Ben Rolf and his wife Marian and their 12 year old son Davey travels to a remote mansion because they’d like to rent it for the summer. Greeted by the home’s owners, the elderly siblings Arnold and Rosalyn Allardyce, they quickly realize that these old geezers are more than just a little eccentric, bordering on being outright cuckoo with a weirdly strong attachment to their home. Which makes it kind of strange that they’d like to rent it out in the first place. And the price is quite the bargain too: $900 for the entire summer. It comes with one odd requirement though: there’s an old lady in the upstairs room, which the family must promise to deliver meals to during their stay for the summer. They’re told that this old lady wants privacy and most likely won’t be seen, and that they should just leave the meals outside her locked bedroom. Nothing fishy about that, right? While having a few second thoughts, the family still decides to rent the wonderful house, and along with them they bring Ben’s elderly aunt Elizabeth. When they arrive back at the house, the siblings have already left the place, having left a note at the door. And while all seems like the setup for a wonderful time, the house appears to make some of them behave rather oddly. Marian becomes obsessed with cleaning and caring for the house, and making sure that the elderly woman upstairs is being fed. Despite never actually seeing her, or even hearing a word from her. She distances herself more and more from the family, while Ben starts being haunted by the visions of the creepy hearse driver he once saw at his mother’s funeral when he was a child. And he starts behaving aggressive, especially towards his own son. What was first thought to be a wonderful summer holiday at a beautiful house, soon turns out to be a nightmare…
Burnt Offerings is a horror film from 1976, directed by Dan Curtis and based on the book by the same name which was written by Robert Marasco. The filming took place in 1975, in the historic Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California. This film was the first to be shot at this location, and many horror fans will probably recognize the house as it was used in the horror film Phantasm some years later. Several movies have been filmed there, and the latest being Delirium from 2018. Dan Curtis mentioned that there were no sets built for this film, and everything was filmed entirely on location. Something that feels oddly refreshing to watch these days…
The film is a typical old-fashioned haunted house movie, with a very slow build-up and devoid of jumpscares. You feel something is off from the very start without having anything specific to pin it on, there are no obvious ghosts or ghoulies which terrorize the family, so you’re not really sure what is happening to them. The film is very much about mood and atmosphere, with a beautiful old-fashioned home providing the perfect environment for such a setting. Despite being your typical slowburner, it constantly throws things at you which keeps you constantly on edge and wondering what’s going to happen next. Especially unsettling is watching how Marian keeps distancing herself entirely from her own family, only caring for the house and becomes obsessed with keeping it clean and in order, and staying outside the old lady’s room upstairs while watching an array of old photographs and playing the melancholic tune of the music box on the table there.
The family characters, although somewhat generic, fits their role pretty well as the ordinary middle-class family, and the siblings we meet at the start of the movie (played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) were perfectly eerie-kooky. While the film portrays a somewhat strained relationship between the wife Marian (Karen Black) and the elderly aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), it’s worth noting that there may have been more than just acting between those two. According to Bette Davis, these two had conflicts during the shoot and she thought Karen’s behaviour was disrespectful and unprofessional. However, Bette also expressed a disdain for Oliver Reed (who played Ben), and referred to him as “possibly one of the most loathesome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting”. I’m going to suppose the atmosphere in that house wasn’t all chipper in real life either…
This movie isn’t particularly well known, despite horror authors Stephen King and Bentley Little having both acknowledged that it influenced their writing, and Stephen King was apparently inspired by both the book and the movie when writing The Shining. I’m also thinking that he probably let his son Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom King) watch the movie as well, considering how the creepy hearse driver in the movie gives off real Charles Manx-vibes (NOS4A2). This character was not included in the original novel, actually, but was based on an actual childhood experience of Dan Curtis, where he recalled as a young child being at his mother’s funeral and seeing a chauffeur laughing outside of the funeral parlor, something he found disturbing and which then stuck with him ever since. There are some other scenes in this movie as well which makes me wonder if several other horror films have taken inspiration from it, including a certain scene which will ring a bell or two for those who have seen Evil Dead.
Overall, Burnt Offerings is an interesting addition to the haunted house genre, and derives a bit from the ordinary spookhouse story. Some may find the ending a little cheesy, but it’s kind of what makes it a bit exceptional and also make the title fit very well with what’s actually going on.
Director: Dan Curtis
Writers: William F. Nolan, Dan Curtis
Country & year: US, 1976
Actors: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, Eileen Heckart, Lee Montgomery, Dub Taylor, Joseph Riley, Todd Turquand, Orin Cannon, Jim Myers, Anthony James