Monday, June 22, 2009

Day 127: Burnt Offerings (1976) - Rank 3.5/5


Simply put, this is an effectively creepy film. Oliver Reed and Karen Black play a pair of caretakers who maintain a large, isolated home for the summer - a home that seems to have some level of consciousness. It projects its past into the present and even possesses the mother, putting the father and their young son at risk. If the plot sounds familiar, I, too, noted the uncanny similarities to the basic plot of Stephen King's "The Shining." However, it was King who came second with "Burnt Offerings" being made a year prior to "The Shining" being published, and the source novel for the film was printed four years prior. If King were to claim that the original novel and the film adaptation had no influence on his writing, I'd deem him a poor liar indeed.

Oliver Reed is gripping in his turn as your everyday, suburbia father who is thrown to the madness of the house. He's never overwhelmed by it, simply tormented. After the house induces multiple nightmares and hallucinations of a malevolent chauffeur from his past, Reed's Ben Rolf begins to suspect that the house is evil. I found the chauffeur utterly terrifying - more than an elevator unleashing a wave of blood. The crazy thing is he never does anything but smile from at a distance. Less is more, I'm telling you.


There are some other fantastic moments of terror as well, from Ben's Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) wrenching about in bed as her spine is twisted by unseen hands to the house shedding its paneling and shingles as a snake might shed its skin (a fantastic sequence with great practical effects).

Karen Black as Ben's wife Marian was the minor downfall to the film. The character is impractical from the start. She's told by the owners of the home, the Allerdyces (played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) that their mother will stay behind to reside alone in an attic room. Marian takes to preparing her meals and after a week of the food never being touched, she falls prey to standard movie logic (or lack thereof) and assumes that the aged matriarch must not be hungry, rather than opening the door to check on the woman or introduce herself. It could be argued that this is merely an early manifestation of the house possessing her, but I also had issues with Marian being possessed. I think this was largely due to the presence of Black. She's supposed to be intimidating as the spirit of the manor takes hold, but I have trouble feeling scared when she's yelling cross-eyed. Yes, it may be petty of me, but it's true. And how can anyone intimidate Oliver Reed? The guy can cut you in half with one stone cold glance. Had the roles been switched, so to speak, I think the film would have been more effective. Nevertheless, it's still an atmospheric and well-written piece of seventies horror that easily pushes the PG rating.

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