Picture a huge, decaying Greek Revival mansion in the middle of nowhere. Now, take a family, the Rolfs, Ben (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black), their son Davy (Lee H. Montgomery) and Ben’s aunt, Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and have them searching for the perfect country home to escape to for the summer. Marian has found an ad in the paper and she, Ben and Davy drive out to see if this could be their getaway from the city. Now, add in the eccentric owners of this decrepit house, Roz and her invalid brother Arnold Allardyce (Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith, as a great “old codger”) who have an offer WAY too good to be true. That if the Rolfs will love the house “the way Brother and I love it”, says Roz, they can have the house for $900. For the entire summer! Ben immediately suspects something is very wrong about an offer like that for a house the size of the Allardyce house and, indeed, there is one “small catch”. That the Rolfs see to the nutritional needs of the Allardyces’ elderly mother who lives in a suite of rooms at the top of the house and never leaves her rooms for anything. After much badgering by Marian and a night of being given the cold shoulder in bed, Ben reluctantly agrees and Marian calls to accept their offer. If only Roz and Arnold had been a bit more explicit about Mother’s “nutritional needs”…
Thus begins Dan (“Dark Shadows”) Curtis’ production of Robert Marasco’s best-selling novel, “Burnt Offerings”, a somewhat predictable but nevertheless chilling film about a house which seems to feed off every tragedy that occurs within it’s confines. At the opening, as Marian and Ben are looking around and waiting on Arnold Allardyce, their son Davy, playing outside, falls and skins his knee. Later, when the caretaker Walker (Dub Taylor) starts to throw away one of the hundreds of dead or dying plants in the greenhouse, Arnold stops him and points out that there is new growth on the plant. While cleaning the pool, Ben tries to drown Davy in what seems to be some sort of fit of possession after finding a pair of broken spectacles at the bottom of the pool. Later, Davy is nearly killed by a gas leak in his room as well as nearly drowned again by that damn pool while showing off for his father. Feisty Aunt Elizabeth, who loves to paint and play with her great-nephew Davy, slowly wastes away once she moves into the house. And all the while, Marian becomes more and more obsessed with the house and with caring for the never-seen Mrs. Allardyce, spending hours in her rooms, dusting her collection of hundreds of photos and listening to her haunting music box. Marian also begins to physically change, her clothing and hairstyles looking more and more old-fashioned while a bolt of snow-white hair appears at her temple.
In one of the most frightening series of scenes in the film, Ben begins to have nightmares of his mother’s funeral when he was a young boy and the chauffeur (Anthony James) of the car he and his father rode in has got to be one of the most frightening personages ever seen. Even while working out in the yard one bright sunny afternoon, Ben thinks he hears an approaching car but suddenly recognizes the sound of a much older vintage vehicle and begins to freak out as a vintage hearse with it’s horrific driver appears around a bend in the road and the driver gets out to open the door to “welcome” Ben in. There are several other visitations by The Chauffeur, as fans of the movie refer to him, and each one packs a punch. Especially the one which involves poor Aunt Elizabeth.
Ben awakes one morning to discover to his horror that the house is “rejuvenating” itself, shedding it’s skin one might say. Shingles, window shutters, the boards of the house itself are falling away, revealing fresh new carpentry beneath. Ben tries to escape with Davy but an accident stops them and Ben is injured. Soon after this event, Marian is persuaded that it is in the family’s best interest to get the hell out of that house but, as in any movie like this, that is not going to be so easy. The ending in the film is a bit more understandable than I recall the ending of the book was, but it’s been a while since I read the book. Suffice it to say that the book was written in 1973, some two or three years before Stephen King’s “The Shining”, to which there are similarities.
The house in the film has been used many times in other movies. It is Dunsmuir House and Gardens near Oakland, California and many horror fans may recall that it was used as the funeral home in “Phantasm” (1979) so it’s “creepy factor” is pretty authentic. The cinematography by Jacques Marquette has an annoying gauzy look to it and the score by Bob Cobert has some unnerving elements, particularly when The Chauffeur makes an appearance. The movie’s pace is slow so if you’re not the patient type, you may want to pass on “Burnt Offerings” but for those of us who read the book or saw the movie when it first came out and were scared witless by The Chauffeur, seeing it again should be a “fun” experience.
Oh Anthony James! Where have you gone?
Review by Elaine Lamkin