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Burnt Offerings (1976): The Rich Eat You

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think–is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Roger Ebert gave Burnt Offerings a meager one and a half stars upon its release in 1976, describing it as a “weary collection of ancient cliches” and encouraging screenwriters William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis (who also directed the film) to “abandon [their] writing career[s] and seek honest work.”

With all due respect to Mr. Ebert (which is a whole lot of respect), I think he fundamentally misunderstood what the film was trying to accomplish. Burnt Offerings doesn’t seek to subvert haunted house tropes nor does it attempt to expand the boundaries of the genre. Instead, it excavates, digging deep into the trappings of classic haunted house stories and holding them up to examine each detail with its unflinching eye. The end result is not one of the best haunted house movies ever made, it’s also a brilliant class metaphor.

What Makes a House Haunted?

Mansion of Burnt Offerings

From The Amityville Horror to Poltergeist to The Conjuring, haunted house movies have always played on the anxieties of the middle class. These anxieties are often economic in nature, which is only natural given the financial terror inspired by tenuous homeownership. Middle-class families are the perfect prey for haunted houses as their financial circumstances mean that simply moving elsewhere is not easy or even feasible. As these hauntings progress, catastrophic financial effects are often among the terrors visited upon the families, sapping them of their savings, and their safety nets. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s nonfiction meditation on the horror genre, he writes of The Amityville Horror that “The movie might as well have been subtitled The Horror of the Shrinking Bank Account.”

Beyond economic fears, middle-class families populating horror films are also plagued by attacks on the family unit. This is where the haunting transfers from the house itself to the family, as traditional roles are corrupted by supernatural forces and transformed into looking-glass monstrosities. Stern fathers become tyrants, their simmering, pedestrian rage boiling over into true violence. Repressed mothers can no longer bear their amplified subjugation and sink into madness. The spirited child, already a threat, becomes more so when their wilder impulses are channeled by malign entities. 

No matter what form the haunting takes, the premise is nearly always the same: a middle-class white family seeking the stability and comfort of homeownership—the dream they’ve been promised—is torn apart when the embodiment of that dream turns and attacks them. Some of these films are outright reactionary, predicating their scares on foreign outside forces that actively seek to destroy traditional values or the threat of dysfunction already present within the family—a secret perversion, an insufficient mother, the “smothering” needs of a willful, disabled, or otherwise unconventional child. Others make vague attempts at social commentary with “Indian burial ground” tropes and explorations of patriarchal violence. 

While the effects on the family are often outlined in excruciating detail, the source of the haunting itself is typically only gestured at. It’s the greedy developer’s fault, perhaps, or the house’s violent history. Even reading deeper into the themes of these films can only take us so far, leading to general conclusions like “the housing crisis” or “a history of colonialism”—intangible social forces that are rarely given names or faces within the world of the story. Like a mediocre politician shooting for a second term, these movies tell us over and over again that middle-class families are under attack. But when given an opportunity to name the attacker, they often pull their punches.

This isn’t an issue in and of itself, of course. Frankly, I don’t think art needs to be about anything at all. But it’s worth examining that so many films are interested in exploring the suffering of an embattled middle class while showing so little curiosity about its source. Burnt Offerings is the rare film that does.

The Right Sort of People

Ebert wasn’t necessarily wrong when he said that Burnt Offerings  deals in “ancient cliches.” The story begins with the same players and sets up as any other haunted house film, starting with our white, middle-class family of four. There’s the father, Ben Rolf, played by the great Oliver Reed with his typical smoldering intensity. The mother, Marian Rolf, is played by horror maven Karen Black with her own, slightly more unhinged brand of smoldering intensity. Then there’s their 12-year-old son, Davey (Lee Montegomery), and, rounding out the quartet, Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth, played by none other than Bette Davis herself. (Yes, this movie is brought to life by not one, not two, but three horror icons.)

Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Lee Montgomery as their character sin the movie Burnt Offerings

The first slight variation from the formula is that the family resides in a cramped, homey, distinctly un-haunted NYC apartment. The house at the center of the story belongs not to them, but to an eccentric pair of wealthy, elderly siblings, Roz and Arnold Allardyce, and their mysterious, unseen mother, known only as Mrs. Alladyce. 

The beginning of the film outlines the family’s initial meeting with Roz and Arnold, who offer them the use of their extravagant mansion for the entire summer at a steeply discounted price. When Ben asks the Allardyce siblings what the catch is, they first demure before finally admitting that the family will be responsible for caring for both the house and their shut-in mother, who will remain in her quarters on the top floor throughout the Rolf’s stay while Roz and Arnold are off traveling.

