A young family and their ageing Aunt rent a large old house for the summer, its rent being so unexpectedly low. It's falling apart and the owners, an elderly brother and sister, emphasise the need to get the right people to love their home, which comes complete with their old mother who stays upstairs in the attic rooms. But as the summer progresses, the house starts to take a strange hold on the family, feeding off their pain or sadness to rejuvenate itself, with a force close to possession.
Made in 1976, Burnt Offerings falls somewhere between a fascinating slice of American gothic cinema and a made for TV movie. Writer/director Dan Curtis had made Dark Shadows for TV as well as the classic Trilogy Of Terror, and his foray into big screen features sometimes belies his TV background. Early scenes show little cinematic flair and the cinematography is flat, giving it that TV movie of the week feel. But it starts to become more adventurous as the house takes hold of its guests, and this is helped no end by a fantastic cast.
Nobody does odd quite like Karen Black and here, after her manic collaboration with Curtis in Trilogy of Terror, a film which traumatised many a youngster of this reviewer’s generation, she is fascinating as the devoted wife and mother torn between her family and the overwhelming pull of the force of the house. She's creepy. All at once her eyes can be both loving and murderous and her descent into a kind of madness is a perfect role for her. As her husband, Oliver Reed is both sympathetic, battling to save his family, and threatening – there's a scene in a pool where he tries to drown his son that is pretty horrible, Reed's physical strength showing a real menace. There's a nice natural bond between him and his onscreen son, convincingly played by Lee Montgomery. And in a relatively minor role, Bette Davies is quite brilliant as the old Aunt who knows something's up. She's so convincing at having a heart attack it's truly uncomfortable to watch.
The atmosphere builds slowly and carefully. Each negative incident for a character has a positive impact on the house – a bloodied knee sees dead plants reviving, for example – and it soon becomes clear that the house is hungry, deliberately laying traps psychical and mental for the people inside. Towards the climax it stumbles into familiar horror cliché but the end is genuinely chilling.
Ultimately what makes it less than the more cinematic horror efforts of the period and gives it that TV movie feel is the fact that it's just not that scary. This comes three years after The Exorcist and is from the same year which brought us The Omen, both of which still have the power to terrify. But when someone dying of a heart attack results in a greenhouse full of lovely flowers, it's a clever idea but not a particularly frightening image. For this, Burnt Offerings could have done with a bit more fire.
BURNT OFFERINGS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: DAN CURTIS / SCREENPLAY: DAN CURTIS, WILLIAM F. NOLAN / STARRING: OLIVER REED, KAREN BLACK, LEE MONTGOMERY, BETTE DAVIS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW