Written by: Robert Marasco (novel), William Nolan & Dan Curtis (screenplay)
Directed by: Dan Curtis
Starring: Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Burgess Meredith
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThe house takes care of itself. "
As I watched Burnt Offerings, I wondered if this was the same movie I recalled enjoying years ago; in the years hence, I certainly had fond memories and even recommended it as a good haunted house movie, but I was wondering if my mind didnít play tricks on me during this revisit. Most of it, anyway--as it turns out, Burnt Offerings is a sum thatís better than its parts, a movie that works on you slowly and eventually comes down to one big jolt thatís presaged by a sequence of smaller ones. This is old-fashioned, pot-boiler haunted house stuff, and, while you can make the case that Burnt Offerings is a little bit too much of a slow burn, Dan Curtisís quaint, small-scale horrors made a good leap to the big screen.
When the Rolf family decides to take a sojourn to the California countryside, they stumble upon a giant mansion thatís a little too good to be true. Put on the market by a pair of siblings (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart), the home is enormous and perfect for the familyÖand it only costs $900 for the entire summer. Both Marian (Karen Black) and Ben (Oliver Reed) balk at the price tag and assume it comes with a catch. Remarkably, the siblings are actually up front here: there is a catch, and it involves their bed-ridden mother who lives upstairs and will need to be cared for by the family if they decide to stay there.
Theyíre a little more reticent went it comes to the other catch, of course: that the house is inhabited by some seriously bad vibes that start to drive everyone nuts. The movie turns the typical haunted house stuff inside out in the sense that the external forces are muted--there are no visible ghosts or demons that haunt the house. Instead, all of the tension comes from within the characters, whose buried angst gets slowly dug up--Ben especially is haunted by both a traumatic childhood event and his adult frustrations that have bled into his marriage with Marian. Theirs is now a cold, loveless, and sexually barren marriage, and one of the filmís more bizarre and unsettling scenes involves him trying to impose his will. Between this and his violent outbursts towards his son, the film simmers with 70s anxieties over familial instability; itís not enough that this family is under siege from a malevolent force, but they also turn against each other in a series of events that anticipates The Amityville Horror.
Burnt Offerings is unduly draped in older furnishings, though. Itís easy to imagine this sort of film being produced two or three decades earlier, so reliant is it on mood, atmosphere, and dread tension. Curtis methodically parcels out the sparse scares and escalates them accordingly, both through weird events and the charactersí increasingly erratic behavior. And all the while, the Allardcyes matriarch rests upstairs--never seen, never heard, but always felt. Sheís the insidious menace that literally hangs over Burnt Offerings, and the film never gets more old fashioned than this. We make it about as far as her doorstep; beyond that, her presence is especially felt in Blackís performance, which, like the rest of the film, is appropriately subdued. Hysterics arenít in abundance here--if Burnt Offerings had an EKG chart, itíd have a steady pulse that would occasionally spike whenever something actually happens.
Really, it feels just like a Dan Curtis television show thatís made the leap to the big screen, albeit with a hazily shot widescreen makeover. The soft-focus lensing captures an oddly surreal and dream-like feeling that allows the film to subtly creep up on you. Usually likening something to a big-screen TV movie is a bit of knock, but it doesnít hamstring Burnt Offerings too much; it could probably benefit from a bit more style and energy (not to mention some trimming), but itís well-furnished with a fantastic set design (this gothic abode deserves to be haunted) and a fine set of actors. Reed matches up with Black unexpectedly well; he, too, begins to lose his mind, allowing him to tap into the frightened hysteria that defined some of his turns for Hammer a decade earlier. Also in tow is Bette Davis as Benís elderly aunt, who also manages to stay low-key and completely empathetic, a stark contrast to her more broad, psycho-biddy roles. Likewise, Burgess Meredith makes the most of his limited screen-time by creepily setting the stage as he sells off the house for the summer.
Burnt Offerings also subtly acts like a much dowdier precursor to The Shining, a similarly baroque haunted house movie that slowly imposes its will. Curtisís film doesnít forcefully hypnotize in with the same bravura style or visual depth, nor do its performances resonate as deeply, but the mechanisms are sort of similar. The stuffiness and bloat here prevent Burnt Offerings from being anything truly classic, but, armed with the cool central concept and a terrific cast, it does offer its fair share of understated scares that pay off with a punctual, jarring climax and eerie denouement. Released earlier in the decade by MGM, the lone DVD for the film features an audio commentary with Curtis, Black, and screenwriter William F. Nolan, plus a theatrical trailer. The presentation is fine--there are a fair share of halos and some other artifacts, and the mono soundtrack is sometimes a little too muffled, but itís passable. Burnt Offerings will test your patience, but its fine performances, spooky imagery, and fantastic score add up to one of the more memorable entries in the Curtis canon. Buy it!
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