Candyman (2021) Review

Candyman (2021) - IMDb

Sweet on the outside, sour on the inside. A visually impressive attempt to provide a thoughtful exploration on duality and identity, is overshadowed by heavy-handed ideology. Nia DaCosta delivers audiences a spiritual sequel to the cult horror film Candyman (1992) that is grounded in much of the lore of the original, yet forges a new frontier that simultaneously serves as a vehicle for horror legend Tony Todd to pass the hook onto Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. DaCosta is joined by writer-producer Jordan Peele and screenwriter Win Rosenfeld to “tell everyone” who dares to look in a mirror and call out his name five times. Admit it, even in our most rational state, we are still a little apprehensive to stare at our reflection and call out Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candym–. That’s the power of horror films! These fictional stories on screen have their mystical ways of affecting the collective conscious in such a manner that we change or question our behavior. Another great example of this effect is the iconic highway scene in Final Destination 2. And challenging audiences was certainly what the three screenwriters had in mind when writing the story for Candyman (2021). Unfortunately, the agenda-driven message steels the focus away from the stunning visuals, and ultimately fails to effectively paint a portrait of reality that invites all to engage in the important conversations the film is trying to have, instead, alienating audience members that don’t share the filmmakers’ opinions. Suffice it to say, this film is Peele for the course.

In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, rising star artist Anthony (Abdul-Mateen II) and his partner move into a loft in the now gentrified Cabrini. A chance encounter with an old-timer exposes Anthony to the true story behind Candyman (Todd). Anxious to use these macabre details in his studio as fresh grist for paintings, he unknowingly opens a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence. (IMDb)

If you’ve never seen the original Candyman, don’t worry. While having seen the original will certainly help audiences to appreciate world-building and backstory elements, there is enough context given to help those that may be unfamiliar. Following the screening I attended, I heard individuals negatively critique the retconning of plot elements in the original; truth is, the parts of the original that were reimagined to fit the backstory of 2021’s Candyman were thoughtfully adapted.

While I have my reservations with the film, I would be remiss to not highlight the excellent direction, cinematography, editing, costuming, production design, and even the performances! Visually, the movie is stunning! All the mise-en-scene elements work together to create a BIG SCREEN experience. And talk about outstanding performances. Back in the heyday of the slashers (late 70s through the 90s), we did not expect to be impressed by the performances of the cast. And while there are notable exceptions of horror films WITH brilliant performances, usually it’s not expected. Over the last 7–10 years, horror films have been stepping up their performance game. The lead and most of the supporting cast will all captivate you. Unfortunately, there are useless characters like Brianna’s (Anthony’s girlfriend’s) brother and his boyfriend. Having no real affect on the plot, this interracial gay couple was little more than a token that could be removed from the movie, and the movie still play out the same way. However, if it weren’t for these two characters, the movie would be lacking ANY humor. So I suppose that was their purpose, to add humor.

There are so many beautifully crafted shots and shot sequences in this film. From juxtapositions of the old meeting with the new to geometric shapes and lines, there are many excellent compositions. The production and set design and lighting, of this film, are used in similar ways that the designs in expressionism are used. Expressionism uses the design of buildings, costumes, lighting, and camera angles to externalize emotions, psycho-social states of being, and ideas. And with expressionism being part of the formula of horror (expressionism+surrealism+Poe+Freud), it makes sense how and why there would be this care shown in the mise-en-scene.

All the backstory elements are communicated through the brilliant use of shadow puppets. The shadow puppet sequences are perhaps my favorite recurring diegetic device used in the film. Not only do these shadow puppets provide exposition, they also move the plot forward in action and subtext.

The idea of shadow puppets as a storytelling device is best explored in Plato’s Cave. French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry likened the movie theatre to Plato’s famous allegory Plato’s Cave found in Plato’s Republic. But since we’re not all film or philosophy theorists, here is a quick explanation of Plato’s Cave:

The allegory states that there exists prisoners chained together in a cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are people carrying puppets or other objects. This casts a shadow on the other side of the wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, believing them to be real. Essentially, what Plato is exploring is the concept of “belief vs knowledge.” The prisoners (or audience) in this analogy believe the images on the wall as reality; when in actuality, it is only the puppeteers version of reality. The analogy goes on further to describe a prisoner breaking free and venturing from the cave out into the real world. Two things happen (1) the newly freed prisoner completely rejects the imagery in the cave and returns to warn the prisoners of their one-dimensional view of reality, and risk being killed for a radical view, or (2) the freed prisoner fears or cannot reconcile actual reality and retreats back into the cave, where there is comfort in the surroundings, to warn the prisoners not to leave. Therefore, this highlights how a lack of knowledge leads to blind belief.

Despite being centuries old, the allegory is appropriate for filmmaking. After all, the audience watches images on a screen. We’re meant to believe it to be real, but we know it’s false. Only when we step out of the theater back into reality can we take what we’ve learned in the cinema and apply it to our lives. In a literal sense, a movie is just a series of images. But digging deeper, they present unique ideas and themes that we can take with us into the real world. Numerous movies utilize this concept in their plots and themes. You have probably seen films where a character believes one reality and then becomes exposed to another, greater reality and is never the same. In the case of 2021’s Candyman, DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld have metaphorically trapped the audience in an ideological cave to present their versions of our reality that exists outside the cinema’s doors.

