31 Screams in October, Vol. 4, #23: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Posted: October 23, 2018 in Movie Review

23. Burnt Offerings (1975)

Director: Dan Curtis

Starring: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Lee Montgomery, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart

“Burnt Offerings” cooks up a story so familiar by now that a lesser film would be sunk before it ever gets started. We all know how this goes: A family moves into a house they think is too good for them, then the house demonstrates that it is haunted by spirits who isolate/possess one family member while terrorizing the rest. More infamous takes on the haunted house story include 1979’s “The Amityville Horror” and 1980’s “The Shining.” Anyone who has seen either will be able to spot every plot point in “Burnt Offerings” before it happens.

But hold on a moment. “Burnt Offerings,” having been released in 1976, pre-dates those other haunted house movies I just named. The original novel, published in 1973, also pre-dates the other films’ source materials. So, originality isn’t really the issue. There’s a stellar cast here, and they all act the hell out of each of their roles. Most of the pieces all seem to fit into the right places. Why then is this movie not as talked about as others of its kind? The fault would seem to lie in the ordinary and safe way in which everything is presented.

Ben and Marian Rolf (Oliver Reed and Karen Black), with their 12-year old son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery) in tow, move from a tiny apartment to a towering mansion for the summer. Ben has his reservations about it, but relents when Marian demonstrates how much it means to her. Theres’s something about the house’s décor that fascinates her. The story told by the house’s owners, Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), about their elderly mother who lives undisturbed in an upstairs room has touched Marian so much that she feels duty-bound to care for the old woman. The house already has Marian in its grasp, and it’s not about to let go.

Almost immediately, something about the house feels off. Ben’s aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), whom he brought to stay with them, is the first to notice. A series of incidents follows, most of them involving Davey’s life being placed in jeopardy. The deep end of the pool appears to be haunted, as Ben slips into a trance and nearly drowns his son. Later, while Davey is in his room asleep, the window is mysteriously locked and the gas heater turned up. Marian blames Elizabeth, who is both innocent and mortified. In addition to the forced violence against his son, Ben is also visited repeatedly by a vision of a creepy hearse driver he thinks he spotted at his mother’s funeral. One such visitation happens right before Elizabeth passes away. Marian’s absence at the funeral causes significant tension, as she’s becoming more and more ensnared by the house and won’t admit it either to Ben or to herself.

It’s then revealed that the house can repair itself to appear good as new. Ben tries to leave with Davey, but they only get a short distance down the road before a large tree conveniently falls, blocking the car’s path. Ben’s increasing distrust of Marian coupled with everything that’s happened since they moved in finally catches up with him, and he falls into an unresponsive state. He’s forced to sit by and watch as the evil swimming pool tries once again to drown Davey. It would succeed this time were it not for the fact that Marian sees the whole thing from Mrs. Allardyce’s window. She jumps into the pool and rescues Davey, which also snaps Ben out of his trance.

The whole family, Marian included, is ready to leave at this point. That’s where most movies of this sort would go for the happy ending, but not “Burnt Offerings.” At the last possible moment, Marian starts to feel guilty about leaving Mrs. Allardyce behind without saying goodbye, so she gets out of the car and goes upstairs. Minutes pass by with no sign of her, prompting a concerned Ben to go looking for her. What he finds is horrific: Marian has become Mrs. Allardyce! To complete the tragedy, Ben is thrown from Mrs. Allardyce’s window and falls to his death on the hood of the family car. The chimney then collapses, killing poor Davey.

The final shot is one similar to that of “The Shining.” As we look at the table full of photographs in Mrs. Allardyce’s room (which Marian had been looking at earlier), we realize that these are not in fact family photos. They represent the house’s previous occupants, all since having been absorbed by the house. The images of Ben, Davey and Elizabeth are now included.

This is easily the best collection of actors in any horror movie I’ve watched this month. Karen Black displays Marian’s slow transformation quite well. Oliver Reed is so great at playing despicable characters that you go in expecting Ben to be the one whom the house bends to its will. That is why it’s so wonderfully surprising when he ends up as the one trying desperately to get his family out of this situation. Bette Davis is such a legendary talent that there’s no way for me to say anything about her that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over. She proves that once again as the well-meaning, vulnerable Elizabeth.

That “Burnt Offerings” isn’t as iconic as other, similar movies is a shame, though understandable at the same time. There’s no Stanley Kubrick to turn every shot into a moving work of art as in “The Shining.” There’s also no Lalo Schifrin or Jerry Goldsmith to deliver a memorably eerie score as in “The Amityville Horror” or “Poltergeist,” although Bob Cobert does a fine job. I’m not the greatest fan of haunted house movies, but even I recognize that “Burnt Offerings” is among the best of its kind. I would hate for anyone to pass on it simply because it is “too old,” too familiar, or less popular.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Well done!!!

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