Up the ancient stairs, behind the locked door, something lives, something evil, from which no one has ever returned.
While it’s not regarded as the quintessential “Haunted House” movie, the 1976 film “Burnt Offerings” provides a slow paced but effective air of spookiness. This screen adaptation of the Robert Marasco novel was directed by Dan Curtis of “Dark Shadows” fame, and stars Oliver Reed and Karen Black as a couple who rent a mysterious estate for only $900 for the summer. Various elements combine in this somewhat underrated movie.
Reed and Black play Ben and Marian Rolf, looking for a summer home to rent with Ben’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Played by Bettie Davis), and 12 year old son David (Lee H. Montgomery). Immediately we have low droning music to set the mounting terror of the film as the car drives up the long driveway to the Allardyce Residence, which is actually the Dunsmuir House in California. Immediately we see that this massive house is dilapidated, much to the dismay of Marian. This film also has that 70’s hazy screen look to it as well, which is even apparent on the dvd. The massive size of the house confuses Ben and Marian, thinking there must be some mistake.
Shortly they are greeted by handyman Walker (Dub Taylor), who assures them that this is indeed the home they are to rent for the summer. David goes out to play as Ben and Marian speak with Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), and her eccentric brother Arnold (Burgess Meredith), to discuss the terms of the rental. Roz and Arnold appear to Ben as hamming up how exciting the house is during the summer season. So much so, that he giggles and wonders aloud what the catch is for renting a home for only $900.
Though somewhat offended by his remark, Roz and Arnold do admit there is something that will come along with the house…their ailing mother who they won’t really ever see.
Ben and Marian leave the home without an affirmative answer. That night at home, Ben reluctantly agrees to rent the house for the family.
The Rolf family arrives in a 70’s station wagon (Looking very much like the one the Brady Bunch used). As excited as they are, they soon realize that the house is empty, and Roz, Arnold and Walker have already left. Undaunted, the family unloads and unpacks. Curtis here drops subtle hints as to the odd thing happening in this house. Marion shows the family that the Allardyce’s have left a fully stocked refrigerator and plenty of food. Aunt Elizabeth goes to the pantry to find the light switch not working. Minutes later, Davey sees ding dongs on a shelf, and the light works this time.
Things begin to get creepy as Ben and Davey fix the pool. As they are swimming, Ben finds a pair of broken glasses as the bottom. Somehow, after looking into them, a force of evil begins to take over. He begins to have some roughhousing with his son, but soon after becomes vicious and forces the boy under water, nearly drowning him. Davey escapes by hitting his father in the face with the scuba mask. That night, Ben dreams of his mother’s funeral, in a sequence shot in black and white. The focus seems to be on the still-talked-about Chauffer, played by Anthony James. James is dressed head to foot in black, while wearing opaque sunglasses and an evil grin. We will see this figure in two other scenes in the film, representing the closeness of death and evil that lurks inside the house.
As all of this unnerving activity surrounds the rest of the family, another life force takes over Marian, who is fond of spending time in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room, listening to her music box as well as wearing some of her clothes. She feels as though she somehow belongs to the house. The obsession with the house grows stronger within Marian, as Ben continues to have visions of the chauffer, and Aunt Elizabeth mysteriously dies. Davey and Ben are incredibly unhappy and want nothing more than to leave the house, but Marian will not hear any word of it.
It is not until a rather imaginative scene where the pool nearly kills Davey that the spell upon Marian breaks and she finally says they will leave the house that day. As they are packing up, She goes back inside to tell Mrs. Allardyce they are leaving. Predictably, she doesn’t come out. Ben goes to find her, and finds himself inside Mrs. Allardyce’s room, where we see the back of an old woman in a chair. Shaking and sweating (As though he knows deep down something is very wrong), he asks where his wife is. When she refuses to answer, he angrily twists the chair around to discover (In what is quite possibly one of the scariest moments of 70’s horror movies) his wife, transformed into Mrs. Allardyce, complete with white hair. She glares at him, and Ben, out of sheer horror, jumps out the window and dies (I’ll leave out how). Davey sees his dead father and runs towards the house screaming. He too, does not make it. The final scene is a shot of the various family members who have died through the years, and we see pictures of Ben, Davey, and Aunt Elizabeth.
Again, this film is not the most terrifying old house type of film, and rather tame by today’s standards. However, the performances, the score, and the slow mounting eeriness do keep the movie watchable. Unfortunately, this dingy looking film did not transfer well onto dvd, as mentioned earlier. The look of the film is the same as on the vhs presentation. But, films with that look during the decade were not that uncommon. While you won’t be up for days after viewing Burnt Offerings (Although I have seen eyes go wide after the ending), the film does indeed entertain, and is definitely worth a viewing.