Writer Ben Rolfe (Oliver Reed, The Devils), his wife Marian (Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces), their young son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery, Ben) and Ben’s aunt (Bette Davis) rent a Victorian house for the summer at an unbelievably low price. The family soon finds out that “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
Reaction & Thoughts:
“This house will be here long, long after you have departed.”
A few years before The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980) and Poltergeist (1982) appeared in cinemas, the creator of the classic TV soap opera Dark Shadows Dan Curtis, co-wrote, produced and directed this horror cornucopia about a family confronted with strange occurrences in an eerie mansion. Although not as well known as the aforementioned movies, Burnt Offerings is a solid supernatural thriller.
The film’s title, Burnt Offerings (it refers to a sacrifice offered to a superior being), provides a hint of what’s going on without completely giving away the final surprise. Based on horror writer Robert Marasco’s novel of the same name, it should be noted that Burnt Offerings shares many similarities with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (as a matter of fact, both movies have almost identical endings).
Needless to say, Dan Curtis’s Burnt Offerings isn’t as artsy as Kubrick’s controversial adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling book. I thought, however, that despite using more conventional cinematic techniques, Dan Curtis successfully mixed thrills with a host of complex issues — the film explores themes of loss, grief, emotional emptiness in marriage and the repercussions of pent-up anger.
In essence, there are two stories running simultaneously: You have the supernatural stuff on one side, and the deterioration of the family on the other side. As the story progresses, the two lanes become one. Burnt Offerings purposely blurs the line between the otherworldly and the real, thus you are never completely sure how much the family’s odd behavior can be attributed to the house.
Burnt Offerings is as much about an unearthly house as it is about interpersonal family dynamics. What’s interesting is that that house doesn’t change the family as much as it exposes their false sense of contentment. The writer’s traumatic childhood, the wife’s sense of being unfulfilled, the aunt’s age-related insecurities, etc., all these problems are exposed as the family spends more time in the isolated house.
Allegedly, the three main actors — Karen Black (star of Dan Curtis’s classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror), Oliver Reed and Bette Davis — didn’t get along. Can animosity among actors affect the quality of a movie? Maybe. Maybe not. All I can say is that I just saw some of my favorite actors working together in total unison. Reed is deliciously moody and brooding, and Black’s kooky persona works great for the role of the wife/mother. Davis’s role is rather small, but she makes the most of her very last scenes.
Veterans Burgess Meredith (Rocky) and Eileen Heckart (Butterflies are Free) appear in the beginning as the pair of siblings who own the creepy house — Meredith and Heckart give delightfully eccentric performances! Wonderful character actor Dub Taylor (The Wild Bunch) plays a trashy handyman. Another fine character actor, Anthony James (In the Heat of the Night), has a fun cameo as a spooky hearse driver.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
There are haunted house movies, and there are movies about houses that haunt people. That’s a small but important distinction. Burt Offerings belongs to the latter group. Granted, this isn’t the best of its kind, but I ended up liking the movie more than I expected. It’s a slow burner, but I was never bored. Above all, I found very interesting the similarities between Burt Offerings and The Shining. I definitely recommend it to people who enjoy old-fashioned thrills. Color, 116 minutes, Rated PG.