“The house takes care of itself,” they assure when Ben expresses skepticism at this deal. Marian is undeterred, already entranced with the place. She wanders around the crumbling rooms, ogling the opulence and stroking priceless antiques while muttering, “such a waste.” The opportunity to care for the house, the chance to restore it to its former glory, is almost more enticing to her than the chance to live in it. Later, back in their apartment, Ben puts up some half-hearted resistance to the idea before finally giving in. Marian promises she’ll take care of everything; the rest of them can simply kick back and enjoy their vacation.

In this opening scene alone there are already hints at the ways in which Nolan and Curtis plan to pick open the scab that’s formed over haunted house tropes in order to discover what oozes beneath. The most obvious example of this, of course, is that the house doesn’t belong to the family at all, nor do they ever expect it to. What the Rolfs are after isn’t even the real thing; it’s the chance to experience, for only a brief time, the trappings of wealth. To forget about their own lives for a moment and pretend. This choice draws a clever parallel between the Rolfs’ vacation fantasy and the fantasy of homeownership, revealing how both are ultimately beholden to the whims of the upper class.

We also see in this opening scene how Marian is already subconsciously aligned with the house. The Rolfs are, as the Allardyce’s emphasize more than once, “the right kind of people” for the house. Specifically, it seems, Marian is the right kind of matriarch, immediately taking responsibility for domestic upkeep. As in some of the best entries in the haunted house genre (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Haunting of Hill House), boundaries are blurred between setting and character, woman and home. “The house takes care of itself,” meaning that Marian will take care of it and—in this way—will become an extension of it.

Also notable in this scene is the treatment of the child, Davey. As his parents talk to the Allardyce’s in the living room, Davey plays by himself outside. “Children are good for the place,” Roz says when she first lays eyes on him. As the four adults talk, Arnold watches Davey out the window. He coos over him in an oddly distant sort of way as Davey falls and badly hurts his leg. Unsettlingly, neither Arnold nor Roz remark upon Davey’s injury and, in fact, block the windows so that his parents can’t see that he’s been hurt. 

Two elderly people look out a window

Children in horror movies, particularly haunted house movies, tend to serve as conduits or innocents. Either an already difficult child is manipulated by the evil of the house, or a pure child is corrupted by it. In both cases, the child’s soul, their innocence, is threatened. Davey, in contrast, is neither naif nor imp. Embodied by Lee Montgomery with an incredible amount of naturalism, he’s just a kid. And in this story, while the house is interested in him very much indeed, it’s not his soul that matters. Instead, it’s his suffering.

All three of these details become crucial to the themes of the film as the story continues.

The House Takes Care of Itself

Once the deal is made, we watch as the Rolfs settle in. Ben and Davey play games and try to get the pool in working order, with Aunt Elizabeth joining them when she isn’t working on her paintings. Marian, in the meantime, sets about straightening the place up and caring for Mrs. Allardyce. For each meal, she brings up a tray of food to the silent old woman, leaving it in the drawing room outside her door. Marian often lingers in the drawing room, looking at the dozens of pictures that make up Mrs. Allardyce’s cherished collection. “Memories of a lifetime,” as Roz puts it. The pictures, each of which shows a portrait of a different, unsmiling figure, are strange, but Marian doesn’t seem to notice, nor does she bothered by the eerie melody coming from the music box there or the fact that Mrs. Allardyce gives no hint of her presence behind the door to her bedroom. 

Similarly, as the family gets comfortable in their new summer home, the house slowly begins to repair itself. And while Marian does seem to notice this, it causes her no distress. Instead, she’s delighted as the grand building gradually returns to its former splendor. She no longer mutters, “what a waste” because she no longer sees it as one. Nothing about the place has fundamentally changed—it still belongs to the same three elderly aristocrats it always did, it will still never be seen or enjoyed by anyone else, save for a small handful of “the right people,” but by God, doesn’t it look beautiful?

