(Release Date: October 18, 1976)
(Premiere Date: August 25, 1976)
Talk about missed opportunities! You get the idea, though. It's actually pretty hard to NOT take Oliver Reed seriously, especially after his hard-as-nails roles in films like Oliver!, Tommy and even Gladiator! This makes his taking of the role of a laid back, loving suburban dad in the horror film Burnt Offerings all the more interesting! While Reed has the acting chops to pull off such a role (and do it convincingly), he's still got that serious intensity just boiling below the surface. This fits his charactr of Ben Rolf perfectly because as the story unfolds just such a quality is required to make the film work. Rolf and his wife Marian (Karen Black) and their son Davy (Lee H. Montgomery) are rolling out to the country, looking for an appropriate summer rental for the best summer vacation of their lives.
They find it in a huge mansion that seems to be far-too-obviously out of their price range. However, the old lady who wants to rent it to them (Eileen Heckart's Roz Allardyce) quotes them a ridiculously low lease for the entire summer. When "Benji" asks what the catch is, Roz' brother Arnold (Burgess Meredith) assures them that there isn't one. Except for the fact that their shut-in mother plans to remain shut-in over the summer, even while strangers are living there. Interesting choice for senior care, I'd say.
This hardly bothers the Rolfs in any deep way (aside from thinking it rather strange) because they're bringing their own feisty septegenarian along in the form of Ben's Aunt Elizabeth (who has Bette Davis eyes)!
Yep, it's a great, great deal and it's going to be one incredible summer! Well, except for the fact that the Allardyces didn't happen to mention the fact that the place is a Haunted House (or something very nearly like it) and the reason that it doesn't cost an arm and a leg is that it just might cost you... YOUR SOUL! Ha ha ha ha ha!
Hmmm. Okay, so we've got a family staying in and taking care of a lavish luxury living space over a vacation and they bring along their only son who has his own special mannerisms. The old place turns out to be haunted and the dad in the family starts to get colder and more intense while the mom starts to go just a little bit insane. Meanwhile the plants outside come to life and the audience and characters alike start to realize that while the house may indeed be haunted... it could very well be that the building itself is bad to the brass tacks! The house even has its own quirky handyman in the person of Dub Taylor's Walker!
Does that sound a little tiny bit like The Shining to you? It might, pilgrims, it might, but take a gander at the calendar before you start crying plagiarism on Burnt Offerings. You see, King's excellent haunted hotel novel wasn't released until 1977, the year after this film was released and the famous Kubrick adaptation wouldn't be released wouldn't be released for another three years after the novel. Further, the similarities are far from coincidental as screenwriters William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis (who also directed) based their screenplay on the 1973 novel Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco, a book that was said to have been one of the literary influences on King's The Shining!
This, folks, is only one of the many, many ripples that have eminated from Burnt Offerings, a book and movie that have influenced a number of haunted house stories going forward.
But back in the clausterphobic plot itself, not much time has to pass before strange things start to happen to this little family. Marian begins to become the sole caretaker of the unseen Mrs. Allardyce to the point that she is positively territorial about it (the two little old ladies in the house never even get to play bridge, by crackey!). Speaking of Aunt Elizabeth, the usually sharp and witty woman begins to lose just a bit of her wits, questioning herself and clashing with the family where usually she would have meshed perfectly. Meanwhile Davey starts to see strange things and increasingly finds himself in more danger. Some of that danger involves Davy's own dad, as Benji receives the brunt of the most noticeable affects of the house at first. From ordinary swimming pool roughhousing that becomes a bit too rough in the shadow of the house to petrifying hallucinations of a malevolent Hearse Chauffeur (wickedly played by Anthony James and his cold smile), Ben is definitely falling apart in ways that not even the Lutz family themselves could match.
The thing is, while all of these things might be odd and uncomfortable, none of them, at first, seem to be supernatural in nature. There is that valid complaint that I like to call the "FOR GOD'S SAKE GET OUT" factor, dealing with the oblivious family that stays in a haunted abode when any logical person would run the other way like Beep Beep the Roadrunner from Wile E. Coyote! However, Burnt Offerings doesn't greet its guests or viewers with spinning crucifixes or telikinetic furniture volleying sessions or even loudly whispered warnings. No, the weirdness in Burnt Offerings doesn't immediately seem to be related to the house (any more than staying in a strange place requires some adjustment anyway). Yes, the goings-on may be scary, but they seem to be real-world scary until it's too late to react. Think of the Rolf Family as that proverbial frog in boiling water. By the time the temperature gets high enough, it's too damned late to jump the hell out.
This is, it would seem, because the house (or its denizens) just might have plans for the family. You see, unlike a lot of haunted houses out there, this one most assuredly does not want to be left alone!
Those plans may seem quite familiar to many audiences today, not because Burnt Offerings is derivative in any way, but because Burnt Offerings has been immitated in so very many ways. Yes, small elements may have appeared in superior works like The Shining and lesser experiments such as The Amityville Horror, but other films have borrowed entire plot elements wholesale from this tale to the point that the rich originality Burnt Offerings must have enjoyed in 1976 is somewhat dulled all these decades later. However, the skilled direction of Dan Curtis and the talented cast help make this film still feel fresh regardless of how many immitators you've seen over the years.
There really is no other film quite like Burnt Offerings and though it shows its age and a few flaws a time or two, make no mistake, the film is still of very high quality and of deep horror. This isn't your standard, ridiculous blood-and-guts piece that confuses startles and discomfort with pain for Horror and Terror. No, Burnt Offerings knows how to scare you and when. When the actors believe it the audience most certainly does. Montgomery goes from being a standard, happy-go-lucky kid to a terrified victim, Black tries on as many moods as she does outfits and Reed seems to have a perfect balance between when to show his hard, cold side, when to seem like your friendly sitcom dad and when to actually break down out of sheer terror. Bette Davis is likewise excellent in her devolution from the sweet, charming old aunt to someone who really does look like she's seen a ghost. Speaking of which, I can't help but notice how much Anthony James would look like a cobra if his smile had more warmth. Holy hell!
Four Stars out of Five the brilliant and oft-pilfered Burnt Offerings! This is no B-Movie, no cliched ride through the unhallowed halls of mediocrity and its not your standard "Rich Guy Dares You To Spend The Night In A Haunted House" style flick! Burnt Offerings is a great film and a classic of the genre. "Genre!" That's kind of a funny word. What would Oliver Reed sound like saying that? "Hamster!" now there's a funny word! Maybe we can splice together some recording of him saying something like "I wish Scooby-Doo would meet Ender Wiggin on planet Squiddlynoof only to find that Daphne has a cranny in her panties because a Hamster gnawed them while still in her portmanteau! Then we could hear Fred, Velma and Shaggy jam on their Octocontrabass Clarinet, Sackbutt and Shakuhachi, respectively, creating a plethora of Polka causing everyone to dance the Nutbush!"
Now that would sound serious, important and intense! As would "See you in the next reel!"
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