Sunday, November 21, 2010

Film Review: BURNT OFFERINGS (1976, Dan Curtis)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 116 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart (HEARTBREAK RIDGE, THE BAD SEED), Dub Taylor (BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE WILD BUNCH), Anthony James (VANISHING POINT, UNFORGIVEN), Lee Montgomery (GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, THE MIDNIGHT HOUR). Based on the novel by Robert Marasco (author of the Tony-award winning CHILD'S PLAY- no relation to Chucky).
Tag-line: "The perfect summer rental for the last vacation you'll ever take."
Best one-liner: "I hate this place! I want to get of here. I HATE IT!"

Sort of a proto-SHINING (it's a 1976 film based on a 1973 novel, and King's novel wasn't published until 1977), BURNT OFFERINGS is a fairly enjoyable specimen of both the 'gothic haunted house' and 'descent into insanity' subgenres. A family (patriarch Oliver Reed, matriarch Karen Black, kiddie Lee Montgomery, and wacky aunt Bette Davis) is tasked with caring for a mansion while its owners (a crazed Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) are away, but they encounter an evil, Victorian presence which draws them closer and closer to the brink of madness. Directed by the legendary purveyor of horror television, Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS, THE NIGHT STALKER, TRILOGY OF TERROR), it's atmospheric, dark, and labyrinthine, but it never quite congeals into an effective film.

BURNT OFFERINGS is dreamlike. When one says that a film's atmosphere is "dreamlike," it's often the highest of compliments– after all, one of filmdom's greatest ambitions is to transmit one's ethereal fantasies and nightmares onto the tangible substance that is celluloid. So allow me to elaborate: "the movie was so dreamlike I nearly fell asleep."

Occasionally filmmakers, in the service of making a sequence hazier or more phantasmagorical, will use a soft focus, an overexposure, some vaseline on the lens, or some combination therein. BURNT OFFERINGS uses this on every single shot.

I don't know if it's the fault of the DVD transfer or part of Dan Curtis' original vision, but needless to say, it's a bit much. So I'm gonna go ahead and say it: the movie drags, it's often nonsensical, and in general it feels as if you're peering at the narrative through a pair of non-prescription reading glasses purchased from the Drug Mart clearance rack for $1.59. But all is not lost, by any means. There's still a lot of reasons to like BURNT OFFERINGS. Here are nine of them:

#1. Filmed at the historic Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California (where they also shot PHANTASM!), the location is spectacular enough to carry even a generic haunted house tale.

#2. Remember when we were hanging out that one time and I was like "Man, I wish there was a movie out there where Bette Davis got her sweet ass slapped" and you were like "Yeah, it's too bad she passed away, now it'll never happen" and then we both kinda looked off into the distance, feeling at once deviant and forlorn?

Well, for your benefit and mine, Ollie Reed took the plunge with kind of a grab/pat which is rendered all the more disturbing since he's doing it to his (in-film) aunt. Mr. Reed must have been big on the impromptu ass grab, 'cause he does it to Karen Black, too:

God bless ya, Ollie Reed.

#3. Speaking of whom, if there's four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, & plasma), there are two states of Oliver Reed (drunk, and in need of a drink). I could bore you all with the equations and formulae, but I shan't. Just take my word for it. We get both kinds in BURNT OFFERINGS.

Exhibit A: Oliver Reed drunk.

Exhibit B: Oliver Reed in need of a drink.

Note the frustration and inner tumult.

#4. Continuing in this vein, we bear witness to the rare phenomenon of an Ollie Reed summertime belly flop.

Either, A. the man does not know how to dive in a pool, B., it was a specific character choice, or C., he was drunk. I'll allow you to answer that one for yourself.

#5. The creepy chauffeur. Glimpsed only in flashback, and played by Anthony James (of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, UNFORGIVEN, GUNSMOKE, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, etc.),

he's probably the creepiest element of the film. His death's head grin is quite unnerving, and his tall, skeletal form is remembered from a funeral scene in Oliver Reed's character's childhood. The presence of the Dunsmuir House and an eerie, gangly, villainous presence (at a funeral, no the Tall Man?) makes one believe that this must have been an influence on PHANTASM (though I see PHANTASM as the far superior film).

#6. Bette Davis. She's better than this movie, and she knows it. She mutters remarks like "Old people- they do crazy things sometimes!" She berates other family members, and does it while holding a ludicrously long cigarette holder.

But she believes in a paycheck, even if it involves having her ass slapped by Oliver Reed. Horror fans take note: her righteous devotion to paychecks brought us such classics as RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS, and WICKED STEPMOTHER. We must not forget this.

Pass the sloppy lipstick.

#7. Ornery Peckinpah fave Dub Taylor.

He's not in the film for long, but, as always, he possesses that same old crotchety, grizzled energy that made him such a favorite in the Western genre.

#8. Burgess Meredith.

Whether it's a TWILIGHT ZONE episode, a ROCKY movie, or a scene from THE MANITOU, whenever Burgess Meredith is on screen, I am beaming like a proud parent. The man puts a smile on my face, what can I say. Confined to a wheelchair and basically only appearing in the film's opening sequence, Meredith nonetheless showers us with his completely insane, endlessly talkative, freakishly madcap joie de vivre.

#9. Karen Black.

Now, based on my SHINING comparison, one might assume that only Oliver Reed undergoes the caretaker-style descent into madness, but Karen Black really gets in on the action, too. Her brilliantly erratic, unpredictable talents that are on view in such dramas as FIVE EASY PIECES, BORN TO WIN, and THE GREAT GATSBY find an excellent outlet in the context of a horror film. She and Oliver Reed make for an amazingly volatile screen pairing–

it's a pity that the narrative itself does not manage to harness any of the pizazz which they're bringing to the table.

In the end, BURNT OFFERINGS brings together a phalanx of extraordinary actors to the perfect haunted locale, but fails to make anything truly interesting happen there. It certainly holds the attention, but for pure insanity's sake, I have to recommend instead THE SENTINEL, PHANTASM, HOUSE, or HAUSU; and for enthusiasts of 'melancholy horror,' I prefer THE CHANGELING, CASTLE FREAK, or ANGEL HEART.

Still, three stars. Pass the Coors.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

I would agree with your assessment. Good but not great even with Reed's belly flop and Karen Black giving it her all. THE SENTINEL is a good one. So many fantastic actors are piled up in one film! Crazy.

Sean Gill said...

I've always thought that THE SENTINEL was way better than most give it credit for- kinda like a low-rent ROSEMARY'S BABY meets THE EXORCIST, but definitely a little classier/freakier than one would assume, especially given that it was directed by Michael Winner. And with all those stars, how was Bronson not snuck in there somewhere?

J.D. said...

He was probably too busy doing cologne ads at the time. Either that, or too busy killing punks in NYC. ; )

Anonymous said...

There's a clip on you tube showing a younger, apparently shit faced Oliver Reed diving perfectly into a smaller pool than the movie's. So I think the belly flop was an acting choice. I read in his biography that Bette Davis hated him and never spoke to him, so that's more than a valid reason for slapping her butt, although he does that in a lot of movies.

Sean Gill said...


Good to know! Ole' Ollie never seems to disappoint. Thanks for stoppin' by!