The film wastes little time in revealing the source of these auto-renovations. In one of the movie’s most harrowing scenes, Ben and Davey are playing in the pool while Aunt Elizabeth watches. Though Davey isn’t a strong swimmer, Ben playfully brings him out to the deep end and flips him into the water. From the sidelines, Aunt Elizabeth gently chides Ben not to play too rough, but everyone seems to know that it’s all in good fun. Ben flips Davey again. And again. A change seems to come over him. He begins dunking Davey under the water over and over again, pushing him down and holding him in a headlock under the surface. Both Davey and Aunt Elizabeth scream at him to stop, but it’s like he doesn’t hear them. Or doesn’t care. Ben continues to throw his son around like a rag doll as Davey shrieks for help and gasps for air. Finally, out of desperation, Davey grabs a snorkeling mask and smashes it against his father’s nose. Ben retreats, his eyes full of contempt, nearly growling at his son.

Ben Rolf coming after his son in the pool

The next day, the pool is pristine. Its crumbling tiles are whole again; the broken pump is working; the formerly murky water shines a clear, hotel blue. Davey’s pain served as fuel for the house’s restoration. Perhaps Ben’s momentary transformation into an abusive monster helped as well.

This pattern continues, so clear that it would be impossible even for the characters themselves to miss. Ben cuts his hand; a burnt-out bulb flickers to life. Davey nearly suffocates from a gas leak and he’s only saved because his near-death experience seemingly causes all the broken clocks in the house to begin chiming at once. Aunt Elizabeth, formerly an impish and spirited older woman, becomes increasingly frail until she all but withers away. The day after her death, Marian is astounded to find the flowers of the formerly decrepit greenhouse in full, brilliant bloom.

Burnt Offerings doesn’t deal in surprise twists or hidden motivations. The house’s intentions are clear from nearly the beginning: it will consume the Rolfs in order to regain its former glory. Though to call this the house’s intentions is perhaps misleading. In many ways, the house has no agency at all. While in other films, the house behaves like a sentient entity; this house is more like a plant passively absorbing sunlight and water so it can send new roots shooting out into the soil. And its owners are no evil spirits; they are still very much alive, and willing to do whatever’s necessary in order to maintain their family legacy.

Burnt Offerings Offered Whole

This difference is, ultimately, what makes Burnt Offerings unique among haunted house films. The family within isn’t tormented by an abstract entity, by the idea of something, but by real, live people. In doing this, Burnt Offerings pulls the central class metaphor shared by most haunted house stories out of its trappings of populist political rhetoric. By putting faces, names, and motivations to those who benefit from middle-class suffering (i.e. the wealthy), Burnt Offerings offers a haunted house class parable with actual bite.

Each burnt offering and each layer of sacrifice within the film contributes to this central metaphor. The most obvious being, of course, the sacrifice of the Rolfs by the Allardyces. The Alladyces are content to kill both the Rolfs specifically and—as is implied through the pictures in Mrs. Allardyce’s collection—any other middle-class family in order to preserve their home and legacy. The lives of these families are merely disposable commodities. This is a burnt offering in its purest form; a cold-blooded killing in exchange for the promise of something better for the killer.

But the Allardyces don’t hold the sacrificial knife alone. The film takes pains to outline the subtle, crucial ways in which the Rolfs are complicit in their own destruction, thus revealing ways in which the middle class participates in its own subjugation. We first see this in the opening scene, as Marian is only all too happy to have her family recognized as “the right sort of people.” While Ben is more skeptical, it’s more the Alladyce’s eccentricity and the fear of being conned, not the implications of the phrase. As long as Marian takes responsibility for the work necessary to the deal, he’s happy to go along with it.

The Rolfs begin to let go of their sense of self before they ultimately lose their lives. The four family members don’t begin the story as archetypes, which can be credited in part to the casting department, as none of the actors could reasonably be described as someone who “disappears into a role.” Each one is too off-beat and lived-in to serve as a general stand-in for their respective family role. However, as the film progresses, they begin to lose the things that define them as specific characters. Lively, silly Aunt Elizabeth becomes a tired old woman. Marian transforms into an uptight hausfrau. Though Ben resists his own transformation into the cruel, controlling patriarch, it only makes the transformation more confusing—one moment he’s pushing his wife down into the grass as she screams for him to stop and the next he’s near-catatonic with regret and fear.

The only character who remains more or less the same up until the time of his death is Davey. This could be interpreted in a few different ways, but I ultimately took it to be a product of his powerlessness. In the film, as in the real-life circumstances it represents, the adults have to be manipulated into sacrificing themselves to the Allardyces. For Marian, this means buying into the grandeur of the house and seeing herself as an important part of its legacy, regardless of what playing that part entails. For Ben, it’s a little more complex. His terror at losing control of his family manifests as visions of a disturbing figure from his childhood, reminding him of a time when he himself was powerless. This terror in the face of a force seemingly outside of his control, along with the threat to his masculinity and the shame this terror brings, renders him unable to act.

