Review: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Written by William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis
Based on the novel by Robert Marasco
Directed by Dan Curtis
Starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Lee Montgomery, Dub Taylor, Bette Davis
Premiere August 25, 1976
RT 116 min.
Home Video Kino Classics (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)

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On Friday nights when I was in junior high school in the mid-1970s, the thing to do was go to a movie at the Esquire Theater in Enid, Oklahoma. If there were a horror movie that week, the teenagers in the audience were particularly excited.  I’ll never forget the reaction to Burnt Offerings (1976) standing in front of the theater afterwards, talking about how scary it was.  There was one image specifically that sent chills up and down our spines, that of “The Chauffeur” (Anthony James), a ghostly, emaciated man with round sunglasses and a terrifying smile.

The Chauffeur appeared in the flashbacks and dreams of Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed). He was apparently present at his mother’s funeral and it’s unclear whether or not his return when Ben is an adult is all in his mind or a physical manifestation.  But every time he drives the old car down a dusty road in slow motion, then steps outside to flash that smile, the audience would shriek.  And when he appeared outside Aunt Elizabeth’s (Bette Davis) bedroom door and pushed a full-sized coffin at her, it was almost more than we could bear.

Burnt Offerings is my favorite haunted house movie of the 1970s. I feel it’s underrated, with movies like The Amityville Horror and The Legend of Hell House stealing its limelight.  (There was also The Legacy, but that one doesn’t steal any movie’s limelight.)  Perhaps I’m partial because it was made by producer/director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows).  There’s no doubt he knows how to generate a mood, suspense and a good scare.  His style isn’t as showy as, say, John Hough (The Legend of Hell House), but I find it more effective.

Burnt Offerings is long, clocking in at just under two hours, but it’s able to sustain its growing sense of dread due in part to some great acting. Both Reed and Karen Black are terrific.  His relationship with his son, Davey (Lee Montgomery) is sweet and natural… until he becomes somewhat possessed and tries to drown him in the swimming pool.  Then, it’s heartbreaking because we see the emotional fallout from such a betrayal.  Black, as his wife Marian, consoles Ben, “You didn’t mean to hurt Davey.  The roughhouse just got out of hand.”

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But she’s not quite in her right mind, either. Assuming the responsibility of taking a tray three times a day upstairs to old Mrs. Allardyce, she becomes enthralled with all the photographs and a haunting music box in her sitting room.  Long after Ben insists they should leave the house, she argues they should stay, indicating her attachment to the house has become quite unnatural.  Black is an unusual actress to begin with, but always fascinating to watch.  Her transition is subtle, yet entirely believable.

I guess I better back up and explain how the Rolfs come stay in the house. Elderly siblings Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart) advertise for summer tenants while they take their annual vacation.  When “interviewing” the Rolfs, they use some foreboding language.  “The house takes care of itself,”  “God, when it comes alive… tell them what it’s like in the summer,” and, “It’s practically immortal, I sincerely believe that.”  Perhaps Ben and Marian are stunned by the fact that it will cost them only $900 for the entire summer.

The Allardyces have only two requests. One is that the Rolfs “love the house as much as brother and I do”.  The other is that they tend to their 85-year old mother (who could pass for 60) in the upstairs bedroom.  It’s all too good to be true and, as is usually the case, the Rolfs realize that too late.  As the run down house seems to be reviving itself, Marian claims to be responsible.  But we never see her do any actual cleaning around the house… she’s always upstairs in the sitting room with the music box.  And we never actually see Mrs. Allardyce.

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There are already a couple things going on that make Burnt Offerings different from the standard haunted house movie. First, I like that this is not a house they’ve bought or permanently moved into.  Second, there are no bumps in the night or blood-dripping walls; it really is psychological terror affecting the Rolfs, not psychic terror.  That’s why the acting is so important.  (And, in brief roles, Meredith and Heckart are fantastic.  I wouldn’t rent a house from either one of them, but again, the Rolfs must have reasons for doing it.)

Everything in Burnt Offerings is creepily effective. Curtis relies on regular composer Robert Cobert for his usual judiciously placed cues and the lovely music box theme.  More often, there is no music, the eerie silence setting the mood.  It’s also interesting to me that Curtis works the same elements into all his movies and that most of these elements were originally used in Dark Shadows.  Here, there’s the eccentric family, their pasts coming back to haunt them, a big old house, and a mysterious music box.

Ben has a hard time convincing Marian to leave, “This house is not ours; we do not own it.” “But it’s our responsibility,” she counters.  He finally has to ask her, “Would you give it up for me?”  When a sudden death puts their plans on hold, I think I’d have left without Marian.  I mean, she doesn’t even attend the funeral.  Ben says to her, “Well, life sure as hell goes on doesn’t it?”  She replies, “Well, why shouldn’t it?”  Yeah, she’s too far gone.  It’s time to save your own skin, Ben.  No spirit of a dead murdered is going to yell, “Get out,” but I sure will.

The conclusion is brilliantly orchestrated and the final scenes are powerful. I’d like to be able to remember what it was like before I knew what was going to happen all the way through the movie.  The ending must have been shocking to me.  If you ask any of my classmates in attendance that Friday night at the Esquire Theater, I wonder if they’d feel the same way.  But the fact that I know what’s coming doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of Burnt Offerings.  It actually makes me enjoy the road to the ending that much more.

Today’s passport stamp:United StatesThat’s it for this year’s Countdown to Halloween.  Thank you for joining us!

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