Burnt Offerings (1976)

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Synopsis: It seems like a dream come true when Ben (Oliver Reed) and Marian Rolf (Karen Black) are given the privilege of taking care of a beautiful old mansion owned by the eccentric Allardyce siblings (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) who are leaving for the summer. The only catch is that they must also watch over the elderly Mrs. Allardyce, but she lives in the attic and mostly keeps to herself. With the inclusion of their young son Davey (Lee Montgomery) and sassy senior Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), the Rolf family settles in for what will surely be the perfect summer vacation. But things start to go south very quickly, as Ben begins to have horrifying visions and violent mood swings, Aunt Elizabeth whithers away before their very eyes, and the creaky old house seems to be rejuvenating on its own, sucking the very life out of its caretakers.

Wanna know a secret? I love horror movies. Well, okay, I guess at this point that’s not really a secret anymore. Wanna know a real secret? For someone who loves horror movies, I am very easily frightened by them. In fact, that’s how I got into horror movies in the first place. I was a pretty jumpy kid who would easily burst into tears at the mere mention of Freddy Krueger, Chucky, or The Exorcist. But one day, around age nine, I decided that if I ever wanted to conquer my fear of scary movies, I’d have to start by watching one. So, I sat down and watched Stephen King’s It (1990, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace) — all three hours of it. I was terrified the whole way through, but I made it safely to the other side – and all alone, no less. I felt invigorated by my new-found power over my fear, and soon began to crave horror. One by one, I beat Freddy Krueger (he’s kind of like a lovable uncle now, isn’t he?), Chucky, and finally The Exorcist, which I didn’t actually see until college. That one still gets to me – I’ve seen it once, so I never need to watch it again, and I still can’t really handle seeing pictures of Linda Blair in full demonic-possession makeup. But even if I enjoy horror movies now, in some ways I’m even more sensitive as an adult than I was as a child, especially when it comes to things like gore and extreme violence. This is why I like to mostly focus on classic horror – because, as silly as the Motion Picture Production Code was, I rely on it to keep me safe. I have no need to fear upsetting images of sex and blood, because if it was made before 1968, I know Will Hays is watching over me and will be there to protect me from the harshest realities (or most gruesome fantasies) of life.

I don’t get it! What the hell is so terrifying about Peter Cook?!?

But Burnt Offerings, directed by “Dark Shadows” series creator Dan Curtis, was made in 1976, so there’s no Production Code to protect me here. Even still, there’s very little sex and gore to be seen, which I appreciate (although there’s still just enough to make me uneasy). This film is remarkable because it’s a classic house-as-living-being-out-to-get-its-occupants horror story – but made before the two paragons of that subgenre, The Amityville Horror (1979, dir. Stuart Rosenberg) and The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick). I can and do appreciate all that, and yet, this film is still a bit too much for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good horror film – it just means I’m a big wimp.

The directing is decent, although there seems to be a… film over the film. Like soup or pudding that got left out on the counter too long and has now grown a skin over it. I’m guessing this was some sort of soft, gauzy ’70s style of cinematography or lighting, but it just made the whole thing look filthy, like somebody let a dog lick the lens. It gave me the queasies more than anything I was seeing in the film (with the exception, perhaps, of Karen Black’s freaky duckface, but I’ll not go into that, for fear of sounding too mean). There’s a sort-of subplot involving a recurring childhood nightmare/flashback coming back to haunt Ben Rolf when he begins living at the house, which I think for some people feels out of place. I guess this house drives you crazy but also has insight into your deepest fears? Nobody else in the house is affected like this except for Ben, but then again, the house does seem to affect each of its occupants in different maddening ways. Make of it what you will, but I understood what it was about and didn’t find it too distracting or confusing. Just a bit goofy.

WHOAHO that’s zany!

For me, without a question the most horrifying thing about this movie was watching Bette Davis’ character Aunt Elizabeth go from a spunky, sassy, fun-loving, young-at-heart grandma-type to a tired, wrinkled, frail old lady. I was about to describe her performance as flawless, but it’s Bette freakin’ Davis so I’m sure that goes without saying. She lets herself appear so vulnerable here that it’s really unsettling. If you ask Bette Davis to portray a decaying old lady, she will give it her all, dignity be damned. Frankly, if you’re a fan of Bette’s, it’s hard to see, because, as we all know, later on she did age and eventually die. But watching it happen hits a little too close to home if you have any sort of affection for Ms. Davis, and as impressed as I was that she’d let herself be seen like that – as a panting, haggard, crumbling skeleton of her former self – all I wanted to do was turn away. Maybe I’m being overly sentimental, but often my favorite classic film dames end up feeling like aunts or grandmothers to me, so it’s painful to watch them suffer, especially when they’re so damn convincing at it. I want my Bette Davis films to preserve her forever, and Aunt Elizabeth just got too real for me. Maybe the evocation of this kind of sadness wasn’t intentional, but the audience is definitely made to pity Aunt Elizabeth, and it’s not like they didn’t realize she was Bette Davis. It’s kind of a sad horror that I found unique and not usually utilized to the extreme that it is here.

Listen, if the pool keeps trying to kill you, maybe you should just STAY THE HELL OUT OF THE POOL.

As for all the non-Bette Davises in this film (that’s how actors break down for me in Bette Davis films – Bette Davis, and non-Bette Davis), they did okay, although I thought Oliver Reed got pretty hammy at times. There’s some camp value here that should be appreciated, but Burgess Meredith in his small cameo is the only one who really goes for it. I thought Lee Montgomery was very convincing as the little boy (well, I mean, he was a little boy at the time, you don’t need convincing of that – pssh, you know what I mean!), though I had a lot of problems with his character. Basically the poor kid gets the brunt of the violence thrust upon him, with the lovely bonus of watching both his parents go slowly insane and seeing his beloved great-aunt die. It just seemed too cruel to force a little kid to go through all of that and keep him alive for so long. He kept his spunk and wide-eyed optimism ’til the very end, the poor dear. Speaking of the ending, it’s pretty hilariously over-the-top, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with the subtle spooky atmosphere of the beginning of the film; but given how rapidly everything sort of spirals into ridiculousness, it had to crescendo somewhere, so I suppose the ending they gave it really was the only appropriate way to wrap everything up, and in a way feels strangely cathartic.

Burnt Offerings is definitely an uncomfortable film, in a way many people probably want their horror films to be. The atmosphere is unsettling in a way you won’t soon forget, although it gets just silly enough to make it not too scary. But for me it was a bit too grimy and a bit too sad in ways I did not enjoy, and though I’ve seen it several times I don’t intend to put myself through it again any time soon. I’d suggest watching it just to see Bette Davis be badass at her job, but frankly you can watch any Bette Davis movie for that. If you enjoyed (or could tolerate) the bleakness of The Shining, I think Burnt Offerings would be your cup of tea; the level of camp in the performances is about the same, although obviously the filmmaking is nowhere near up to par with Kubrick’s. A decent entry in the haunted house horror subgenre which for one reason or another isn’t remembered as a progenitor of the species, but definitely deserves a place on the shelf amongst other ’70s horror classics.

Burnt Offerings (1976) – 3/5 stars

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  1. I can’t believe you gave this three stars. It was unpleasant and predictable, and not in a fun way.

    • I have watched it before and found it fun. I think we were just not in the mood for watching it right then.

      • whatever you say

        • Well, yeah, it is whatever I say, because I’m the one giving the rating…? I can’t give an opinion other than my own, it’s the only one I’ve got.

  2. Jules

     /  October 24, 2010

    I’ve never even heard of this movie—it sounds very interesting. When you wrote about the filmy look of the movie, I knew exactly what you were talking about..so many movies of the late ’60s and especially the ’70s have this look. Is it meant to convey realism? Grittiness? I don’t know, but it’s gross and dated now.

    …Which…I guess is what just basically just said?

    • It just reminded me of how the windows of a city bus fog up when it’s raining outside and everybody inside is wet and warm and stinky. That is not something I want to be reminded of.

  3. Susan Reynolds

     /  February 8, 2014

    During a self-directed project to educate myself about classic American film I fell passionately in love with Bette Davis. I love your description of actors in Bette Davis films (non-Bette Davis), it is so true, although I do have soft spots for Mary Astor and even Joan Crawford. Many thanks for acknowledging the fearlessness of Davis as she took on (often unworthy) roles that displayed her aging, unflattering self.

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