Burnt Offerings (1976)
Directed by: Dan Curtis
Starring: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Lee Montgomery, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor, Anthony James, Jim Myers
(out of 4)
WARNING: Slight spoilers ahead.
Burnt Offerings is a mid seventies haunted house flick that is more of a possession story. Either way, it’s plodding and tedious most of the time, featuring performances that bounce from almost comatose (Reed) to over-the-top campiness (Reed, again, and Black most of the time). There’s also an annoying kid (Montgomery) in the style of other annoying kids like Giovanni Frezza from House by the Cemetery (well, not nearly as irritating, but still). It certainly has its moments, but most of those moments occur in the last 5 minutes, culminating in a suitably downbeat ending. Getting to that ending, though, can be a bit of a chore. Throw in some amusing performances (Black, Davis, and Meredith, mostly) and some eerie dream sequences, and what we end up with is a picture with an awesome idea (a place that gets stronger the more it eats souls), but it’s too meandering to properly follow through on it.
The Rolf family, comprising English daddy Ben (Reed), mom Marion (Black, who is kinda creepy when she’s not possessed), kid Davey (Montgomery), and Aunt Elizabeth (Davis), all move into a run-down country mansion for the summer, for reasons unknown. The house is owned by a creepy brother and sister (Burgess Meredith, who’s appearance here reminds me of his turn in The Sentinel, and Eileen Heckart, whom you might recall as the drunken grieving mother from The Bad Seed). They’ll let the Rolfs stay for $900 for the entire summer, as long as they make sure to feed their momma, who lives in a room at the top of the stairs and never comes out. Oh, sure, just ask a bunch of strangers to watch the place and leave “mother” in their care. Naturally, Ben and Marion accept the offer, because they’re dolts. After some snooping around the house and grounds, Ben gets weird and tries to drown Davey in the pool. Marion starts behaving strangely as well, becoming very attached to the house and obsessed with taking care of the old lady upstairs, somebody that is never seen or heard from. Then there’s the mansion itself, which seems to have a knack for doing its own repairs (old boards replace themselves with new ones, clocks wind themselves, dead plants start growing again).
The similarities to other haunted house movies like Amityville Horror are there, but The Shining is the most obvious (parental units being influenced by ghostly powers, the house manipulating things by itself, young boy in danger, ominous photographs on display). What’s surprising is that Burnt Offerings is based on a 1973 novel by Robert Marasco, something that comes some years before Stephen King’s novel, which was released in 1977. (Both novels, of course owe a little something to The Haunting of Hill House). The Shining ‘80, however, is the superior picture, in large part due to the fact that it was directed by Kubrick, who – let’s face it – knew how to shoot a movie for the big screen. In comparison, Dan Curtis films Burnt Offerings like a TV movie, in constant soft-focus, with a filter of haze covering everything. Using a diffusion filter (or is it a fog machine?) may have sounded like a good idea to the guy responsible for Dark Shadows, but trust me, it’s not.
The rest of Burnt Offerings seems a bit aimless, as plot points are introduced that are never followed up on (the graveyard, the old bike discovery, the broken specs at the bottom of the pool – and why does the pool try to eat Davey when he swims in the deep end?). There are a few decent ideas thrown in, however, like the tension between husband and wife (she jumps nude into the pool with him for a night swim but then denies him sex at the last minute like Lucy pulling away a football – the tease!) There’s also an ongoing hallucination that Ben has of a hearse and a sunglasses-wearing chauffeur who has this really evil smile. Opportunities to explore an estrangement between father and son, which are expected after he tries to drown the kid, are quashed when Davey forgives his dad rather quickly. Marion’s gradual descent into madness and possession works better. There’s also a cool scene where the chauffeur brings a coffin up the stairs to collect Aunt Elizabeth. The ending to Burnt Offerings is the best part, but it’s more amusing than scary, and now that I think about it, rather absurd. The fact that it doesn’t take any prisoners, unlike the neutered Amityville Horror, is a plus; I am still wondering at the end, though, why people are not smart enough to actually check on the physical condition of an old lady who is constantly said to be “sleeping”, or why they don’t have enough sense to run away from crumbling chimneys.
I know that Burnt Offerings has its fans, and I understand why, in a way. It’s just not attractive to look at, features stupid characters, a bizarre casting choice of Oliver Reed (who never strikes the right balance – he’s either too wooden, or too dramatic), and at almost 2 hours, takes too long to get to the point. One interesting thing about the movie is that it might be counted as an influence on Phantasm, which also features a creepy man, a hearse, and a similar looking house. You should watch that, or The Shining, instead.
- Bill Gordon