Burnt Offerings, 1976.
Directed by Dan Curtis.
Starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis, Eileen Heckart and Lee Montgomery.
A family rent a large house for the summer, unaware that it feeds off the energy of any occupants who suffer any injuries.
The 1970s was a very rich time for horror movies, especially those of a supernatural leaning, and while the likes of The Exorcist, The Omen and The Amityville Horror are regularly namechecked as the standards to beat and have earned their place in horror history, sometimes it pays to delve a little deeper to try and unearth those lesser-seen gems that may have been forgotten about, and on this occasion Arrow Video have done just that with Dan Curtis’ 1976 haunted house tale Burnt Offerings.
What is most striking about Burnt Offerings is that while you are watching it the plot details seem instantly familiar, almost cliché, and whilst it is true to say that the tradition of haunted houses in movies was hardly a new thing in 1976, the films that Burnt Offerings instantly brings to mind the most are The Amityville Horror, The Shining and Ti West’s The House of the Devil, all movies that were made after this one. The other notable quality this movie has is the with casting, because when you can get peak-form Oliver Reed (The Curse of the Werewolf/Gladiator) and Karen Black (Nashville/House of 1000 Corpses) playing the leads along with screen legends Bette Davis (All About Eve) and Burgess Meredith (Rocky) in supporting roles then there is little chance of failure, although Lee Montgomery as Reed and Black’s son who speaks and behaves suspiciously older what than his 12 years suggests threatens to dispel the family unit illusion at times.
Unlike today when haunted house/ghost movies are generally shot on handheld cameras, run at under 80 minutes and usually end before anything interesting actually happens – often dictated by budget and/or lack of talent behind the camera – Burnt Offerings comes from a time when a slow build-up was the norm, leading to a pay-off which, thanks to the modest budget, is one of the most effective and memorable endings to a horror movie as anything else from the era in which it was made. And the climax was well-deserved because at 101 minutes long it is only in the last five minutes there is anything other than a believable script up there in the screen for you to marvel at in terms of blood or effects work, which is a lot to sit through as Ben Rolf (Reed), his wife Marian (Black), their son David and Ben’s aunt Elizabeth (Davis) move into a rented house for the summer. Of course, the house is being offered for next-to-nothing and the owners – a brother and sister played respectively by Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith, looking very different to how he did in Rocky, released the same year – offer it with the condition that their elderly mother Mrs. Allardyce, who lives in a sectioned-off part of the house and cannot leave, comes with the house, forcing the Rolfs’ to care for her, something that Marian takes to straight away as she dutifully takes the old woman her meals every day and spends a lot of time in her room. Ben, however, is a little bit suspicious of the deal but eventually agrees, although over time it appears the house is having an effect on him and his family, dawning on Ben that that every time somebody is hurt or injured the old house seems to rejuvenate itself and gradually look like it did in years gone by.
It is thanks to Oliver Reed and Karen Black that the majority of the film works because in the hands of lesser actors it could quite easily have fallen apart very quickly. There are moments of tension, such as when Ben and David’s play fighting in the swimming pool turns violent or when Ben tries to force himself onto Marian, that let you know things aren’t right, and in what appears to be a nod to Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls there is also the appearance of a spectral chauffeur that only Ben can see who shows up whenever something terrible is about to go down which, quite honestly, could have been cut out as it feels a little goofy and doesn’t really add to the haunting atmosphere set up by the mystery of Mrs. Allerdyce and the family unit seemingly falling apart in her house.
Burnt Offerings does fall slightly short of being a classic mainly because, like the majority of innovative works of art, it has been overtaken in the public consciousness by the movies that followed in its wake. Shot mainly in soft focus it does offer a haunting and dreamlike quality throughout and the performances from the leads anchor it down and hold your interest until that final few minutes when the full extent of what has been happening in the house is revealed and the film goes into full-on ‘70s horror mode. It is admittedly a long haul getting to that point and had the ending not been worth it then there isn’t really a lot here that would appeal to modern audiences looking for a quick fix of ghostly terror, but as a mood piece and something you can spend time with to ponder over its little mysteries and quirks then Burnt Offerings is surprisingly compelling and worthy of a place up there with the more notable horror movies of the 1970s.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★