Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis, 1976)

by Douglas Buck December 9, 2018 6 minutes (1383 words) Blu Ray chez Mitch

The city dwelling Rolf family (mom, dad and young son — the missus played by Karen Black, with opportunistic director/producer Curtis, knowing a good thing when he had it, wisely securing her again just a year after her engaging show-window quartet of performances – well, more like a trio and a half, but you’ll have to see it to know what I mean – in Curtis’ TV horror classic Trilogy of Terror) leave their cramped lifestyle and the urban hustle and bustle for a summer in a dilapidated, though still impressive 19th century mansion in the country… only to find their idyll shattered as the house reveals itself as haunted with an agenda of its own, including possessing the occupants into increasing violence, as Marian (Black) distances herself from her family, growing obsessed with tending to the infirm ‘Mrs Allardyce’, a shut-in living in total privacy in the attic who the Rolfs were tasked with taking care of and that Marian won’t let anyone else see.

Tsk, tsk – that’s what they get for ignoring all those signs — the bargain-basement rental price, the creepy and secretive aging Allardyce siblings who swing them the deal (with Eileen Heckart and that Batman-Riddlin’, Rocky-cheering, long-time party friend of Orson Welles thesp, Burgess Meredith chewing up and relishing in every bit of creepiness they can – they may only get one scene, but, man, were they determined to make it count – including a wonderful perversely cruel bit of the wheelchair-bound Meredith witnessing through the window the young Rolf boy hurting himself out in the yard… and deliberately closing the shade before his parents can see what’s happened and help) and Marian’s decidedly odd immediate succumbing to the allure of the place from the moment she’s there (while Papa Bear Reed isn’t quite as smitten, seeing a lot of work in getting the place up to speed – then again, the evil house doesn’t have it’s eyes on him).

Burgess Meredith & Eileen Heckart

Brilliant filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who only managed about one film (though usually a brilliant one) a decade during his career (the hyper-productive Curtis was obviously not operating under the same neurotic perfectionism), was known to gobble up as many films as possible in search of inspiration(s) for whatever latest obsession he was working on. While it’s quite apparent that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad was a major influence, stylistically and narratively (or lack thereof, let’s say, for anyone who has seen the enigmatic formalistic dream that is Marienbad), for Kubrick’s 1980 Stephen King best-selling haunted hotel adaption The Shining, it’s hard not to watch scenes such as the arrival of the cramped Rolfs driving through the country (oriented almost exactly as they would be in Kubrick’s film), speaking with an already apparent underlying sense of tension (and even vague hints of madness – though with the camera on Black’s side, it’s not too hard to play up the loony-ness) and the later reveal of a character’s succumbing to the will of the demonic house through the writing of the same sentence again and again (which I don’t remember if it was in the Stephen King book or not, which I read – twice – back in the late 70’s when I was in the deep throws of the King fever shared with practically the rest of the country… before familiarity – and all those shitty movie adaptions — started breeding more than a touch of contempt) and not imagine Kubrick having set his eyes upon this film during his prodigious research-phase (I mean, just the overriding atmosphere alone – that of a larger insidious presence, manifested through the portraits on the wall, unseen figures haunting the place, and the impressive set decorations – feels right on point with Kubrick’s adaption).

If anything nails home Burnt Offerings as a major influence on Kubrick, it’s gotta be the ending reveal of the (mostly) ill-fated Rolf family as new additions to the lineage of family photos on the mantel, correlating directly with the memory of the frozen to death Jack Torrance now at home within the aged ballroom photo at the end of _ The Shining_ (something not in King’s book at all).

Burnt Offerings and The Shining would play as a nice double feature, in fact, displaying how familiar material, such as that of ‘the family under siege by a demonic haunted house’ tale, while capable of being turned into something competent and well done by a quality, mostly TV (Offerings was one of his rare sojourns – or perhaps opportunities – at theatrical, and, may I point out, he deftly raised his game in terms of scale and look) multi-hyphenated creator like Curtis, can also be crafted into something cinematically transcendent under the guiding hands of a world-class master like Kubrick.

Oliver Reed & Bette Davis

Saying that, I don’t mean to put down Offerings. It’s another highly enjoyable Curtis effort (and surprisingly subtle for much of its approach – the studio must have been somewhat vexed to get such a creepy and quiet haunted house movie in 1976, a time when overt popcorn sensationalism was more and more starting to find its way into the cinema-houses).

The cast is uniformly a pleasure, especially Black and Oliver Reed, with the missus slowly being subsumed by the will of the nefarious house and the angst-ridden mister dealing with the return of haunting childhood memories as well as sudden violent urges against his own son (say what you will about the drunken exploits of the loutish late Reed, he always came to play, and in Offerings manages to create a legitimate chemistry with Black, and even the boy, which is a big part of the success of the film). While cranky, crazy-voiced nutter Bette Davis (who was only 68, but years of hard Hollywood living had her looking 80) initially seems like a throw-in (it still blows my mind that there was a time that way-past-their-prime stars of yesteryear were actually considered worthwhile box office draws – before the consumer movement towards celebrating youth culture above all things killed any further thought of that), her agonizing demise is particularly effective and adds to the wallowing creep-factor of the film.

Yes, there’s a lot of those character decisions that leave you scratching your head in disbelief, such as in regards to shut-in Mrs Allardyce up in the attic who no one but Marion sees for the entire summer (until, of course, the reveal that leaves us wondering how the other characters didn’t see this coming a mile away like we did??) and why they simply didn’t leave the place after day two of weird happenings (and certainly after a week or two as the place slowly begins to inexplicably regenerate!), but the movie (and cast) manage to overcome these (what could be nagging) script logic problems through the establishing of an effectively unsettling atmosphere and enough of a nightmarish perspective (though perhaps overdoing the diffused lighting a bit) to allow at least the consideration of all of this happening in some kind of insular nightmarish world where escape is impossible.

The last twenty minutes or so of the film, descending into desperate action as Ben (Reed) and his son try and escape through a dangerous driving rainstorm only to find themselves travelling in a constant circle back (yes, we’ve seen it before – but the reason we have is because it works!), and then a deliciously tension-filled moment of seeming escape (as if we don’t know better), to the shockingly sudden intense violence (with the son facing so much trauma, infamous Italian extreme horror master Lucio Fulci would have been proud), all leading to that sublime shot of a transformed Marian (an image that Kubrick didn’t lift for The Shining – perhaps because he wisely realized he couldn’t improve on it), brings it all to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion (so satisfying in fact, it helps obfuscate the questionable decision-making).

Karen Black

Four Curtis efforts revisited… and not a mediocre one in the bunch! Too bad he didn’t live long enough to get the Lifetime Achievement Award at some prestigious horror film festival that he so richly deserved. Well, at least there’s more work by the man to pull off my movie shelves and revisit.

Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis, 1976)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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