Dan Curtis is most well remembered as the creator of gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (poorly remade as an irreverent fish-out-of-water comedy starring Johnny Depp in 2012), but remembrance of his legacy should also include his direction of 1976’s horror film Burnt Offerings. A kind of haunted house flick, the story concerns a run-down neoclassical manor home and the spell that it casts over a hapless family in order to rejuvenate itself.
The owners of the mansion are the wheelchair-bound Arnold Allardyce and his sister Roz (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, prominently featured in the film’s trailer but in what amount to extended cameos). They are delighted when the Rolf family, consisting of father Ben (Oliver Reed), mother Marian (Karen Black, whom Curtis directed the previous year in Trilogy of Terror), and twelve-year-old son Davey (Lee Montgomery, future heartthrob of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), express interest in renting the house. Of course, for the low rental price of $900 for the whole summer, there is one caveat; the family must care for the ancient Mrs. Allardyce, a recluse who requires only that meals be left outside her door thrice daily. Ben is resistant at first, but Marian, already affected by the house, insists, and the trio, along with Ben’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), arrive at the mansion the following week.
Things seem to go well for a while. Davis is a particular treasure as the wisecracking Aunt Liz, and although Marian becomes more withdrawn (becoming obsessed with Mrs. Allardyce’s collection of photographs and listening to a music box for hours on end), the rest of the family bonds on their vacation. Things begin to take a turn for the worse as Ben starts to have nightmares about a creepy, grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) he encountered at his mother’s funeral as a child, and his roughhousing with Davey in the pool takes on a dark turn as he feels compelled to drown the boy. Soon, the lively Aunt Elizabeth grows ill and dies while the house continues to become less decrepit. Ben ultimately tries to flee the grounds with Davey, but forces conspire to block his way, as his hallucinations of the evil chauffeur begin to appear even in his waking states. When the pool once again tries to drown Davey, Marian’s spell is briefly broken and she agrees to flee with the rest of the family, but the house will not let them go so easily.
A forgotten treasure, Burnt Offerings shares more than just its genre with Poltergeist: they also both share a PG rating. Although it’s still a bit of a shock to think about Spielberg’s haunted house movie being given such an age-inappropriate rating, it’s easier to see how the creepiness of Burnt Offerings slipped under the radar. There are no ghosts in the Allardyce house; the house itself seeks to feed upon the life force of its inhabitants, and very little explanation is given as to how or why the house came to be this way. In a more modern movie, the audience would likely be forced to deal with an unsatisfying origin story for the house’s hunger, but the lack of context actually adds to the horror factor; unanswered questions often leave a stronger impact than unfulfilling answers, and Offerings is a movie that understands that. The only thing that could conceivably be called a specter is the grinning chauffeur, who is effectively unsettling despite never performing any malicious actions. Who is he? Nobody, really, just a creepy guy that Ben encountered as a child and who left an impact on him, which is a nice touch. He’s not affiliated with the house except in the way that he relates to Ben’s unspooling sanity, and he actually stands out as one of the creepier boogeymen that have haunted horror films of the past, calling to mind the Thin Man from the Phantasm series.
Further, the way that the house uses its occupants to act out violence against each other is also quite scary. The tension builds slowly in this film, starting first with images of life and renewal (a dead potted plant suddenly has a green leaf, a burned-out light bulb begins to work) before more outrageous elements occur (gas leaks in locked rooms, dilapidated siding and roof tiles flying off of the house and being replaced by fresh fixtures). If the film had spent less time establishing the Rolfs as a happy family before tearing them apart, the escalation of terror wouldn’t work half as well as it does, and I can’t believe such a great film has faded into relative obscurity. It’s definitely worth tracking down and enjoying.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond