**/**** Image C+ Sound D+ Extras C
starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart
screenplay by William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis, based on the novel by Robert Marasco
directed by Dan Curtis
by Walter Chaw Plodding, ugly, moribund, Burnt Offerings is bolstered by a few great campy turns from a game cast that includes Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis in a performance that runs counter to the self-loathing roles of her Baby Jane/Sweet Charlotte days. Finding its way to the DVD format just a couple of weeks before another haunted house flick (Cold Creek Manor) debuts on the big screen, veteran television director Dan Curtis's horror quickie is one of those comfortable relics that doesn't scare so much as mildly chill, offering countless opportunities to shout at the screen without any sort of discernible payoff--until the end, that is, but even that shocker of a conclusion has been telegraphed since at least the midway point of the first act, muffling its surprise.
Submitted for your approval, the Rolf family: patriarch Ben (Reed), matriarch Marion (Black), irritating moppet David (Lee Montgomery, the obvious inspiration for Giovanni Frezza's appalling performance in The House by the Cemetery), and Aunt Elizabeth (Davis). Gathered for whatever reason at a moldering old manse offered by Arnold and Roz Allardyce (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) for summer tenancy, the catch is that they're responsible for the thrice-daily feeding of grandma, who lives in a locked room at the top of the house like some V.C. Andrews monster. It's not long before the house starts having some sort of weird influence on the family, Overlook-like, inspiring Ben to try to drown David (acting out the desires of the entire audience); inspiring Aunt Elizabeth to try to gas David (acting out the...oh, never mind); and getting Marion just a little too attached to the house and the forever unseen lady in the attic. All the while, the house appears to be growing younger.
Though a hysterical score by Bob Cobert does more to relieve tension than inspire it, against all odds tension is indeed inspired by Reed's murderously empty gaze during his attempt on David's life and by Black's trademark outsized nuttiness. Based on a Robert Marasco novel published in 1973, thus predating Stephen King's The Shining by at least two years and calling into question for the umpteenth time the originality of King's portfolio (at least he isn't ripping off an E.C. Comics plot this time around), the picture is a perfunctory exercise that distinguishes itself now and again with the suggestion that the real enmity at the heart of the picture has something to do with marital strife. A heady topic distracted from by too many pointless discoveries of broken glasses and old bikes, none of which go anywhere in a picture marked mainly by its aimlessness. Not helping matters is Curtis's decision to use a fog machine throughout--a relic of his "Dark Shadows" days, no doubt, and one that makes everything look like it's been shot through a tight cotton T-shirt. The preponderance of unexplained murk does go some ways to explaining the title, however, as not a fatted calf was slain during the production.
MGM DVD presents Burnt Offering in an anamorphic video transfer that preserves its 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Curtis confesses that he had already shot multiple establishing shots in 'scope before becoming insecure about his ability to fill the widescreen frame. Black assures him that Burnt Offerings "looks roomy" anyway; it doesn't. It also doesn't look very good, as no matter how much the source is cleaned up, it's still going to seem as if they covered the lens in surgical dressing. With its dialogue muted and mushy and its score booming in a way that suggests what it might sound like if a ghetto blaster playing bad fright music were wrapped in a wool scarf and thrown into a metal well, the Dolby 2.0 mono audio lacks the aesthetic excuse the image has for its dreadfulness. The original theatrical trailer rounds out the DVD.
A feature-length DVD commentary by Curtis, co-screenwriter with Curtis, William F. Nolan, and Black reveals Curtis to be doddering, Black to be sort of dingy but kind, and Nolan to be gruff. Curtis reveals that his rationale for the fog machine was to be able to shoot "motes," Black coos over Burgess Meredith in a way irritating and unbecoming, and Nolan pushes both to remember Davis as an insecure old grandmotherly figure searching for approval. Punctuated by a few quiet moments, the commentary is far from the worst I've heard, but its insights (Curtis proudly describes his directorial style as letting the actors do whatever they want. Improvise? "Sure, I don't care") are largely accidental. Recollections that a contemporary audience believed the last fifteen minutes of Burnt Offerings to be the scariest fifteen minutes ever captured on film make me wonder how these guys managed to interview only people who, in 1976, had never seen The Exorcist, Don't Look Now, Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead, Black Christmas, and on and on. Self-aggrandizement is never pretty--this is no exception. Originally published: September 3, 2003.