Dan Curtis, 1976
Starring: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Lee Montgomery, Bette Davis
A small family is looking to rent an affordable home for the summer. They stumble across the Allardyce mansion, a beautiful but dilapidated Victorian-style building, which the two aged Allardyce siblings will rent to them for a very low fee. The only catch is that their very old mother will remain in the house all summer and only needs to be brought meals a few times a day. Though Ben (Reed) has a bad feeling about it, his wife Marian (Black) convinces him and they set off with their son Davey (Montgomery) and Ben's older aunt (Davis). They soon find out that the house has more than one catch. It inspires an increasingly escalated level of violence in its residents and the pain and suffering helps to restore the house to its former glory.
Based on Robert Marasco's book of the same name, Burnt Offerings was an obvious influence on later scary house films like Amityville Horror or The Shining, though it can’t quite reach the desolate, snowy heights of the latter. It’s worth seeing Burnt Offerings for the cheesy moments, but also for some of its effects, which are dated, but mostly hold up. Though there isn't a lot of gore, there are some wonderful scenes of the house restoring itself after something awful has happened.
A haunted house film with a surprising, interesting twist, I've gotten the impression that Burnt Offerings is the sort of movie you need to see first at a younger age to avoid thinking it is derivative of later haunted house films. Though I didn’t encounter it until somewhat recently, during one of my many Oliver Reed binges, this is one of Reed’s most fun horror films and often smacks of “so bad it’s good.” He full on gropes Karen Black before bed one night and has one of the most over the top man versus clump of bushes battles I’ve ever seen. The house awakens Ben’s more violent, aggressive nature, which result in some of the only truly sinister moments including the attempted drowning of his son and near rape of his wife. This is no Venom or Gor, but it’s still Oliver Reed.
The rest of the cast is also quite memorable, particularly Burgess Meredith, who is certainly at his most terrifying. Karen Black, on the other hand, is insufferable from beginning to end and I was hoping something truly dreadful would happen to her. Bette Davis, in one of her final roles, is oddly underused, but still a pleasant addition to the cast.
Though it hasn't aged very well, I recommend Burnt Offerings if you enjoy haunted house films, particularly if you're tired of the same old tropes. It's a lively example of low budget '70s horror with the slight caveat that it sometimes feels like a made-for-TV film. This should be expected, as the always enjoyable Dan Curtis is responsible for some of the greatest horror television in history: Dark Shadows and The Night Stalker, as well as the beloved Trilogy of Terror. It should come as no surprise that he would churn out an interesting horror film or two.
There's a basic DVD from MGM that includes the uncut, 116 minute running time. Yes, for some reason it's almost two hours long. Maybe one day someone will restore it, particularly the questionable sound. A documentary wouldn't be remiss either; though this version includes a commentary track with Dan Curtis, Karen Black, and the screenwriter William F. Nolan, they sound like they need a refresher course half the time.