Sunday, October 12, 2008

Burnt Offerings (1976)

In the horror genre, especially during the horror explosion of the late 1970's-early 1980's, there were many definable sub-genres including, but not limited to, the supernatural and possession sub-class, the zombie sub-class, the cannibal sub-class, and the budding slasher sub-class. One that stands out to me that remained underappreciated was the haunted house sub-class. For some reason, I tend to enjoy these films more than I'm willing to admit and up until the beginning of this month, I thought I'd seen the majority of the cream of the crop: The Amityville Horror, The Haunting, Poltergeist, The Legend of Hell House, Ghost Story. But nothing had prepared me for the unstoppable gem that is Burnt Offerings.

I heard about this film back in the late eighties but had no idea that it was a haunted house film until the beginning of last year when I ran into a VHS copy at the local Video Liquidators. I knew that the film had a very devoted cult following but never took the idea of that following seriously so, I left the film behind and didn't take it home with me. And believe me, I'm kicking myself in the ass now, since I read a few weeks ago that the VHS version is long out of print and is one of the hardest to find in the haunted house sub-genre. But, a friend of mine had it on DVD (which I knew nothing about!) and allowed me to finally experience the film in the privacy of my own home.

The plot surrounds Ben (the absolutely gorgeous and gallant Oliver Reed) and Marian (Karen Black) who rent a majestic and picture-esque mansion out in the countryside for the summer. When they find out they are renting the home for the entire summer for only $900, Ben suspects that there's a catch to the whole thing, since the idea of renting a home for that length of time should have cost them more. The owners of the home (Ellen Heckart and Burgess Merideth) are excited to have them there and ask only one thing while they are away: that the new tennants take care of their mother, Mrs. Allardyce, who lives in the top floor of the home, quiet and shy from the rest of the outisde world. Marian thinks this a fantastic idea and promises to do her best to live up to their expectations. The family moves in, along with their son Davey and Ben's aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis in one of her final roles) and begin to enjoy everything the home has to offer: the wonderful countryside, the wonderfully large swimming pool and the decor and style of the house itself. Everything in the house just seems to perfect, so beautiful, so peaceful. But, something soon starts to come over Marian. She slowly becomes obsessed with caring for the unseen Mrs. Allardyce, and it begins to take its toll on the rest of the family. But is it Marian's devotion to the patron of the house that is beginning to tear her and Ben apart? Or is the house istelf that is taking over the family? It all doesn't make sense until one day Ben is sitting on the lawn after a hard day of yardwork when he sees an old-style hearse begin to drive up to the house. It seems familiar to him and it looks just like the one that he rode in the day his mother died. And who is driving the hearse? An evil looking man whom still haunts Ben's thoughts still many years after his mother's passing. And it scares him terribly. Something isn't right. As he's determined to find out why.

The pool takes over him, almost making him kill his own son and driving them apart forever. He sees things he shouldn't be seeing. And he isn't the only one. Poor Bette Davis is accused of attempting to suffocate their son by means of a gas heater. She tries to convince Marian that she didn't do it, that she had just gone in to check on the boy. But Marian doesn't believe her and the family continues to be torn apart by strange and horrible random acts against one another that tear the family further and further apart. Something is after them, but what exactly is it? Or is just a figment of thier imaginations? And why is Marian spending so much time with the still-unseen Mrs. Allardyce? And what's with the collection of photographs she has mounted on the credenza in her room? Then one night, something invades aunt Elizabeth's room. Something unseen, something evil that mangles her body and torments her. Ben comes to her rescue and tries to help her until they both hear a knock at the bedroom door to find the eerie chauffer who had haunted Ben earlier standing with a coffin in the hallway. Terrified, Ben and aunt Elizabeth scream as the driver thrusts the coffin at them violently. She, sadly, passes away from the experience leaving the question as to the who did this to her and why. And Ben notices that Marian is taking the whole thing rather lightly. And there's something different about her that just isn't sitting well with him. And why is it that Marian is insistent on staying in the 
house when it's obvious that the house is beginning to have a hold on them?

The ending is fantastic, so I don't want to give it away. At first glance the film looks pretty modest as far as scares and it has just about zero gore. But the storyline completely wraps itself around you and you become involved with the characters, something that a haunted house movie rarely does for me. I felt for the family and sympathized with the way the house's grip on them cost them everything they'd ever worked for and everything they'd ever loved. In the film's final moments, I screamed out of sheer delight, sorry for what had taken place but amazed at the turn the film had suddenly taken. I don't think I've ever heard a man scream the way Ben does when everything is finally revealed and Mrs. Allardyce comes into the picture once and for all. The closing shot is something that will leave you speechles and it's something you're not expecting and it makes you understand why this film has the underground following that it's had since its release in the late seventies. What's even more amazing is that this story didn't rely on any special efffects at all to make the impression that it did. Well, okay, only in once scene. This is one film that should be praised for what it is: a haunted house movie that makes sense and that grips you until the final moment. Spectaular, legendary performers givng spectacular performances. Read the book by Robert Marasco, if you can find it. According to IMDb, the film's ending is completely different from the one in the book. Apparently director Dan Curtis wasn't happy with the one in the novel and changed it when the opportunity was given him to direct the film version. The MGM DVD has a great commentary with Curtis and actress Karen Black. And to my sheer glee, the DVD includes the original theatrical trailer. A brilliant film packaged just as brilliantly.

At any rate. this is a film that deserves a place in your collection and a place as one of the best haunted house films of an era now long-gone.


Anonymous said...

wow! i saw this film in a different light then you...i found ''Brunt Offerings '' to be a slow mover (but i too enjoy the haunted house type films such as ''Amityville series, The Changeling'' with George C Scott,Legend of Hell House ,but Brunt was just too slow for me ..signed Fantasm

Anonymous said...

The only thing i found interesting about BRUNT ,was that the house used for BRUNT (in Oakland ,California )was also used as Morningside mortuary in the first ''PHANTASM '' film ...oh another kind cool horror ''haunted house '' film is WITHCTRAP' starring ''Linnea Quigley ,but good luck finding it , its never been released on DVD ,i have it on VHS from MAGNUM video ..signed Fantasm

LeonelB said...

I've always wanted to visit that house and I actually know where it's located. I love "offerings", one of the best. And I love ANYTHING with Karen Black in it. LOL