The movie has some great kills! But it highlights a moral problem plaguing this movie. From the art gallery to the critic to the girls at the prep school, the only victims, to meet their gruesome demise ON screen, are white characters. While there are a couple of off-screen deaths of black characters, the only ones in the visible mise-en-scene to meet with Candyman’s iconic hook are white. Had this movie been directed and/or written by a white writer-director and only killed and disparaged black characters, there would already be a #cancel campaign on Twitter. In my five years as a film professor and seven years as an active critic, I cannot ever recall a horror movie (in particular, a slasher movie) that ONLY killed black characters and disparaged the black community in virtually every scene from the opening to the closing. So if that would not be tolerated by the public–and for good reason, a movie released like that in 2021 (or ever) would be in incredibly poor, despicable, disrespectful taste–then the inverse should not be acceptable here.

I get what DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld are trying to do with this horror movie. From the time of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, horror has been used to comment on societal observations to either warn of an impending dangerous ideology, to provide allegorical material that can be used as a framework to better understand marginalized groups, or even to challenge systems or institutions. Which is why horror is often far more truthful than a straight drama. Of course, one can make the argument that this is a fictional film in a fictional Chicago, which is not untrue; however, the problem therein is that little (if anything) in this fictional Chicago sets it apart from the real world, except for the supernatural character of Candyman, because these filmmakers have a point to make. But the problem here is that the very people that these writers want to challenge are the very people that are being unfairly represented in the movie. How is any of that constructive to the conversations of race relations and policing??? Short answer: it’s not.

The symbolism I did appreciate in the film are the moments that we explore the duality in ourselves and our environments. This is represented through literal and metaphoric reflection. Mirrors (or reflections) are regularly used to communicate duality. One of the best examples in recent years, in how mirrors are an effective cinematic device, is the mirror scene in I, Tonya. Just before her final competition in the film, as Tonya is applying her high contrast makeup, we witness in the mirror the internal struggle. On the outside, she is this accomplished figure skater (probably the best athlete the sport has ever seen) but on the inside she is tormented by her mother, her abusive marriage, and what she did or didn’t know about the incident. Likewise, in Candyman we explore the history and identity of Anthony and his neighborhood. Anthony has a secret in his past that has been painted over, that is trying to resurface, and his neighborhood of Cabrini Green has a sordid history that it has tried to cover and hide behind a fresh coat of paint. History is always there. It cannot be erased. And if it’s not dealt with, it can become a specter and haunt you and your environment. The mirrors and other reflective surfaces of Candyman are brilliantly used to communicate this idea of duality.

It is clear that DaCosta is a gifted director, but I hope that she works with different writers in the future that can find that balance of commenting on or raising awareness of something important, but also finding the ways to bring everyone to the table for a thoughtful discussion. The power of cinema, and in particular horror films, is that it can bring diverse groups of people together from all walks of life to both be entertained and challenged through screams, jumps, and laughter.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer: Dream Warriors

“Welcome to prime time” in the final article of my 2021 Sinister Summer series. This month’s article is covering the much lauded tertiary installment in the A Nightmare on Elm Street (ANOES) franchise Dream Warriors written by Wes Craven & Bruce Wagner (Maps to the Stars) and directed by Chuck Russell (The Blob, 1988), with returning ANOES stars Heather Langenkamp reprising her iconic role as the (in my opinion) definitive final girl Nancy Thompson, John Saxon as her father and the now disgraced former police Detective Thompson, Patricia Arquette in her breakout role, Laurence (credited as Larry) Fishburne, and of course Robert Englund as the terrifying and hilarious nightmare-inducing Freddy Krueger! Talk about a powerhouse cast! It’s not often that a sequel can rival the original installment in a horror franchise, much less the third installment. But A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (from hereon out Dream Warriors), is a heavy hitter that some even argue is better than the first one (a sentiment that I don’t share); however, it is certainly on par with the original, and that is largely due to the outstanding writing of Wes Craven. Dream Warriors is not simply a great horror film, it’s a great film period! And it’s Craven screenplays like the original, Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare that cement him as one of the great horror screenwriters of all time, not to mention his brilliant direction in the SCREAM franchise (particularly the original and SCRE4M). While cinema academics and critics can argue all day long which is better (I or III), what both camps of subject matter experts can agree on is that THIS is the film that transformed Freddy from great horror villain to the revered, timeless icon of the horror genre that he is!

For those of you who haven’t seen this excellent work of horror cinema (what are you waiting for?!?). Expanding the story universe, the action takes place outside of the titular address 1428 Elm Street this time around; and instead focuses on a bunch of Springfield teens who occupy the local psychiatric institute. These teens are the last of the Elm Street children, and all suffer from various sleep disorders. The clinic’s answer: keep them doped up on dream blocking drugs (hypnocil). Nancy Thompson is now a graduate student at the institution whom specializes in sleep disorders. Through a series of accidents, she realizes that the patients are being hunted by Freddy Krueger in their dreams. Over the years, the stories of Freddy and the kills from seven years prior are all but the stuff of legend, and so Freddy has lost much of his power because no one remembers (or fears) him. That is all about to change when he figures out how to gain his former strength. Nancy becomes a de facto general as she leads her Dream Warriors into battle against the malevolent Freddy IN the dream realm.

