Burnt Offerings


Year: 1976
Director: Dan Curtis
Music: Bob (Robert) Cobert
Starring: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor, Anthony James

Oh yes, and this house will be here long, long after you have departed. You’ll believe me.

I wasn’t able to catch Burnt Offerings when it was first in the theatres, my first screening of it came many years later on a local television station’s Saturday midnight horror show. It was the perfect place to catch this movie to be honest as I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps it was intended to be a television movie of the week. Considering that its director and Composer were both introducing television audiences to the great Carl Kolchak just four years earlier and it had been only one year before they made the campy classic TV movie, Trilogy of Terror, I just feel like someone in the studio saw some dailies and thought it might make for a profitable feature film so they added a bit of language, a little nudity, and some scenes that would be considered too disturbing for television at that time.

The movie opens with the Rolf family traveling from the city to answer an ad they read in the paper for Summer caretakers for an aging dilapidated mansion in the California countryside. Upon first sight of the once glorious home, Marian (Karen Black) falls in love with it. Her husband, Ben (Oliver Reed), takes it all in stride warning her and their son, Davey (Lee H. Montogmery) of things sometimes being too good to be true and they shouldn’t get their hopes up. Something this large and still beautiful will surely be too expensive. Upon arriving at the front door they are greeted by the jovial Mr. Walker (Dub Taylor) who introduces himself as the handyman for the home…with the peeling paint, weather stained boards, and overgrown weeds you have to wonder how he keeps his job. The family looks about the house a little with Marian seeming to take the withered and decayed flowers in the greenhouse almost personally.

Davey quickly becomes bored and with Ben’s permission goes outside to play in the garden while his mother and father finally meet the elderly owners of the home. Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart) explains to the couple that their task as caretakers would start on July 1st and last until Labor Day but only if the family is right for the home. Roz has a tendency to speak about their home as if it was a relative but is delighted to hear that if they took over the job they would also bring Ben’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) to stay with them. Ben is still hesitant about the price of the rental and trying to take care of the property with just Marian to help out, but Roz interrupts with, “The house takes care of itself, Mr. Rolf.” She also adds that it would only be $900 for the entire Summer. Marian is ready to sign on the spot but Ben stays adamant that they need to think it over and during their conversations he comes across as being a little rude to Roz. We are introduced to Roz’s brother, Arnold Allardyce (Burgess Meredith), who suffers from an unknown disability that keeps him in a wheelchair and upon meeting the couple explains that he and his sister need to get away for a vacation for some much needed rest and relaxation. During their conversation Arnold watches in fascination out the window as Davey climbs up a rotting Gazebo, smiling even as the young boy falls and clearly hurts his knee, when Ben asks if its okay that his son is playing outside and makes to perhaps call to him from the window, Arnold quickly assures him the boy is quite all right and blocks his path as he and his sister speak of the beauty of their home in the Summertime.
Ben is still not sold on it all and ask what the catch might be since it does indeed sound too good to be true. Arnold and Roz inform them that they would also be taking care of their elderly mother, “An 85 year old woman who could pass for 60.”, who never, ever leaves her room in the attic. They make a point to assure the couple that she would be no concern, they just need to make sure to bring her a tray three times a day and to leave it outside her door.

Ben asks if they might think on it and Marian becomes quite upset but they are interrupted by Davey who comes in with one of his pant legs torn and his knee bleeding from the fall. As Ben and Marian with Roz’s help take the boy into the kitchen to clean the wound and bandage it, we see Mr. Walker enter with one of the dead plants and after being questioned admits he was going to throw it away, Arnold very sternly asks him to look again at the plant. There is a small sprout of green poking out of the dirt now.

We next see Ben and Marian in bed at their city home having a light argument about the Allardyce’s and their home. Ben is worried about what might happen if Mother Allardyce would up and die while they are there but Marian promises she would be responsible for the elderly woman and seeing how much she wants to take care of the place he relents. The next scene introduces Aunt Elizabeth as the whole family is now traveling to their Summer home and the horror that awaits them.

Hopefully that bit of intro will have you at least intrigued enough to put the movie on your Netflix queue or pick it up if you find it in the bargain bins at your local Best Buy. I will do my best to avoid any true spoilers but within the first ten minutes of the movie you’ll realize that with any injury or worse the house begins to rejuvenate itself.

It’s a haunted house film but there are no ghosts…well, perhaps there is one ghost in the movie after all. Anthony James plays a creepy chauffeur who Ben met as a young boy at his mother’s funeral and we are told and shown in a few parts of the film that he used to have nightmares about the guy. During one scene it seems as if another character also sees the chauffeur as he appears in the house while rolling a coffin! Perhaps the house is just playing off of Ben’s fears and makes them visible in this instance?

Everyone does a fine job of acting though I personally think the two actors who really shine are Oliver Reed and Bette Davis. Reed’s portrayal of Ben somehow manages to make you feel for him even in one part of the movie where the house makes Ben start to harm his son. Bette Davis gives us a very nice performance as the energetic and humorous Aunt Elizabeth, displaying her well known acting talents, making her very sympathetic as the house begins to wear on her.

There are unfortunately a few moments in the movie where the film comes to a shuddering halt in the suspense department and is replaced by what should be character building moments but left me confused as to why they were acting so strangely. Perhaps everything that stands out as being unclear can be chalked up to the house’s malevolent influence on the Rolf family but I feel that there are some possibly important scenes left on the cutting room floor.

Never the less the movie is still enjoyable and worthy of an October viewing, I give Burnt Offerings 3.5 pumpkins out of 5.

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Editor at Retroist
Searching through the alleys for useful knowledge in the city of Nostalgia. Huge cinema fanatic and sometimes carrier of the flame for the weirding ways of 80s gaming, toys, and television. When his wife lets him he is quite happy sitting in the corner eating buckets of beef jerky.

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