Davey, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be manipulated because he’s already entirely under his parents’ control. He’s ripe for the taking, the low-hanging fruit of the family. This is why “children are good for the place”—they’re simply the easiest to harm. The house goes after Davey first, not because his “innocence” is particularly appealing to it, but because he’s able to offer the least resistance. When Davey is protected by his parents from the house’s initial attacks, Aunt Elizabeth is next. Her death is almost cruelly easy; as soon as the house saps her of her strength, Marian and Ben start to forget about her. Her death was only natural, Marian insists. She was an old lady, after all. The suffering endured by these two characters serves to underline how children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to capitalist violence. As their families are lured in by the promise of the American dream, they are the first to be chewed up and spat out in service of it.

Bette Davis as an ailing Aunt Elizabeth

In the final, unflinching act of the film, there’s a moment when it appears that the story might swerve away from its seemingly inevitable end. Though she has turned a blind eye to previous threats, Marian witnesses Davey’s second near-drowning and pulls herself out of her dreamlike state in order to save him. The remaining family members pile into the car, ready to drive away and leave the house forever. But wait! What about Mrs. Allardyce? They can’t leave a sweet old woman alone with no notice. She has a duty, Marion insists, a responsibility to care for Mrs. Allardyce. Though it’s clear that her real family is in mortal danger, she leaves them behind out of obligation to a wealthy older woman who she’s never even seen. Mrs. Allardyce’s life is somehow more valuable, more important than theirs.

Marian runs back into the house, ostensibly to tell Mrs. Allardyce that the family is leaving. Ben and Davey wait for her, but she doesn’t appear. Ben reluctantly re-enters the house to retrieve her, stepping—for the first time—into Mrs. Allardyce’s carefully guarded domain. He throws open the doors to her room only to find his wife in Mrs. Allardyce’s chair, suddenly an old woman, her face twisted into a malevolent scowl. Upon seeing this, Ben falls through the window to his death. Davey follows shortly behind, crushed by a falling chimney as the house renews itself in a flurry of productive bloodlust.

Karen Black as Marian Rolf transformed into Mrs. Allardyce.

Only Marian is left behind, transformed into the new Mrs. Allardyce. Around her, the estate is entirely restored to its former glory. She has achieved her dream. The house, along with the wealth and status accompanying it, is hers to keep. And for a bargain too. All she had to give up in exchange was her family, her life, and herself.



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  1. Terrific review,but there were a few scenes in the book that should have been in the movie, such as Marion finding Aunt Elizabeth’s picture in the sitting room after she dies and realizing there is a malevolence in the house and wanting to leave and follow Ben and David who have gone to her funeral but when she hears a presence behind Mrs.Allardyce’s bedroom door she forgets about leaving.
    Another scene is Ben and Marion spending their first night together in the house and Marion suddenly finding Ben sexually repulsive, faking pleasure during sex and then taking a thorough shower afterwards.
    Also after Ben becomes catatonic in the end Walker the handyman pays a brief visit to the house to give Marian a pep talk,but I guess we could take or leave that scene.
    In the book SPOILER ALERT Davy drowns in the pool and Ben falls over and splits his head open and dies trying to free himself from catatonia to save him.Marian finds them dead and goes up to Mrs Allardyce’s bedroom and surrender herself and becomes the next Mrs.Allardyce. Dan Curtis didn’t like this ending so he sort of ripped off his own ending from the second Dark Shadows movie. The movie’s ending is absolutely chilling and unforgettable even though it is predictable,but the novel’s ending made more sense in the context of the overall plot since in the book Marion had to give up Ben and David to become part of the house forever,but you could say in the movie Marion was leaving the house so Mrs Allard yce had to rush things.

  2. 🏆 EXCELLENT review to an underrated little treasure of a film… Superb performances by all involved… Eerie direction by Dan Curtis, Haunting musical score (especially the brilliant music box theme) and a very obscure story that keeps you involved… 4 years later the great Stanley Kubrick seems to have lifted many scenes and ideas for his epic THE SHINING.. and the later made AMITYVILLE HORROR also seems to lift some ideas from Burnt Offerings… A truly atmospheric movie that never fully leaves your memory even after decades that you’ve seen it

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Written by Saskia Nislow

Saskia is a writer, ceramicist, horror freak, and queer creature. Find more of their stuff at or at @cronebro on Twitter and Instagram.

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