Retro Reviews: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Quite possibly one of the more underrated horror films of the seventies,”Burnt Offerings” (1976) would have most likely fared better, if it had more regular horror trappings. But “Burnt Offerings” is haunting- have no doubt about it.

Retro Reviews: Burnt Offerings (1976)

“Burnt Offerings” (1976)

I remember, at the time I saw it, having some questions at the end of the film and I admit it took me awhile to totally grasp the entirety of what happened. But when I did, it all made complete sense. It’s a slow-cooker of a horror film, but the dread and chill factor, along with a stellar cast, are so terrific, it makes it one of the more memorable ones I’ve ever watched.

Directed by Dan Curtis, of the gothic TV series, “Dark Shadows” and adapted from a relatively unknown novel by Robert Marasco, the first impression is that this horror film could have made more of a splash at the time. But perhaps, it is precisely the simplicity and subtlety that makes it good.

It was different enough to have become a cult classic due to its superb performances and its narrower appeal. It was the kind of horror film that stays with you as you ponder what you just viewed. What really happened at the initially ambiguous end with the lead man (that wonderful actor- Oliver Reed)? What really happened to his wife? Sorry, no spoilers here!

The storyline follows a fresh-looking couple-the aforementioned, Oliver Reed (Ben Rolf) and the memorable Karen Black (Marian Rolf) with their young son Davey (Lee R. Montgomery), along with Ben’s elderly aunt, (Bette Davis). They all drive into the California countryside to rent a sprawling, somewhat shabby, neo-classic style house for the summer. (The house is actually the real life Dunsmuir House in Oakland California.) But then, what ensues, of course, is the stuff of nightmares and so horrifically more than we or the Rolf family could have ever bargained for.

They end up renting the mansion from two very strange people with an even stranger stipulation for the unsuspecting Rolf family: Mrs. Allardyce- the two stranger’s (Burgess Merideth and Eileen Heckhart) mother- is not going to leave. She will be staying in her room on the top floor while the Rolfs live there. (No wonder the rent is so low!)

The Allardyce’s explain to the Rolf’s that their mother is fiercely private and must not be bothered. All her meals must be prepared and then left outside her door. Marian agrees happily and so the fun begins.

To prevent any spoilers, lets suffice it to say that Marian slowly- and I do mean slowly- begins to become obsessed with the house and all its trappings and even begins to dress in the style of the era in which the house was built. The house itself is eery- seemingly drawing its energy and life force from its inhabitants.

However, back to the storyline: Strange things start happening to the people of the house and we are taken on a frightful, unsettling journey of the Rolf’s summer vacation. Keep your eye out for a disturbing hearse driver (played by Anthony James of the “Unforgiven”) who begins to show up in Ben’s thoughts/dreams. My personal recall of his grinning face became the source of many unsettling flashback memories for years to come.

The horror creeps up on the viewer as we witness the methodical, painstaking effect the house has on its new occupants, especially Ben’s wife, Marian. We soon become tense each time, Marian brings the old woman (?) her meals. Allow me to interject at this point that I am a huge Karen Black fan and always have been. Her unique and strange beauty and the odd, off-kilter gaze from those mysterious and beautiful eyes, make her a perfect candidate for a horror actor. (Which indeed she was at the height of her career).

At the time, the film had mixed reviews. Its negative reception was mainly based on the slow-pace of the film. There were few “jump-out-of-your-seat” moments as in typical horror shows or special effects. The scare factor relied on the atmosphere, superb acting and Davis Curtis’ patient directing. For these reasons “Burnt Offerings” did not appeal to the bulk of horror buffs who wanted more action, gore and instant fright. And yet, for the same reasons, it did appeal to a narrower group of fans, serving as a psychological horror film. The slow culmination of events and eery atmosphere succeed in bringing us to a state of palpable dread, especially in the final scenes. The events are indeed horrific and have a chilling effect on the viewer.

And as movie critic Rovi Donald Guarisco said, of “Burnt Offerings” (1976)– its “worthy of rediscovery by the horror fans who missed it the first time”. The story does what a good horror film should, albeit in a quieter way. I give it a 7/10.

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    • Lin Jenkinson

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