Posted by Susan Doll on August 12, 2013
Obituaries for actress Karen Black, who died at 74 on August 8 from a rare form of cancer, tended to sum up her contribution to American cinema by noting her Oscar-nominated role as Rayette Dipesto in Five Easy Pieces. Rayette represented the kind of over-ripe, emotionally vulnerable woman that was Black’s forte and a character type that fit the contradictions of the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Characters like Rayette may have been sexually liberated but they were still trapped by the emotional pain inflicted by their male companions—the easy riders and raging bulls who rebelled against the establishment.
And, yet, Black’s distinctive beauty and spontaneous approach to acting gave her a broader range than suggested by the obits that used Rayette Dipesto as a touchstone for her career. As much as I liked Baz Luhrmann’s recent The Great Gatsby, Black’s from-the-gut performance as earthy, desperate Myrtle Wilson in the 1974 version completely overshadows Isla Fisher’s turn in the same role. And, Black proved to be deft at comedy playing opposite William Devane in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot. Black worked for several directors of the Film School Generation—Robert Rafelson, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Ivan Passer, and John Schlesinger—as well as for Hollywood veterans such as Hitchcock, Ernest Lehman, and Jack Clayton.
I became a fan of Karen Black after I saw her in Trilogy of Terror, a made-for-TV omnibus of horror stories directed by Dan Curtis and written by Richard Matheson. Black stars as the lead in all three tales, including the episode titled “Prey.” The most famous of the three stories, “Prey” features Black as a woman who brings home a Zuni fetish doll that stalks her around her apartment. The actress appeared in a handful of notable made-for-tv horror films and series during the 1970s (Circle of Fear; The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver), most of which were written by Matheson or directed by Dan Curtis. Curtis is well known to a generation of horror fans for The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror, and the original Dark Shadows series.
My favorite collaboration between Black and Curtis is Burnt Offerings, released theatrically in 1976. Black costars with Oliver Reed as Marian and Ben Rolf, a couple who rent a large, secluded mansion from an oddball brother and sister. Eileen Heckart stars as the sister, Roz Allardyce, while Burgess Meredith chews the scenery as her brother, Arthur. Ben is unsettled by the pair, but Marian is charmed by their devotion to their house. Rent for the huge estate is unusually low, but the catch is that the Rolfs must care for Mother Allardyce, who never leaves the attic rooms of the main house. Ben acquiesces to Marian’s intense desire to live in the mansion, and they move in with their son, David, and Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth, played by Bette Davis. The house looks dilapidated at first, which offends Marian, who remarks more than once, “What a waste.” Unlike her eccentric characters in well-known gothic horror films of the 1960s, Davis’s Aunt Elizabeth is a hip, modern-day senior citizen, who paints, hikes, and keeps up with her young nephew. Smartly dressed with a stylish bob, she also smokes, drinks, and has “lecherous thoughts,” as she likes to joke.
The Rolfs are a happy family, who support each others’ talents and accomplishments—until the house begins to drive them apart and suck the life out of them. Marian becomes attached to the mysterious Mrs. Allardyce—who is never shown—and obsessed with the old woman’s collection of framed photographs and memorabilia. Her alienation from her family is suggested in a scene in which she lovingly stares at the people in the photographs while her son repeatedly calls for her to join everyone at the pool. In the meantime, Aunt Elizabeth begins to change: Her hair turns gray; she no longer has the energy to play with David; and she takes on the aches and pains of an elderly woman. The house drives a wedge between family members: Ben almost drowns David during a playful encounter in the pool; Marian no longer wants to make love to her husband. Ben begins to have nightmares about his mother’s funeral in which a creepy chauffeur with an evil sneer seems to foreshadow some horrific event.
Like Curtis’s other horror ventures, Burnt Offerings benefits from a heavy atmosphere and gothic trappings created by the traditional visual conventions of the genre. Low-key lighting makes Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room seem eerie and menacing, while repeated shots of Marian straightening mirrors hints at a doppelganger for her character. Birds-eye angles from the attic look down on the Rolfs as they enter the house, suggesting that bad luck or ill fate is watching their every move. Odd-looking low angles of Marian make her appear both sinister and dominating. As Marian enters the house for the first time, she is shot from below in front of a half-moon window. The panes in the window form a web-like image behind her, suggesting the house has her trapped. Burnt Offerings was shot at the Dunsmuir House and Gardens in Oakland, California, which is a 37-room estate with a pool and outbuildings on 50 acres of land. Using an actual mansion added authenticity to the exterior scenes, grounding the supernatural in a natural-looking world—a trend in big-budget horror films at the time. Despite the stylish touches, Burnt Offerings is too flawed to be a great horror film, or even a good one. Too little exposition about the house’s origins and evil purpose creates a frustrating vagueness rather than an engaging sense of mystery. And, repeated scenes of the Rolfs’ ordinary lives and family interaction become tedious, delaying the evil machinations of the house for too long.
However, the personal, intimate interaction among family members is crucial to understanding how far the Rolfs are driven apart by the house. Their all-American normalcy is displayed early on as they kid around during the drive to the new house. The camera is placed inside the car, giving us the illusion that we are part of the happy family, too. Davis, Reed, and Black all had reputations for playing larger-than-life or emotionally charged characters, but in Burnt Offerings, they offer natural, subdued performances as a typical family. As an ordinary wife and loving mother, Black plays against her star image as the brassy, sexy working-class girl. Marian dresses conservatively in nondescript skirts and blouses until the house starts to change her, and she begins to wear beautiful, distinctive clothing from another era. Her only revealing costume is a low-cut nightgown in a scene in which Ben tries to be romantic, but Marian rejects him. As Marian falls under the spell of the house, Black contains her performance, revealing her character’s alienation and repression through controlled expressions and a minimum of gestures. Overall, it is a restrained performance compared to the showy roles that brought her critical acclaim–but one that is perfectly suited to the character.
The destruction of the nuclear family through outside forces and the alienation of generations were themes familiar to audiences of the post-Vietnam era. But, I found other inferences from the story to be worth pondering. Marian is the epitome of the housewife, with the emphasis on “house.” She wants every room to be perfect, frowning on Ben’s smoking and forcing David to drink from a creepy silver goblet because it matches her dinner setting. Her obsession with the house is at the expense of her relationship with Ben, and it destroys her identity as a woman with sexual desires and interests of her own. In other words, she exchanges her identity as a unique, vibrant woman for that of a housewife. In effect, Marian the housefrau is the monster in this horror film. As such, her character works as a criticism of traditional gender roles.
Fans of Trilogy of Terror will want to check out this second collaboration between Dan Curtis and Karen Black and to see the actress in a different kind of role. Burnt Offerings can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, which I don’t recommend. Thankfully, it is also available on DVD.
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