Burnt Offerings

At a dinner recently with friends, I talked about my horror blog and the conversation segued into movies that had scared everybody the most as kids. The sisters Leora and Sharoan brought up Burnt Offerings and were nearly peeing themselves while talking about the scary limo driver. I had never seen this movie, but with a cast featuring Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis, and Karen Black (the original scream queen), I immediately Netflixed it and Kristi and I watched it this last weekend.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bette Davis (who could not?), but with her appearance in Burnt Offerings, she has become my old-lady idol. Screw wrinkles, she puts on her eyeliner anyway, and of course, it’s liquid eyeliner. Red or orange lips and a black cigarette always in her hands, punctuating her bitter sarcasm. I adore her, with her little pooch stomach hanging out but stylish in bold floral prints, the height of seventies fashion.

Karen Black is also strong as the loving wife who twists domesticity into horror. The ladies dominate this little movie with the one adult male figure (Oliver Reed as Black’s husband) reduced to an infantile state, even further regressed than his son at one point when the wicked home and hearth has had its way with him.

The ending was a surprise to me, not because of where the story leads–any horror fan could see that one coming–but because the young son is allowed to see his father cartwheel from the top of the house and is then covered with his father’s blood when he splats on the family station wagon. That just doesn’t happen any longer in Hollywood. Children are comforted and cosseted with happy endings, reassured that nothing traumatic can’t be undone.

Foreign filmmakers are more daring when dealing with children. I’m thinking of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage by Juan Antonio Bayona. I do remember critics saying that Pan’s Labyrinth could never be made in today’s Hollywood because of the traumatic ending that happens to a child. Last night, I attended a panel with the Japanese horror director Hideo Nakata who filmed the Ringu series. He said there are no ratings systems in Japan and anybody can go see a horror film, whether they’re one year old or a hundred. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

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