The Dream Master is back, and with all the one-liners and signature kills that are on brand for him! Having seen his beloved character completely misinterpreted in the first sequel (Freddy’s Revenge, which was panned by critics but has sense seen a cult following within the gay community because of the homoeroticism in it), it was completely understandable that he wanted to return as the Godfather of Freddy this time around. He took on both co-writer and executive producer duties. Sharing story by and screenwriting credits with Bruce Wagner. The film’s director Chuck Russell also contributed to the script but only officially holds the director credit–not a bad deal. Before the first draft of Dream Warriors was written by Wes Craven, he conceived of an idea that the film’s characters be self-aware and the plot would play around with the idea of knowing what the horror tropes are and play it to both dark comedy and tragedy. New Line did not go for the idea, and said it wouldn’t work. Gee, a Craven-helmed self-aware horror movie that plays around with horror tropes to create a meta horror movie? Nah, that’ll never work. It would be another seven years before we would get meta horror in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and nine years before SCREAM.

The final product of Dream Warriors differs greatly from Craven’s original ideas and screenplay for the film, which was much darker in tone (even darker than Freddy’s Revenge). In fact, the characters themselves were quite different in Craven’s original script. For example, Freddy does not have his trademark one-liners, so yes that means no “welcome to prime time, bitch!” (arguably his most Freddy line out of the whole series). Instead, he was much more brutal and violent, and even more graphic in how he taunted and terrorized the teens. The two elements that all, involved in the writing of this film, agreed on was that the teens would have special powers when in the Dream World with Freddy and the plot should include Nancy Thompson. When it was conceived to bring the teens into Freddy’s dream world, Craven questioned “why would Freddy be the only one to have powers here?” So the Dream Warriors were born. New Line eventually ordered a rewrite of the script to increase Freddy’s memorable, twisted sense of humor and witty one-liners and to transform the screenplay from an action-driven plot to a character-driven one. And it’s that character-driven nature of Dream Warriors that gives it the high level of quality that it has. It’s not just about Freddy or his kills, but it’s about the emotional hero journey of these vulnerable teens.

Responsible for the rewrites were Russell and Wagner. Analyzing the screenplay itself, it is clear that both Russell and Wagner were knowledgable in not only the previous two ANOES movies, but the nuance of the horror genre itself. Much more than in the original film, the rewrites also show a penchant for integrating pop culture influences into the dream-state personalities of the characters; and it’s the obsession with pop culture that ultimately contributes to their demise. Among other narrative elements, Russell and Wagner are particularly responsible for the demographic makeup of the teens that we get in the final product by changing many of the ages, sexes, and ethnicities of them. And talk about diversity in ethnicity, physical ability, intelligence, and gender! Jennifer, the young girl obsessed with TV and becoming an actress in Hollywood. Will, the young man confined to a wheelchair who is a huge nerd Dungeons and Dragons geek. Phillip, a young man who loves to create marionette puppets. Taryn, a former heroin addict looking to stay clean and sober. Joey, the quieter one in the group but incredibly horny for the ladies. Kristen (Arquette), who dreams of being an olympic gymnast and has a special kind of ESP that connects her with others. And Kincaid, a tough, short-tempered, and at times violent teen with a sarcastic sense of humor. Outside of Nancy, the other important adults include the often misinterpreted Nurse Ratched-like Dr. Simms, whom really is doing what she thinks is medically best for the teens to help them recover. And Max (Fishburne), the brave orderly.

Dream Warriors‘ screenplay is incredibly lean, and wastes no time in establishing the world of the disturbed teens before launching the audience, full-throttle, into the action plot. For starters, the opening scene of Dream Warriors is fantastic! I would put it up there with the opening to SCREAM, although SCREAM is at the top of my list of best openings–not just in horror-but in all of cinema. The opening to Dream Warriors is perfect because it re-introduces us to Freddy, including his grisly past and insight into the epic, terrifying dream world he creates for his victims. Furthermore, we get an elaboration on his backstory, including more insight into his fiery earthly death and his origin as “the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” Adding to his intriguing, horrific origin is the idea that his mother was a nun, which is a terrifying idea that this horrific figure could have been spawned by any number of madmen raping a nun. All this adds to Freddy’s mythos and is perfectly accompanied by the iconic ANOES score. All these storytelling elements work together to set the tone for a masterful work of horror cinema. One that is more concerned with the characters, themes, and social commentary than merely the elaborate, entertaining, showman-like kills and memorable one-liners.

Showing the depth and complexity of the American horror film, this film tackles the tough, taboo subject of teen suicide. While teen suicide remains an issue today, it was more pronounce in the 1980s. Beyond after-school-specials and PSAs, this was a difficult subject for films (certainly at that time) to tackle. But when there is a tough subject to tackle, leave it to the American horror film to provide insight into and comment on it in unique ways. Much like Nancy and the Dream Warriors face their worst nightmares, the horror battles tough subjects face on! Not only does Dream Warriors tackle teen suicide, it also tackles drug addiction, broken families, self-esteem, and identity issues. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma experienced by the teens can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, their family, friends, or the hospital staff, the teens endure gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder (and times, murder itself) all within the confines and intimacy of the mind. One can easily make the argument that Dream Warriors is a clever PSA on these subjects masquerading around as a horror movie.

