Ben is horrified to see the chauffeur’s car driving up the driveway, and paralyzed with terror to see the chauffeur in the window leering at him once again. Traumatized, Ben becomes that terrified boy again, an impotent “man” who cannot save Davy from nearly drowning or his aunt from the chauffeur when he appears in her room, “crushing” her with her future coffin.
This leaves the house and household in the care of Marilyn, the house’s most important, most intimate victim. Marilyn isn’t just caretaker, puppet or prey; she’s the site of the house’s new triumph over time, and its avatar fully ensuring its success. Like Elizabeth, Marilyn begins to age, accelerating the house’s rejuvenation. Her hair becomes slowly grayer and she begins preferring older clothes styles, hair styles, and accessories. But unlike deteriorating Elizabeth, Marilyn’s change invigorates her, making her more assertive and vibrant. It also, however, makes her more detached from–and oblivious to–her family. As noted above, she moves from resisting her husband’s affections–making him bemoan their time between “visits”–to outright repelling them, leaving him to pathetically wail “have I become so repulsive?” Even her care for Davy wanes, as she also almost lets him drown as she tends to her new “child,” the house. Moving further from her family and the family traditions of her time, she drifts into the house’s non-time, her body’s movement into her elderly future driving the house back into its “past”…..once again. She becomes the house’s potent, uncanny avatar, Mrs. Allardyce, as the house readies for apocalyptic rebirth and its guests’ apocalyptic end.
That end is savage, symbolic and swift. With the house manifest in Marilyn’s body, and her body rent from its own time, the Rolf’s stabilizing history collapses around them. Unable to function without that, or their own matriarch, Ben and Davy–the contested future–confront her and the house occupying her…with annihilating results. Like many of their time, the Rolf’s traditions and family bonds failed them. Unlike their contemporaries, they are in no “place” to recuperate them. Absconded out of Time, they are now a-temporal refuse, plastic memories of a timeless spirit.