CAPSULE: BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Curtis

FEATURING: , Oliver Reed, Lee Montgomery,

PLOT: A family of three, and their elderly aunt, find a deal allowing them to stay in an old country mansion for the summer, providing they keep the place up and leave out a plate of food for the house’s reclusive matron, who never leaves her room.

Still from Burnt Offerings (1976)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too mild, with some slight ambiguity but no significant weirdness.

COMMENTS: Burnt Offerings was the beginning of a late 1970s/early 1980s haunted house cycle that encompassed three Amityville Horror movies; the mini-movement climaxed commercially with 1982’s Poltergeist and artistically with 1980’s The Shining. In fact, Offerings is most interesting when considered as a precursor to The Shining, which would take its theme of a parent possessed by an evil spirit and catapult it into the horror stratosphere. Offerings, on the other hand, suffers from poor pacing. It’s too leisurely getting started: it’s over a half hour into the film before we see the first incident which might be categorized as “supernatural.” Up until then, the focusing on spooky shots of light bulbs while horror movie music plays just doesn’t cut it. Even when things do finally start to happen—swimming pool roughhousing that gets dangerously out of hand, a recurring nightmare about a smiling chauffeur—events occur in fits and starts, with husband and wife spending the interim discussing how each previous manifestation of evil is affecting their relationship. Offering a few creepy moments along the way, the movie crawls to a non-surprise ending.

The film’s biggest virtue is its cast. Karen Black, by now no longer a sex kitten but not yet a matron, centers the film. Her sensuality is perfectly constrained, and we are not surprised at hints that the couple’s sex life may be well past the honeymoon phase. Son Lee Montgomery is acceptable; he doesn’t sink the film, which is the most you can really hope from a young actor. Bette Davis is unremarkable here, but she is Bette Davis; her very presence adds legitimacy. Of all the actors, Reed may understand the material’s urge vto break through into camp the best; the moments when his face goes spastic as he fights off the evil inside him give it the film some melodramatic tics of life.

Burnt Offerings was based on a 1973 novel by Robert Marasco, although director Dan Curtis (of TVs “Dark Shadows” fame) rewrote it significantly. The movie was not a critical success, but it has a small but devoted fan base (probably enough to categorize it as “fondly remembered,” but below the threshold that would make it a true cult movie). The 2015 Blu-ray contains a number of new interviews with the surviving cast and adds a new commentary track from critic Richard Harland Smith to the old one from Curtis, Black and co-writer William F. Nolan that has been ported over from the DVD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Most of the cliches of the Gothic genre are encompassed in the plot about Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and young Lee H. Montgomery having a weird summer after moving into a home owned by batty Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart… might have been interesting if director Dan Curtis hadn’t relied strictly on formula treatment.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “sunspotbaby.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)”

  1. A good corollary to BURNT OFFERINGS is the adaptation of Morasco’s play, CHILD’S PLAY (not to be confused with the Tom Holland film), filmed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges about strange goings on at a Catholic Boys school… Olive Films released it to disc last year.

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