Langenkamp’s Nancy’s return to the series showed us more mature side of Nancy. Gone was the shy girl turned bad ass from the original; now she truly was a survivor! And in Dream Warriors, she is the only adult authority figure that actually takes the time to listen to the teens, which is what ultimately points her in the direction of Freddy. Interestingly, her care for these teens evolves into a sort of maternal role in this film. Throughout this film (and franchise) there are images of mothers (and parental figures) that are explored through the conflicts, kills, and dreams. We know that Nancy had an absent mother before she got fired, so Nancy is striving to be the mother to these teens that she never had. While Detective Thompson is washed up at the beginning of this film, and took him a while to come around to Nancy’s plight in the original, he is actually one of the better parents (and fathers) we have in horror. And this film gives him a sort of redemption arc that I greatly appreciate.

Nancy also demonstrates the ability to be in a constant state of learning, even though she is a subject matter expert graduate student in this film. But Nancy is not without her own vulnerabilities. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. Despite her more mature, calm, collected exterior, she is still haunted by her former Freddy nightmares and the ordeal from seven years prior. This makes her character incredibly relatable because she isn’t (and neither is anyone else in the movie) a superhero, she isn’t morally/ethically perfect, she is a flawed person like you and me. But she is harnessing the energy of these fears and flaws, and channeling them into making a difference in the lives (and dreams) of these teens.

The film is called Dream Warriors for a reason, and that reason is because each of the tormented teens gains supernatural power in Freddy’s dream world. And it’s not some arbitrary super power–no–it’s a power that is an answer to their vices and weaknesses. One of the common themes of horror is perceived powerlessness. And there is no better franchise for exploring powerlessness than ANOES because Freddy attacks you when you are your most vulnerable–when you’re sleeping. And we must all sleep at some point–it is unavoidable. Except in this film, his victims band together to battle Freddy on his own turf. While most of them wind up dead–after all, we are usually left with the final girl in slashers–they do not go down without a valiant fight! Through their nightmares, they show that they can overcome that which torments them. On the surface, they are fighting Freddy, but really, they are fighting their own personal demons that have traumatized them.

Now, it wouldn’t be ANOES movie without Freddy’s magnificently creative kills and catchy one-liners. And Dream Warriors has some of the best kills in the entire franchise! I do not have time to go through each of them, but I just have to highlight my absolute favorite Freddy kill and one-liner of all time. Not only is it mine, but this kill and accompanying one-liners are often in the Top 5 and even Top 3 from fans, critics, and scholars alike. And it’s Jennifer’s Welcome to Primetime kill!

The beauty of this particular kill lies not only in its simplicity, but in this scenes’s energy and showmanship that is 100% trademark Freddy from beginning to end! Jennifer is trying to stay awake by watching television in the TV room. Max comes in to escort her to bed because it’s late, but she begs him to let her stay up a little while longer. Reluctantly, he agrees to let her stay up and watch TV but he warns her that if she’s caught that he won’t help her out. She agrees and Max leaves. Thinking that the TV alone may not be enough to keep her awake, she burns herself with a cigarette. While much of this film could very well happen today, we get a totally 80s moment here with Jennifer watching the Dick Cavett Show featuring an interview with (and cameo by) the legendary Zsa Zsa Gabor! During the interview, Dick turns into Freddy and slashes at Ms. Gabor! Then the TV turns to that static screen that we don’t get anymore. Confused by what is happening and at the sounds of those all-too-familiar Freddy victim screams, Jennifer gets up and turns the channel knob, but it does seem to fix the problem. Angry at the TV, Jennifer smacks it and suddenly two razor-clawed mechanical arms burst out of the side and pick up Jennifer. Then Freddy’s TV antennae-wearing head emerges from the top of the TV and makes cinema history by saying, “this is it Jennifer, your big break…welcome to primetime, bitch!” Then smashes Jennifer’s head into the TV. And it is likely due to that kill and line that Freddy continued to develop more of a twisted sense of humor throughout the series. Of course, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, which we also see in the subsequent installments.

If Welcome to Primetime is the film’s (and possibly series’) best kill, this next kill is the most shocking out of the series. And it’s the death of final girl Nancy Thompson. Even though Nancy goes out as a ballsy warrior, it was completely unexpected that she would die. But that death made her return in New Nightmare all the better! In dying, Nancy successfully passes on the torch of the Elm Street protector to Kristen. While Freddy’s motivation for killing the other Elm Street teens in this movie is an extension of what drove him to murder the teens in the previous installments, his motivation for killing Nancy was more than revenge brought on by his death at the hands of the Elm Street parents; it was revenge for doing the impossible–defeating him by taking away the source of his strength: her fear. While it was “nothing personal” in the other murders, his desire to kill Nancy was very personal.

