Director: Dan Curtis
Script: William F. Nolan & Dan Curtis
Cast: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Bette Davies, Dub Taylor, Lee H. Montgomery
Running time: 116 minutes
The Rolfs are a family looking for a summer retreat away from the busy hustle and bustle of their home city, New York; somewhere their teenage boy, Davey (Montgomery), can play safely, father (Reed) can write undisturbed and mum (Black) can enjoy (?) being a house-wife in fresh surrounds. After answering a newspaper ad for a family to look after a country estate while the owner is away, they head off for their ‘job’ interview and end up meeting the estate’s older children of the owner of the house, brother (Meredith) and sister (Heckart). These two chatty siblings take to the city folks and agree to let them rent the house for the summer, and for only $900; the only catch is that they’ll have to ‘granny-sit’ the mother who has her own rooms at the top of the house, but who is allegedly ‘no trouble whatsoever’ – she only requires food left out for her, three times a day, and a bit of peace and quiet.
A couple of weeks later the family are back at the massive mansion, complete with Auntie Elizabeth (Davies), moving their stuff in, and wondering where the grandma is since she doesn’t respond to any of their attempts to contact her. Putting it down to a case of an old lady just sleeping most of the day (she is 85 after all) they crack on with cleaning, tidying and settling in.
At first everything seems tickety-boo; the lads enjoy swimming in the pool – once they’ve cleaned and refilled it – Auntie Liz, enjoys watching them have fun, and mum takes pride in keeping the house clean and making sure the old lady gets her three-square meals each day. But after a while Marian (Black) begins to worry about the old lady and starts to spend more time in the lady’s ante-chamber, as if spying on her coming out into the open to eat one of her meals. She also becomes obsessed with cleaning the house, in particular the family photos and artefacts in the grandma’s chambers. Just as Marian opens a musical box, down at the pool dad starts throwing David around violently and almost drowns him. And so begins the family’s decent into a living nightmare, and the realisation that all is not as it seems with the mansion of madness that is their new summer home!
Burnt Offerings is a film I’ve been wanting to see since the early eighties, after reading an article about it in the now long defunct House of Hammer magazine. One image stuck in my mind, that of a constipated-looking Oliver Reed seemingly trapped by something unseen. Maybe a constipated Mr Reed isn’t anything to write home about, not with all the abuse he gave his body over the years, but there was something about the photo that increased my curiosity, at least enough to make me want to see the film someday. Hence some x amount of years later I finally got around to watching Burnt Offerings with quite a bit of anticipation.
Based on a novel, of the same name, by Rob Marasco, Nolan and Curtis adapted the novel into a screenplay, but changed the ending since neither liked the original one, which apparently disappointed big time.
Burnt Offerings is a haunted house story with a difference – the house isn’t haunted! However, the truth is much worse! The story is a slight one, but the delivery is what matters and the exceptional cast help to sell the bizarre central concept very well. In fact, whether you like horror films or not, Burnt Offerings is worth seeing for the performances from a great cast who all seem to be enjoying their roles.
There are one or two head-scratching moments where one wonders if the scriptwriters fell asleep at the proverbial wheel, such as when the doctor turns up not long after the house’s grounds have prevented Reed’s character from leaving the estate, but these are few and far between so don’t endanger one’s enjoyment of proceedings.
Oliver Reed is on fine form as the dad, one minute having a laugh with his mother-in-law and the next trying to drown his son after a bit of rough and tumble that gets out of hand – sounds a bit like Reed’s real life to be fair! A pregnant Karen Black does extremely well has the loving mother turned almost imperceptibly into a deeply disturbed and obsessive individual. And Bette Davies is fun as the older woman who has great chemistry with the rest of the small family.
The photography is very old school cinematic and Curtis demonstrates his usual preference for low shots looking upwards, revealing a fair few nasal hairs in the process! All this is accompanied by an effectively creepy musical motif. There is a bit of damage here and there to the print, but nothing that reduces one’s enjoyment of the film, and the sound quality is very good.
Burnt Offerings is a slow burner of a movie, one which rewards the patient viewer with an acceptable and quite original ending. It reminded me a little of M Night Shyamalan’s high concept horrors of the late nineties and early noughties – mostly all build up leading to a better than average ending – and also a couple of the classic ghost films from the seventies, namely The Shining and The Changeling, well, at least in general vibe.
Arrow Video are distributing Burnt Offerings on DVD and Blu-ray. As per usual with Arrow Video there are some decent extras on the disc including:
Audio commentaries by Dan Curtis, Karen Black and William F. Nolan and then, separately, by film historian Richard Harland Smith.
Anthony James: Acting his face – a 17.5 min documentary about the character actor Anthony James who plays the weird chauffeur in Burnt Offerings. Discovered playing opposite Sidney Poitier in In the heat of the Night he soon realised he had to ‘act what he looked like’ in order to get parts. He worked with Bette Davis a couple of times and loved her, and thought Oliver Reed was a good actor.
Blood Ties (16.5 mins) – actor Lee Montgomery, who played the boy David Rolf in the film, discusses his memories of shooting the film. He recollects that Oliver appeared to enjoy getting smacked around and in the evenings would hang out with his entourage drinking heavily and larking about. Apparently, Reed and his buddies got the boy drunk one evening and his mother punched Ollie, which he seemed to like! Reed was also well known for picking fights with people in bars…
From the Ashes (13.5 mins) – screenwriter William F. Nolan chats about his long association with producer/director Dan Curtis and how the project first came to light. Apparently, a mutual friend, writer Richard Matheson, introduced them to each other. Curtis used to call Nolan ‘the ghost who walks like a man’. William reveals that Bette Davies couldn’t stand Oliver Reed – she thought he was a drunken bore, and that the final scene was very hard for Curtis to shoot because his own daughter killed herself in a very similar way!
Portraits of Fear (3.5 mins) – an animated gallery of promo materials and behind the scenes shots, which is nicely put together.
Theatrical trailer (2.5 mins) – this shows possibly too much; spoiler alert!