Thursday, October 20, 2011

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Title: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Director: Dan Curtis

Cast: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith,


While watching Burnt Offerings, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities with a few horror films that came before and after it and how influential this film was in the horror world. Burnt Offerings is a horror film that was made with the intention of making a horror film that gave a lot of importance to characterization, Dan Curtis, this films director (and genre veteran) set out to make a film entirely carried by performances. I thought it was interesting how it is a supernatural thriller yet it never once uses visual effects, supernatural beings and ghosts are invisible to our eyes, but you definitely get the vibe that they are there. In this sense it reminded me of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) because we never really see a ghost or anything, the dread all comes from our imaginations and the mood set by the filmmakers and actors.

 In Burnt Offerings we meet the Rolf family, a family that’s looking forward to a beautiful summer vacation in the country. You see the Rolf’s have rented a mansion for the summer and apparently, it’s a real steal! For a mere 900$ they can have the house all to themselves for the whole summer! But of course there’s just one small catch: they have to take care of an old lady that lives alone in one of the rooms in the house. According to the owners of the house, they won’t even know she is there. All they have to do is take a tray of food up to her once a day. That’s it. And that they do. I guess they figure that for that price, and this house, taking food to an old lady really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Problem is that once they settle in, they realize that something is awfully wrong with this house. Small incidents begin to occur that start pulling the family apart. Is some evil invisible force making all these bad things happen? Why is everyone in such a dreadful mood all the time?

 So this is the kind of film in which a home is given human traits, characters talk about the house being “evil”, same way characters talked about the house in Wise’s The Haunting. In fact, same as The Haunting, characters get obsessed with the house, they want to be in it all the time, stay in it, characters get the feeling that this house is their destiny. Or is it? So the film that Burnt Offerings is most similar to is Wise’s The Haunting. It has that same ‘evil house’ vibe going for it, we never see any ghosts or evil spirits but the negative vibes let us know they are there. Sometimes it feels as if The Haunting was the blue print for every other haunted house film ever made. But Burnt Offerings isn’t built on influences alone, Burnt Offerings itself served as inspiration for films that came after it. For example, I also think that Burnt Offering’s influenced The Amityville Horror (1979) with this idea of having a haunted house destroy the family unit by having little evil incidents happen that pull them apart.

 I also caught similarities with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979). You see, in Burnt Offerings Oliver Reed’s character has these recurrent hallucinations and dreams of a hearse driving up to the house, and a mysterious, tall, skinny undertaker carrying a coffin around. Immediately I thought of the infamous ‘Tall Man’ from the Phantasm films. But the similarities don’t stop there, this film was actually filmed in the same mansion that they shot Phantasm! So on Burnt Offerings you will get these weird flashbacks of the ‘Morning Side Mortuary’ seen in Phantasm. One scene has the woods coming alive and attacking Oliver Reed same as in the Evil Dead films! So yeah, I would definitely say that Burnt Offerings was a very influential film, obviously it made quite an impression on a good deal of filmmakers.

 But is it a good horror film? Well, yeah, but only if you can take extremely slow paced movies. I myself enjoy a good slow burner, but I recognize many viewers will probably end up thinking that this movie is just too slow and that “nothing happens”. But that’s only because this is a film that focuses more on characterization than on special effects. The strength of this film lies on its cast, I mean I always considered Oliver Reed to be such a solid actor, he really adds weight to his performances, always bringing that special brand of Oliver Reed intensity to his characters. Karen Black is on this one and she was the scream queen of her day, in fact, to this day she still appears in horror films. If you guys remember, a couple of years ago she played Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s House of a 1000 Corpses (2003), so horror is in this actress’s blood! She’d worked with director Dan Curtis before in Trilogy of Terror (1975), a film that got her some big time recognition especially when we consider that she played four characters in that film! Burnt Offerings reunited her with director Dan Curtis and it was a successful reunion in my opinion, once again Mrs. Black gets the juiciest role in the film. Interesting tid bit of info: Karen Black was four months pregnant while filming Burnt Offerings. At times you can notice her belly in some shots, but most of the time they hid it with wardrobe tricks. Even curiouser: she ended up acting in Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars (1986) with the baby that was in her belly while filming Burnt Offerings! That’s right, she ended up making a horror film with her own son!  

 Another plus on this films cast is veteran actress Bette Davis who plays the grandmother. Horror fans might remember her from such horror classics as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The Nanny (1965). Burnt Offerings plays a lot with themes of being old and having to accept the fact that age is taking its toll and that time does not pass in vain. Davis has a wonderful moment where she begins to doubt her sanity and starts asking “I wouldn’t forget something like that now would I?” It made me think about how we are all going to be in that position someday, loosing our marbles, scared of the fact that death is literally knocking at our door. And speaking of death knocking at the door, the film has a wonderfully poetic moment dealing with that phrase. And another old timer that adds to the film is Burgess Meredith’s performance as ‘Brother’, one of the owners of the mysterious house. I wasn’t aware of it, but Bergess Meredith appeared as a creepy old man in a couple of horror films, last I saw him was in The Sentinel (1977), which I reviewed a couple of days ago. On Burnt Offerings he is the owner of the house, and he knows exactly what he is getting these new tenants into. A strange and eerie sort of vibe comes from his performance, quite effective.

Bette Davis (front) and Karen Black

 So, all in all, this was a creepy haunted house flick. It’s not as exciting as others I have seen, but still quite good. If you don’t go in expecting to see lot of special effects or anything and if you go in knowing that it’s a slow burner relying on characterization more than anything, you should find yourself enjoying a creepy haunted house flick. This one comes to us from director Dan Curtis a genre veteran who was responsible for many a horror flick. He was the guy behind a lot of episodes from the vampire soap opera ‘Dark Shadows’ that ran during the 70’s and a couple of successful made for television horror films like the aforementioned Trilogy of Terror and it’s sequel Trilogy of Terror II (1996). Obviously, this was a director who enjoyed the good ole horror anthology film! He directed quite a few of these in his day, another memorable one is Dead of Night (1977), which I will be reviewing soon. Curtis was the kind of director who loved old school troupes like cobwebs, giant grandfather clocks sounding off at midnight, old dark houses and stormy nights. He brought all this horror movie knowledge and love to his films, Burnt Offerings being one f them. If you like old school, slow burners with solid performances and characterizations, Burnt Offerings is the haunted house film for you. Stick all the way to the end for a shocker of an ending!

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5    

Poster in spanish. The title translates to 'Diabolical Nightmare'

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