Dream Warriors was a hit with both critics and fans! How often do you hear that with horror movies, much less sequels. In fact, in my opinion as a film professor specializing in the American horror film, I argue that the best films in the ANOES franchise are: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dream Warriors, New Nightmare, and Freddy vs Jason. The final script was praised highly for its pacing, thoughtful commentary, character development, and imagery. With a higher budget thanks to the successes of the original and Freddy’s Revenge, the special effects and set design were cutting edge! This is especially true of the scenes in Freddy’s Hell. Is the film flawless? No. However the few flaws the film does have in no way detract from the cinematic experience of the story. More than 30 years old, this film is widely considered to be among the best horror films of all time, and will continue to be the stuff of nightmares for decades to come.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Old (2021) Mini Review

Welp, that’s an hour and a half, or 18 months, of my life on which I’ll never see a return. M.Night Shyamalan is up to his old tricks again in his latest film about one of the most primal fears of all: aging. From the moment we are born, we start to die, and it’s that fear of aging and death that links everyone on earth together. While many horror films feature slashers, ghouls, demons, monsters, the living dead, nature on a rampage, or just your mother-in-law, the chances of you encountering any of those are about as slim as Netflix reviving Santa Clarita Diet–well, except for the mother-in-law; that one is likely. Shyamalan chooses to focus on the one fear we all share: the ravages of aging. And it’s because of this, that virtually every character in the film is relatable on some level (unfortunately that level is quite minimal). Combine the primal fear of the inevitability of aging with the ticking time bomb literary device, and you have the makings of a thrilling plot. That is, if this plot and these characters weren’t written by the cinematic king of head-scratch bizarre endings, huh?, and what the? moments. Since his feature debut of The Sixth Sense in 1999, I am convinced that M.Night is a gifted director. But he should probably work with more talented screenwriters. What we have here is an original premise (as far as I know) with so much potential for intense windup and explosive delivery; moreover, there is even a prime opportunity to have thoughtful commentary on aging, emotionally, physically, and mentally. It’s all there! But sadly, and to my bewilderment, M.Night chooses to simply move the characters around the island aimlessly, with only occasional meaningful conflict that serves a greater purpose than simply the shortest distance between action beats A and B. Other than the mechanics of screenwriting themselves, perhaps the biggest problem is trying to focus on too many main ideas. He should have had one main action plot, and then supported it with emotionally or psychologically-driven subplots that weave together to point back to the central idea he was trying to convey. Unfortunately, OLD is a convoluted collection of ideas, none of which are ever thoughtfully developed and strategically executed.

For my full thoughts, you will need to listen to me on the Reel Spoilers podcast on July 29, 2021.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer: Burnt Offerings (1976) Retrospective Review

A haunting, dreamlike supernatural horror film about a truly hangry house that was ahead of its time. This month’s retrospective review is on Dan Curtis’ only theatrical film,: 1976’s Burnt Offerings. While I have certainly heard and read good things about this film, I had not really made it a priority to watch. A priority in that I would spend the $4 on Amazon to rent it. But the night before writing this, I saw it show up as a featured Shudder offering. With a mediocre IMDb score, I wasn’t convinced to spend my evening watching the two-hour film; however, upon a Google search, I saw that Golden Age screen icon (“fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) Bette Davis was in a supporting role, as well as Burgess Meredith. Throw in leads Karen Black and Oliver Reed, and you have one stacked cast. But an opportunity to see those Bette Davis Eyes was what swung the pendulum in favor of selecting this more-or-less obscure 70s horror film.

Ben Rolf (Reed), his wife Marian (Black), and their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) visit a country manor up for rent for the summer. They are welcomed by weird siblings Roz Allardyce and Arnold Allardyce (Meredith) who offer the mansion for $900 for the whole summer. Ben is concerned with the upkeep of such a stately place, and the Allardyces state that the house will take care of itself as long as they show it love. The only condition to the siblings’ generous offer is that the Rolfs feed their mother that lives in a plush, cozy attic apartment three times a day by leaving a tray outside of her room. The Rolf family accepts the too-good-to-be-true offer, and move in right away with Ben’s vivacious, eccentric Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). Not long after moving in, Marian begins to become more and more obsessed with Ms. Allardyce and the house. Meanwhile, unsettling things begin happen to the Rolf family, including violent outbursts, and even an untimely death. Ben feels that something sinister is going on with the house, and urges his family to leave. But leaving the estate is not as easy as it seems.

It’s all too easy to see hues of The Shining, Poltergeist, and even The Haunting and The Skeleton Key in this film, but remember that Burnt Offerings came out four years before The Shining and six years before Poltergeist. So if the plot feels a little predictable at times, it’s not because William F Nolan’s screenplay borrowed heavily from those tentpole heavy-hitters, but because those two iconic films perhaps took a little inspiration from it. Where Curtis may have taken inspiration was from Carnival of Souls because it feels like there is a nod or two to that film. Curtis has pacing down to a science! He demonstrates command of the emotional and psychological journeys of the characters and audience. Those who watch this film without reading up on it will scarcely have the leisure to ask why the Rolf family isn’t more observant and curious about their grand dwelling. At the time this film was released, horror was increasingly concerned and even obsessed with supernatural villains and primal fears take that place in otherwise innocent settings, such as an innocent little girl in The Exorcist or an innocent palatial estate in Burnt Offerings. In the case of the latter, the supernatural monster/entity is the house itself, which manifests its sinister desires in very much the same way a vampire does. It’s romantic, alluring, feeding on and sustaining itself with violence and death. This monster is capable of menace, vengeance, outrage, and even murder.

