Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Rental

A 1970s haunted house thriller sounds rather familiar and unappealing, but Dan Curtis's Burnt Offerings is a surprisingly well-aged, star-studded creeper that skillfully unites gothic horror with suburban despair.

Quick Plot: The happy enough Rolf family composed of B-movie queen Karen Black, Tommy’s singing stepfather Oliver Reed, and a not terrible child actor rent a secluded country home for the summer from the incredibly so-kind-they-must-be-evil brother sister superteam of Burgess Meredith (Twilight Zone’s most tortured bookworm) and the unsettling Eileen Heckert as the Allarydices. The only catch? Mrs. Rolf must prepare three square meals for the hermit-like Mrs. Allardyce, an unseen elderly matriarch who presumably wiles her day away polishing photographs and enjoying the pool view.

Oh yeah. And tagging along for the Rolf’s dream summer is none other than Baby Jane herself, Bette Davis, playing Reed’s peppy Aunt Elizabeth.

As you may imagine, something ain’t right inside the antique home. Flowers die and parents start to lose some gentility, beginning with a truly terrifying pool sequence of horseplay gone wrong and a few snippy scoldings from a growingly materialistic mom. Much like the soon-to-be-written The Shining, Burnt Offerings is as much about a family’s fragility as it is about haunted houses and creepy imagery. Reed and Black do an excellent job of creating 13 year old marriage with a few frays around the edge, and their growing alienation is far more disturbing than the overdramatic shots of the world's most macabrely cheerful funeral chauffeur.

High Points
The aforementioned pool scene--the first genuine sign that the house is digging into the family--creates such a horrific mood by beginning as a normal, sunny summer moment that quickly degrades into a nightmare

A haunting music box theme is used well throughout the film

I didn't notice this until Karen Black pointed it out on the commentary, but for a product of 1976, Burnt Offerings is very carefully not dated; From Black's velvety bathrobe to the house's collection of dusty antiques, this film has a gently gothic atmosphere with undated modernism mixed in by the standard family characters


The fact that it’s the near death of her child rather than the fatal diagnosis of her husband’s condition that finally snaps Mrs. Rolf out of her possession is powerful in showing where a parent’s deepest love truly lies

Once the finale gets going, it crescendos and leaves a very wrong feeling behind in the viewer

Low Points
Her mere presence is powerful and intriguing, but I feel like if you’re going to use Lady Bette Davis, she just deserves more meat in her role

The two hour running time takes a tad too long to kick into gear

Lessons Learned
When a tower of bricks begins to tumble, it’s best to run away rather than watch directly underneath

Evil old women with possessing powers may bear a striking physical resemblance to David Cronenberg

Wave pools are all good fun until someone gets hurt

Fun Fact
If IMDB is to be believed, the villainous house later came out of retirement to play the funeral home in Phantasm

A film like Burnt Offerings could have easily become a relic of mid 70s horror, but this one really is worth your attention for at least a viewing. The DVD includes a jovial and informative commentary with director Dan Curtis and the chatty Karen Black, who sheds some thespianly insight on how she approached her character being seduced by the pretty things inside the home. If you enjoy slower paced horror films that creep with care, then Burnt Offerings is probably worthy of a well-priced purchase. It gets richer with multiple viewings because once you stop waiting for something ghostly to happen, it's easier to pay more attention to the subtle changes slowly reshaping Mr. and Mrs. Rolf. This isn't a film for everyone, but you--like me--may find yourself pleasantly (by which I mean uncomfortably and a little frightened) surprised.


  1. Yeah, it is a great 70s horror flick. Lovely atmosphere and just the right amount of "what the..." moments! And hey, BETTE DAVIS!!!

  2. It's much more involving than I had expected. And you know, there's no such thing as too much Bette Davis.