Time to Revisit…’Burnt Offerings’

In this installment of “Time to Revisit” I take a look at the underrated 1976 “evil house” flick Burnt Offerings – directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis – as compared to the schlocky 1979 pseudo-classic The Amityville Horror. While Amityville debuted to blockbuster box-office on release and went on to spawn seven terrible sequels and a slick 2005 remake, Burnt Offerings – starring Oliver Reed and Karen Black as a married couple who with their young son and elderly aunt (Bette Davis!) are tormented by a hostile force in a rundown country estate – has remained a relatively unheralded entry in the “haunted house” sub-genre. So why does Amityville get all the love? Inside I make my case for why the superior Burnt Offerings – which is also based on a best-selling 1970s novel, albeit one that didn’t try to pass itself off as a work of non-fiction – deserves to be lifted off the back of the DVD shelf and given a second look.
Beloved Favorite: The Amityville Horror (1979)

Number of votes on IMDB: 11,586

The Plot: Based on the novel of the same name, a young family is tormented and eventually driven away by malevolent forces after moving into a new home.

Why it’s so celebrated: While it’s not exactly what you would call a bona fide horror classic – at least not in the sense of artistically superior efforts like The Exorcist or The ShiningThe Amityville Horror was nevertheless a blockbuster title when released and continues to be widely known today. One of the earliest films to market the hell out of its “based on true events” angle (though the Lutz family’s claims have been largely debunked since), the Stuart Rosenberg-directed film went on to spawn a series of increasingly lame sequels, in addition to a hit 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. Indeed, since its release, the film and the franchise it spawned has become one of the most recognizable properties in the history of the genre.

Why it’s time to back-burner it for awhile: Despite a few fun moments that fall squarely in the realm of ’70s horror schlock and an Oscar-nominated score by Lalo Schifrin, The Amityville Horror isn’t really all that good. It’s clumsy, histrionic to the point of farce, and boasts mostly lame effects, not to mention that it’s already enjoyed an illustrious run. Hell, it made $86 million when it was first released – over $250 million in today’s dollars! Did I mention that it’s not very good?

Underappreciated Also-Ran: Burnt Offerings (1976)

Number of votes on IMDB: 2,637

The Plot: Based on the novel of the same name, a young family is tormented and eventually driven mad by malevolent forces after moving into a new summer home.

Why it’s not so celebrated: Though it preceded The Amityville Horror by three years and is in almost every way a better film, Burnt Offerings has nevertheless been mostly forgotten by modern audiences. Part of this is likely due to its slow narrative pace and absence of most of the usual fright-flick histrionics, a sensibility that doesn’t translate well into the 21st century. It also wasn’t a blockbuster like Amityville, and the Robert Marasco book it was based on simply doesn’t enjoy the same amount of notoriety as Jay Anson’s controversial work of “non-fiction”, which is still well-remembered to this day.

Why it deserves a revisiting: It’s no five-star classic by any means, but Burnt Offerings is still one of the more underrated horror outings of the last 40 years. Some impatient viewers may call it boring, but those with a taste for slow-burn horror will find much to appreciate here. Director Dan Curtis, best known for the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows that aired in the late ’60s and early ’70s and which is currently being remade by Tim Burton for Warner Bros., works up a suitably tense atmosphere in the early going, imbuing the sunny summer setting with a sense of gauzy, unquantifiable dread. The film is light on overt shocks until late in the third act, during which Curtis once again utilizes star Karen Black’s unnervingly off-kilter gaze to spine-tingling effect (something he similarly accomplished in the final shot of his 1975 TV anthology Trilogy of Terror).

As for the cast, what can I say? Oliver Reed and Black are rock-solid as Ben and Marion Rolf, a married couple with a young son who along with Ben’s spry old aunt Elizabeth decide to rent a large, run-down country house from a mysterious old couple (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, appearing in one scene only) for the summer. The price of $900 for two full months appears too good to be true, even after the couple reveals that their elderly mother, a recluse who occupies the attic bedroom on the third floor, must have her meals delivered twice daily without being bothered.

Black, at her bizarre best here, suggests from the get-go that there’s something not quite right about Marion – though perhaps unintentionally, given the actress’ naturally oddball demeanor – and Reed’s actorly intensity is a good fit for a role that sees him going from mind-numbing fear to unhinged mania and back again. As aunt Elizabeth, Bette Davis is expectedly top-notch, giving a recognizably human dimension to a character who begins the film as a sprightly 60-something woman and ends it as a bedridden crone.

Given the relative subtlety of its storytelling Burnt Offerings won’t be to every horror fan’s taste, but rest assured there are some genuinely spine-tingling bits here, including the aforementioned shock conclusion and several instances in which Ben is haunted by the sight of a ghostly hearse from his past, driven by perhaps the most terrifying chauffer in movie history (the eerie Anthony James, an actor who appeared opposite Clint Eastwood in both High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven). The sight of his grinning face made the blood of even this hardened horror buff run ice cold.

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