Burnt Offerings Blu-ray Review: Not the Average Haunted House Movie

Burnt Offerings (1976) starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith may well be director Dan Curtis’ masterpiece. It’s atmospheric, spooky, and provides a different take on the gothic haunted house movie. 

Buy Burnt Offerings Blu-ray

The Rolf family, father Ben (Reed), mother Marian (Black), son David (Lee Montgomery), and Aunt Elizabeth (Davis), move into a grand, old mansion located far from the city surrounded by trees and nature. They rent the place for the summer from the Allardyce family: odd, elderly siblings Roz (Eileen Heckart) and Arnold (Meredith) and an ancient mother we don’t ever see. The place is more than they imagined but it’s a steal at only $900 for the whole summer. The catch is that the Rolfs must look after mommy Allardyce who never leaves her third floor apartment-like living quarters. Ben’s a bit concerned but Marian assures him she’ll handle the care of the elder Allardyce. Things get spooky the day they arrive to settle in and get cozy. 

As they roam the house for the first time, they notice that things need some TLC. Some wallpaper is torn, the furniture needs polishing, the clocks don’t work, and all the flowers and plants are long dead. As the Allardyce home gets some attention, the house itself begins to come back to life: the flowers begin to suddenly bloom and the place becomes less gloomy. As the house spruces itself up, the Rolfs slowly deteriorate mentally, physically, and emotionally. Marian becomes distant from her family as her sole concern is the house and caring for the mysterious old woman upstairs.  

The more mentally distraught the family becomes the more the house regenerates as if slowly consuming them and one stormy night it even sheds its old paint and panels. Ben has had enough after he’s driven to attack his own son, the death of his beloved Aunt Elizabeth and the return of a recurring nightmare with a creepy hearse driver (Anthony James) from his past. Ben tries to flee but the house won’t let him as the trees and brush keep him from leaving until finally a defeated, semi-comatose Ben returns to accept his fate inside the house. Will the Rolfs be able to get away and live another day? Will the Allardyce’s children return for mumsy? Or will the house ingest them and absorb their souls adding them to the list of past burnt offerings?

Burnt Offerings isn’t the average haunted house movie, cluttered with the standard tropes of creaking hinges, moaning ghosts, and a disturbing backstory that possesses the place itself, leading it to kill its occupants. The movie is indeed atmospheric and haunting but without turning to those old tricks. What makes it stand out is that this house eats its inhabitants. Not in that Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II way either. Nor does Burnt Offerings use many special effects such as orbs that ingest people. No, this bad house from Hell slowly consumes its guests so that it can thrive and live, using those poor unfortunate souls to rejuvenate itself and its direct surroundings to their full glory for all to see and be lured into, like a Venus flytrap tempting its prey. There are practical effects used here and there to heighten the terror by adding some gripping flare; take the scene where Reed tries to flee, for instance, and the end itself. 

Burnt Offerings finds director Dan Curtis at the peak of his horror phase and coming in hot off the success of the Dark Shadows TV series and the made-for-TV movie Trilogy of Terror, which also featured Karen Black taking on a possessed Zuni doll. Curtis brings his gothic, dark touch to the big screen and doesn’t disappoint. He’s taken what he learned from his TV work and adapted it perfectly to the silver screen. Building the suspense while never leaving the audience bored or uninterested. Curtis hits the perfect balance here. Each scene brings us to the twisted climax and there are many great shots along the way. Curtis has planted clues throughout that reveal what is really happening, not only to Marian but to her family, as they live out the summer of their discontent. Karen Black’s transformation to matronly house mistress is gradual and slight as her hair gains gray strands and her wardrobe gets darker and more Victorian. The pool scene has her looking completely spectral as she emerges from the darkness; truly a great scene and not just because Black dives into the pool naked. 

Oliver Reed is his moody, broody best and looks good as the father who tries to break the house’s spell over his family as he’s haunted by a specter from his past. Black shines as the sexy, scream queen that becomes seduced by the very house itself, turning a blind eye as it torments her family. Lee Montgomery as son David isn’t annoying as other children tend to be in these types of horror movies. He handles his part very well and has some very good scenes with Reed, in the pool and at the very end, as he watches the horrific effects of the house. Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart as the strange Allardyce siblings play well off each other and Dub Taylor does his usual thing in his small part as the handyman. Last, but never least, Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth shows that she still possesses her acting chops in the “horror hag” phase of her long career.

Extras include two great audio commentary tracks; one with Curtis, Black, and co- screenwriter William F. Nolan. Curtis and Black tell many amusing anecdotes about working with the cast. The second commentary is a fascinating analysis with film historian Richard Harland Smith. He compares and contrasts the novel of the  same name written by Robert Marasco and the finished product we see on screen, highlighting aspects shown in the film that play a more pronounced role in the book. He expertly weaves together how Burnt Offerings draws from the haunted house genre but goes off on its own unique strand. Smith traces the gothic haunted house story back to its roots in old horror novellas, how it branched off into the old dark house genre, and how Burnt Offerings ties to Psycho, The Evil Dead, and all those other movies with “House” in the title that feature ghosts, demonic entities, or other supernatural possession in some form. Smith also reveals how Curtis’ own daughter suffered a real-life fate that resembles that of Reed’s at the end of the picture. Both commentaries are wonderful additions to the Blu-ray release. 

The remainder of special features include two on-screen interviews. One with screenwriter Nolan and the other with Andrew James, whose interview is very good as he discusses what it’s like being the guy who has to “play his face” in most of his movies. If you don’t know who he is, Google the name and I’m sure it will click quickly. The trailer with commentary by Steve Senski from Trailers From Hell is also a fun short watch and unlisted on the packaging, which is a shame. 

Burnt Offerings had been on my must-watch list for years. I looked for it everywhere in the days of DVD stores and finally years later found it streaming online one fateful night. It became an instant favorite, as one can clearly tell. Kino Lorber has done a fantastic job with this Blu-ray release. The picture is clear and the extras are outstanding, well worth watching this 116-minute masterpiece from Dan Curtis two more times through. 

Posted in , ,

Joe Garcia III

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Search & Filter