Instead of a shaky handheld camera, promiscuous teens/college students, and poor pacing that lacks a true windup or never pays off at all, comes a film that was ahead of its time in haunted house storytelling. This film feels far more polished and meticulously executed than most present-day haunted house movies. You won’t find jump scares or haphazard pacing here; this film comes from a time when the slow burn was both the norm and it was strategically utilized to setup a brilliant, shocking payoff that is ultimately among the most effective and memorable horror film endings of all time. In terms of its alluring aesthetic, Burnt Offerings harkens back to the days of Gothic horror in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe and the first and second generation of Universal Pictures Horror. Particularly Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher feels heavily channeled in this otherworldly, unsettling horror film. The film location itself comes completely with a sordid past. The estate in the film is the Dunsmuir Estate in Oakland, CA, which was used in every scene according to Curtis (so sound stages). It was built by coal fortune heir Alexander Dunsmuir in 1899. Dunsmuir intended the house to be a wedding gift for his new bride; but in horror movie fashion, he didn’t get to live in it with her because he fell ill and died while on his honeymoon in New York City. His new bride returned to live in the house but died soon after in 1901. What better haunted house location than a location, which may be truly haunted?!?

Burnt Offerings was one of many horror films in the 1970s and early 1980s that commented on the rising negative societal effects of middle-class life, including viral consumerism and obsession with single-family-house ownership, the family is destroyed by a house they otherwise dreamed of. Furthermore, it also provides an exploration of the perceived breakdown of the nuclear family, following the civil rights and sexual revolution movements. Closely reading the major themes in Burnt Offerings leads me to posit the idea that perhaps the most effective way to critically analyze this film is to interpret it as a supernatural parable on the risks of being controlled by one’s possessions. That said, contrary to how the Biblical proverb is so often misquoted; money is NOT the root of all evil; it’s the LOVE OF money that is at the root of all evil. And here, we can replace money with possessions (more specifically, the obsession with possessions). This is shown through Marian’s obsession with the Allardyces estate and possessions therein, Ben’s sexual obsession with his wife (as an object to possess), and the house’s evil energy possessing and draining the family. Anyone who’s ever owned a car, a house, or any kind of property can relate to what this family is going through. We know it as viral consumerism, or the toxic desire to acquire material objects (in today’s language, we can include experiences), which can begin to dominate one’s life. Furthermore, we’ve all been there, experiencing that feeling that repairs to, taxes on, and upkeep of property (be it cars, houses, or anything really) can become a burden that is figuratively unbearable. Ostensibly, the property and experiences we sought to possess, in an ironic twist of fate, now possess us.

The horror of Burnt Offerings is portrayed as a manifestation of the family’s inner turmoil. We aren’t given much to go on, as far as the family’s backstory, but clearly the facade of a happy couple is merely a thin veneer covering a very unhappy marriage–one that is using this summer get-away as a means to rectify. Although not specified, Ben is likely a teacher or non-tenure track college professor because his family is there for the summer (I infer this because Marian encourages Ben to work on his doctorate, something I intend to do as soon as I land a full-time staff/faculty position at the university where I’ve taught part-time for over five years). The manifestation of the internal conflict is expressed through the atmosphere and external behavior of the characters, much in the same way we witness this in The Shining, but more effectively witnessed in Rosemary’s Baby. The screenplay by Nolan (and Curtis) grafts this familial dysfunction onto the haunted house conventions to create an eerie sense of tension, both supernaturally and psychologically. As we observe how the Rolf family interacts in public (in front of the Allardyces) and in private (in their vehicle in a Shining-like motif), it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the “right people,” the Allardyces seek for the house, are ones living under a pressure cooker of repressed animosity and barely controlled hostilities.

Lastly, but certainly not least are the overall performances! Everyone in Burnt Offerings delivers a stellar performance. Talk about an award-winning, powerhouse ensemble! From the leads to our supporting cast, you will be delighted at the top shelf quality of the actors and their respective characters. What I appreciate most about each performance is just how authentic they were, no matter if the actor was playing a lead or supporting character. Both Reed and Black completely sell audiences on the stages of the relationship between their two characters as they go from happy to toxic couple, and it all feels so incredibly genuine. Montgomery’s performance as their son is par for the course, but effective and believable enough in this story (albeit he sometimes acts a little older than a 12-year-old would act). Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart simultaneously convince audiences their characters are jolly, eccentric siblings–yet there is a nuance of something creepy underneath. But the performance you really want to know about is the incomparable Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth. You get it all: Davis’ trademark sassy personality, witty quips, independence, and her eyes! Yes, those Bette Davis eyes that are a hallmark of cinema. One of the most beautiful faces the silver screen has ever seen, and yet she was adamant that she look like her character should look. Therefore, you eventually get a haggard, makeup-less, decrepit old woman that is the complete 180º from how we commonly see Davis. She delivers a fantastic performance, and you will be left wondering why she didn’t do more horror films to rescue herself from TV movie hell in the latter part of her career, from the golden age until she passed away in 1989.

