Friday, March 28, 2014

Burnt Offerings (1976)

          Note: When I posted my original review of Burnt Offerings two years ago, a handful of readers complained that I hadn’t given the movie a fair appraisal, so I made a mental note to revisit the film after some time had passed. Now, I’m happy to report that I enjoyed Burnt Offerings a lot more on second viewing—hence the following.
          Despite scoring on the small screen as the creator of the vampire soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) and as the director of a number of creepy TV movies, filmmaker Dan Curtis wasn’t able to achieve big-screen success. In fact, he directed only one significant theatrical feature, the haunted-house thriller Burnt Offerings, which is long on atmosphere and short on gore. The movie’s biggest “special effects” are the quietly creepy score by Bud Cobert and the twitchy leading performances by Karen Black and Oliver Reed. One could easily pick apart the logic of the storyline, which Curtis and co-screenwriter William F. Nolan adapted from a novel by Robert Morasco, but horror shares with the comedy genre a simple litmus test—whatever works, works. And since Burnt Offerings builds nicely from a disquieting opening sequence to a nasty finale, the movie basically works, in the sense of giving viewers a solid case of the heebie-jeebies.
          When the story begins, psychologically scarred academic Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed) and his kindhearted wife, Marian (Karen Black), move into a California vacation home accompanied by their young son (Lee Montgomery) and their dotty old aunt (Bette Davis). The house’s owners, eccentric siblings Arnold Allardyce (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), instruct the Rolfs to deliver meals on a daily basis to the Allardyces’ elderly mother, who lives in an upstairs room but never sets foot anywhere else. Foolishly accepting an offer that’s too good to be true (the rental price of the house is outrageously low), the Rolfs soon get caught in the building’s otherworldly spell. While Marian becomes obsessed with looking after the house and the never-seen Mother Allardyce, Ben starts to experience inexplicable homicidal compulsions, as well as eerie flashbacks to his mother’s funeral.
          Although Curtis and his cohorts eventually provide a tidy explanation for the supernatural nature of the house’s power over its occupants, many aspects of the story are left intentionally mysterious, and that might be the film’s strongest element. For instance, recurring images of an enigmatic chauffeur (Anthony James) linger not only because the cadaverous and perpetually grinning chauffeur is so creepy-looking, but because the chauffeur represents an entire secret realm of unknowable malevolence.
          The biggest challenge when watching Burnt Offerings is accepting how quickly the house gets its hooks into the Rolfs—the usual “why don’t they just leave?” syndrome. (See: The Amityville Horror, etc.) That’s where Curtis’ long record of setting a spooky mood comes into play, because for those willing to join Curtis’ leisurely trek into the shadows, Burnt Offerings has a seductive quality. Black is aptly cast, thanks to the way her close-set eyes make her seem a little bit off right from the beginning, and Reed essays his underwritten role with gravitas and menace. Davis expresses suffering well, and the tag team of Eckhart and Meredith provide a wealth of weirdness in their single scene. Ultimately, Burnt Offerings may be too predictable and slow-moving to qualify as one of the decade’s best fright flicks, but it’s a fun exercise in style—and it comes close to doing for outdoor swimming pools what Jaws did for the Atlantic Ocean.

Burnt Offerings: GROOVY


Dale said...

The handful of readers might have been ME,who sent the comment "I like this movie and you hurt my feelings." that perplexed rather than amused you. Well,I still like the picture,it's a personal favorite and has teen age spooky memories attached. Glad you enjoyed it more this time. The DVD has quite a good commentary track featuring Black,Dan Curtis and Bill Nolan by the way. Best wishes - I check your site every day with my coffee!

By Peter Hanson said...

Thanks for checking in and glad you've stayed with the blog... I actually heard from several readers. Who knew Burnt Offerings stirred such deep feelings?

Unknown said...

aunt elizabeth g**d*** that was scary!

Unknown said...

There's a typo in this - early on you call it Burt Offerings, which might have been a good name for a soft porn comedy. All jokes aside, though, I had been aware of this film since its release back in the 1970s, but didn't see it until I found a cheap Blu-ray a few years ago. Pleasantly creepy, Reed is great (as always) and the ending is as grim as hell.

P.Kellach W. said...

I'd love to see your orig review as IMHO this is an incoherent, silly, ridiculously laughable garbage mess of a movie. As in MST3K awful. JMO

Varnsen said...

This aired occasionally on TV in Australia and was one of those family favourites. Part of its charm was the creepy chauffeur played by Anthony James, whose leering grin would after bedtime be in the minds of younger viewers for weeks afterwards.
As far as I'm concerned, Oliver Reed was never better and he must have been doing something right if old Bette Davis despised him outside of their scenes together. I can see Burnt Offerings not having enough special effects and fireworks to impress later generations weaned on a diet of CGI. Like the 1973 book on which it was based, by Robert Marasco, it was a slow, steady burn and an atmospheric, creepy one at that.