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Bruce Markusen Remembers Dan Curtis’ (1976) Supernatural Horror ‘Burnt Offerings’

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Bruce Markusen Remembers Dan Curtis's (1976) Supernatural Horror 'Burnt Offerings'

If you’re the kind of horror fan that I am—and if you are, you have my sympathies—then you likely have a “pet” film that holds an important place in your memory. This is not to be confused with the best horror movie that you’ve ever seen, and it’s not necessarily a film that you would even put in the top five or 10 of the most revered classic films ever made. No, it’s a film that might be flawed, but one that strikes just the right chord with you, and one that brings you back to a favored time and place.

It’s the film that you invariably mention when you’re asked to name an overlooked film that you like better than most of the general public. It’s the film that you would most want to watch on a late Friday or a late Saturday night, at a time when you’re most in the mood to see a horror movie.

For me, that film is Burnt Offerings, a 1976 theatrical release that showed off the underrated talents of director Dan Curtis.

Burnt Offerings 1

Burnt Offerings received little attention during its initial run in the fall of ‘76, but has become somewhat of a cult classic with a certain segment of the horror audience, including this writer. It’s a film with a terrific story, based on a very good novel written by author Robert Marasco. Taking a good book and making it better, Curtis gives Burnt Offerings the kind of eerie atmosphere that typified almost all of his films (including The Night Stalker and the Jack Palance version of Dracula). Curtis lays down a foreboding creepiness that persists from beginning to end (helped by Bob Cobert’s wonderful musical score), draws the most out of an excellent and experienced cast, and skillfully executes a number of unexpected turns in the plotline.

The book and the film both center on a classic horror theme: the haunted house. In Burnt Offerings, an average, well-intentioned American family, the Rolfs, visit a large country mansion that is being offered as a summer rental—and at a bargain basement price of $900 for the entire summer. The house, which is attractive and stately despite showing signs of age and general wear and tear, immediately becomes the target of affection from the family’s wife and mother, Marian, played beautifully by Karen Black. She soon talks her more skeptical husband Ben, portrayed by the great Oliver Reed, into accepting the rental deal. Despite her enthusiasm, disturbing events begin to take place in and around the house, resulting in nearly fatal accidents involving the couple’s son (played very nicely by Lee H. Montgomery), the deteriorating health of their beloved Aunt Elizabeth, frightful hallucinations experienced by Ben, and alarming personality changes to Marian.

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All of the central characters hit their marks. Let’s begin with Reed, an enormously gifted actor capable of handling most any role, but a man who was also an alcoholic, a chauvinist, and a troublemaker—basically a hellraiser. When Reed was focused, he was as good as any actor of the 1960s and 1970s, and he certainly appears focused in Burnt Offerings. Reed gives Ben an initial likeability, but then shows himself vulnerable to disturbing dreams of his father’s funeral, while also becoming uncharacteristically violent toward his son. Reed’s character makes the transition from caring family man to tormented abuser, and then back again to a good man trying to escape an impossibly horrible situation.

Off camera, Reed apparently drew the ire of the legendary Bette Davis, who plays Aunt Elizabeth. Davis hated Reed and made no pretention about it, later referring to him as “possibly one of the most loathsome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting.” Yet, her dislike of her co-star never seeps into her portrayal. To the contrary, it is evident that Davis’ Elizabeth likes Reed’s character of Ben better than Marian. In particular, the two actors share one particularly memorable scene where Reed is sitting at Davis’ bedside and they simultaneously see a ghostly apparition enter the room. While Reed’s eyes appear on the verge of popping out, Davis’ facial expression reflects both her character’s physical deterioration and her completely shaken nerves. It is vintage Bette Davis.

Speaking of that bedroom ghost, he is played by a talented character actor named Anthony James. As the creepy hearse driver who haunts Reed while he is both sleeping and awake, he stares at Reed incessantly, all the while smiling widely, before delivering a ghostly casket to the bedroom. James does not speak in any of his three scenes, but he doesn’t have to. With his immaculate white teeth, bony features, and sinister all-knowing smile, James shows how an actor can nail a role without saying a word. The only surviving adult actor from the film, James was a veteran performer who specialized in playing lowlife characters in Westerns. He last appeared in 1992’s Unforgiven and is now retired to life as a painter and artist.

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There are other supporting players like Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, who appear only at the beginning of the film as a quirky brother and sister. Though their screen time is limited, they make it obvious that they are somewhat imbalanced, if not completely psychotic, in showing their reverence for the house they are now renting.

As good as all of these veteran actors are, they do not quite match the brilliance of Karen Black, who is top-billed as Marian and at her absolute best. Marian’s initial love for the mansion soon turns to obsession, to the point that she would rather risk her family’s safety than leave the house ahead of the planned Labor Day departure. As Marian’s hair gradually turns gray, her personality also begins to transition, not in one fell swoop, but more subtly. It’s as if the house is changing her in some strange way. Black nails the role, arguably the best performance of her long career in horror.

And then there is the house that provides the setting of Burnt Offerings from start to finish. Curtis filmed the entire movie on location at the historic Dunsmuir House in Oakland, CA. When I think of haunted houses in films, this is the residence that comes to mind. On the outside, it is enormous and stately, but also faintly decrepit. On the inside, its rooms and hallways are wonderfully ornate, but with a Gothic feel that provides the ideal setting for the unfolding horror.

When I first saw Burnt Offerings in the late 1970s, I was still quite young and legitimately frightened by the film’s incredible ending, one that I did not see coming. (My mother exacerbated the situation by watching the movie with me and pretending to fall into a trance and become Mrs. Allardyce, the house’s mostly unseen matriarch.) The movie doesn’t scare me as much anymore, but it’s still as effective as ever. It hasn’t lost a thing.

Given its staying power, this is the horror film that I rely on most when I crave a late-night viewing. With its Gothic summer mansion, nightmarish dreams and visions, and spot-on performances across the board, Burnt Offerings remains a personal film treasure.

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