If you are a fan of 1970s horror, The Shining, Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Amityville Horror, I feel confident that you will enjoy this film. While it’s not a great horror film, it is a solidly good one that fans of the genre will likely appreciate. In retrospect, there is so much to unpack in this dreamlike, haunting gothic horror motion picture. Perhaps audiences at the time it was originally released weren’t ready for this methodical haunted house film.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Sinister Summer: ALIEN Retrospective

Alien (1979) - IMDb

This. Is. ALIEN. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard the spaceship Nostromo. Caution. The area you are en-ter-ing is extremely dan-ger-ous. Something has gone wrong… If you get why I punctuated that the way I did, then you remember the ALIEN scene on the former Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (oh how I miss that attraction). Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced you that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film. Furthermore, it reinvented the space-horror movies from the 1950/60s. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. Just 10 years after the Apollo moon landing, this film takes on characteristics of that which is frightening about this new frontier that we are exploring. What if there is a killing machine monster out there? Scary stuff.

Steam Workshop::Alien (1979) Tour Inside The Nostromo

Until ALIEN, movies and TV shows set in space depicted a clean, optimistic, new world. ALIEN subverts this expectation by delivering a used, broken-in, aged space. The Nostromo was nothing like the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek or the Star Destroyers from Star Wars. The design of the Nostromo communicated a dirty, dingy space that is far less appealing than the world of the United Federation of Planets. The effect of this upon audiences was fantastic because it made the future look far more realistic than anything that had come before it. The world of ALIEN truly felt like a future that was used. Indirectly, this intentional design also shows us that the passengers aren’t heroes, highly intellectual explorers, or uniquely skilled individuals. The rough design of the Nostromo parallels the roughness, lack of refinement in the characters. Again, they feel like real people, a people that we could connect with in ways that we could never connect with the characters from space-horror and monster movies in the past. The future, as illustrated in this film, is relatable. From the design of the Nostromo to the development of the characters themselves, audiences are invited into a world stepped in expressive meaning and emotion.

Beyond taking the horror genre into space and integrating some of the psychological horror and slasher elements outlined in PsychoHalloween, and others, Scott’s Alien also provided horror audiences with a new type of final girl, social commentary on gender roles, heteronormativity, and human sexuality. Much like the Freudian components of Hitchcock’s Psycho, this horror film also explores the deep fears and desires that are often suppressed by the subconscious. Furthermore, the film also explores the fears associated with child birth by “impregnating” men resulting in body horror trauma. The counterarguments to heteronormativity is manifested in Ellen Ripley as an androgynous female who behaves in a very masculine way, the film provides an opportunity to talk about gender roles.

Although Ripley is, for all intents and purposes, not even on our radar for nearly 45mins into the film, following a tragedy, she is thrust into the forefront of this mission. Scott’s Alien dared to challenge the status quo in order to deliver the first female action hero, and place her in center stage. The long and short of it is that Ripley subverts the typical science-fiction hero trope to embody both the feminine and masculine to redefine what a hero is within the sci-fi/horror genre. Breaking gender norms for the time, she was neither arm candy, simply a side kick nor required rescuing by a male character. Her character and actions were not defined by gender. She is our final girl, and so much more. Not only did the character of Ripley contribute significantly to horror, she also broke ground for female heroines in the world of cinema at large. 

I Hope This Awesome ALIEN: COVENANT Movie Connection Rumor is True —  GeekTyrant

Like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, Ridley is also someone who is equal parts female and male. In fact, you could argue that she takes on more masculine characteristics as the narrative plays. This playing with the roles of men, women, and their respective bodies and minds can be realized when viewing the character of the xenomorph as the “monstrous feminine.” The monstrous-feminine is a psychological construction generated by male anxieties about the female body and sexuality. Scott’s Alien depicts the maternal body as monstrous. More specifically, the film repeatedly examines the scene of birth or origin. Interestingly, there are three different representations of the concept of birth in the film. In terms of the production design, Alien can be likened to a gothic horror set in space. Scott’s brilliant design conveys to the audience the extreme isolation and claustrophobia. There is also an fascinating dichotomy in the worlds that are represented in this film by pitting the mechanization and technology of the organization for which our explorers work and the monstrous origin world of the alien, which we learn more about (whether you like the films or not in the prequels).

Your central character need not always be the first or second character we encounter in a screenplay. This is true with Ripley as she emerges as the central character midway through the film. However, we are given hints at her destiny throughout the first act in subtle ways. It was important to the plot to establish her as a woman in order to make her actions later on in the film so kickass and assumption shattering. Had she been seen as “masculine” or strong from the onset, then we would not be as impressed with her actions–we would expect them. Part of her power as a strong female character in horror is taking what we assumed about her (or a female character in general) and subvert our predisposition. Whereas Ripley is not the first female heroic character in a horror film, she is one that never becomes subjected to the male gaze or becomes some fantasy version of a woman. Even though female heroic characters who wear sexy clothes, wield phallic guns, or use their bodies as femme fatals can be strong characters, they are still some heteronormative fantasy for a male screenwriter or director. 

Essentially, the aforementioned female characters lack an authentic humanity. Ripley is strong, vulnerable, independent, scared, mortal; these elements that make her believably human. There is so little suspension of disbelief in her character that she could nearly exist in real life. Furthermore, her character is incredibly complex; she exhibits strong intuition and intelligence, chutzpah, is brash, talks about PTSD, outspoken, rigidly wants to go by the book instead of saving a man’s life, has a natural beauty but doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup. All these traits portray someone who has incredible depth and dimension. She is a survivor. No matter how grizzly, messy, constricting, or frightening her soundings become, she remains steadfast, collected, and brave. As the 1970s saw many changes in censorship, ratings, guidelines, etc., the ability to show gorier, more visceral body horror special effects, and on screen violence allowed Scott to confront the character of Ripley with cinematically innovative ways to test her resilience and survivorship. 

The character of Ellen Ripley is also a strong pillar of the American horror film by virtue of her representation of gender politics. Even before it became popular, in more recent times, to use both male and female characters in motion pictures as a conduit to comment on the state of affairs for a particular group within our society, Ridley Scott crafted a visual masterpiece that did just that. Highly innovative, forward thinking, and progressive. The subtext of the film confronts us with a woman trying her best to fit into a man’s world. In addition to that subtext, research into the screenplay for this film shows that all the characters were written as gender neutral. Interesting stuff, right?!? Another gender-related observation in the character of Ripley, is her both metaphorically and physiologically clothing herself in masculinity all while remaining a women. In one scene, Ripley steps into a space suit. And this space suit can be read as Ripley playing the role of a man while remaining a women at her core in order to challenge the patriarchal system to prove that she is capable of anything that a masculine hero is. 

Ripley is a highly intelligent character, realizes that about herself, and does not allow herself to be patronized or undermined. She does her job aboard the Nostromo like a legit boss. She knows procedure and protocol, and will follow it in order to protect her crew. Figuratively, she is protecting the ship from being willfully penetrated by a foreign object. This could be read as a commentary on rape. She is forcefully overruled, and we all know what happens next. Further commentary depicts male characters “forgetting” that Ripley is the senior officer. But because she is female, they feel they know better. I bet they wish they had followed her orders. Although much of what I’ve written deals with the masculine qualities of Ripley, her character would not have been as powerful a character if it wasn’t for her feminine side as well. When all hell is breaking loose, she soothes the nerves of the crew and offers comfort. Exemplary motherly qualities. Had a man been in her role, then he would most likely have not exhibited such love for the crew. Her success as a hero has as much to do with the touch of a women as it does the chutzpah of a man.

Alien's Chestburster Scene Real Meaning Explained | Screen Rant

Another motherly quality found in Ripley is her persistent urge for the crew to function as a group. Through the brilliant cinematography, we are consistently shown a group that is fractures and continually fails to band together until it is too late. Interestingly, each character meets his or her demise because of a tragic flaw and failure to group together to function as ONE crew instead of self-centered individuals. Had the group functioned as one, then more may have survived. This hypothesis is witnessed in the Ripley in Act 3 because she essentially embodies all the good qualities found in the other characters (think Captain Planet). She combines what everyone did well into one character. That is why she is the final girl. Only by combining all the qualities of the crew was she able to go toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph killing machine. 

John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV: Cult-Movie  Review: Alien (1979)

There are actually three prominent female characters in Alien. Ripley, the Xenomorph, and The Nostromo. Although Ripley is our central character, I would be remiss to not mention the other two that could be analyzed individually themselves. Much like Ripley exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics, so does the Xenomorph with a mouth that oscillates between vaginal and phallic in nature. And finally, The Nostromo ostensibly gives birth to all the astronauts at the beginning of the film; and therefore could be referred to as the mother ship. Playing around with gender does not stop there. The facegrabber impregnates a male character and he gives birth to the Xenomorph. Underscoring so many elements and conflicts in this film is this idea of subverting gender identity with the intent to horrify by tapping into primal heteronormative fears. And let’s face it, child birth is terrifying.

The extent to which the special effects still hold up terrifying well in this motion picture is just one of many reasons why CGI can never replicate the way real like bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. Practical effects have literal depth and dimension–nothing simulated or recreated here. Practical effects offer the actors the opportunity to engage and interact with the world in which their respective characters live, work, play, and sometimes die. The single scene that stands out to me, and remains one of the best of all time is the “chestbuster” scene.

What an entrance! In addition to terrifying the audience, it threw the cast for quite the loop too; furthermore, this scene represents the first good look we have at the alien creature, even though it’s in its infant stage. Interestingly, the actors were literally taken by surprise because they had a general idea of how the scene was going to play out, but they were not informed as to specifics. Suddenly, Kane begins thrashing around so violently that everyone has to hold him down on the table, requiring everyone to move in closely to the body (a prosthetic one at this point). Just as the crew is holding onto Kane tightly, the alien BURSTS through Kane’s chest! His innards and blood spew everywhere! The actors’ reactions are grounded in realism, because these are authentic, unrehearsed reactions, which only adds to the gravity of the entire scene. Genuine reactions. You cannot get that with CGI. I mean, how is one supposed to fear for their life when acting next to a tennis ball on the end of a stick or string???

Unfortunately, all the sequels failed to live up to the substantive nature of the original and devolve into a generic futuristic action-adventure series; but the original ALIEN delivered a nightmare-inducing “haunted house” meets Jaws movie set in the far reaches of space where “no one can hear you scream,” and provided us with the breakthrough character of Ellen Ripley.

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Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1