Before the Rolf family, Ben (actor Oliver Reed) and Marion (actress Karen Black) and son Davey (actor Lee Montgomery), can rent an isolated large house for the summer, they are inspected by Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart) and her brother, Arnold (Burgess Meredith). There is one stipulation that their mother is staying behind but they are less likely to see her and leave a tray of food in the living room upstairs at meal times three times a day and not to disturb her. They also cannot believe their luck at having a house so big at a cheap rent as they bring Aunt Elisabeth (actress Bette Davis) with them. Only on arrival, they find the Allardyce have already gone and left them a well-stocked larder. The only odd thing is their practically invisible mother doesn’t seem particularly hungry for a week although the light in her attic bedroom is on at night.
While Marion cleans Mrs. Allardyce sitting room, listening to a music box, her husband goes a little crazy with their son in the swimming pool. Over the weeks, they all experience mood swings and see odd things, including a sinister chauffer (actor Anthony James). When Davey nearly dies from gas inhalation, they get really worried. Slowly, the house infects them all and then…well, let’s say there is a psycho moment at the end.
Although relatively tame by today’s standards, the suspense build-up should still get you, although I doubt if you’d anticipate the ending. Co-written and directed by Dan Curtis, him of ‘Dark Shadows’ and the ‘Kolchak’ pilots, who knows how to scare. Always remember, mother knows best.
Although I only have access to the DVD, it is loaded with extras, including two audio commentaries. The first older one for reasons pointed out later, although states is with actress Karen Black and co-writer William F Nolan, also includes director Dan Curtis. They talk and ask each other questions that really propels the dialogue along a learning curve and getting a master class at the same time. Its rather interesting that what enticed Bette Davis in that she had more than once scene to act in although really that was the status Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart and Dub Taylor really only had that in this film. They stop to watch occasionally but I suspect that’s because they hadn’t seen it before hand and its always with the more powerful scenes which even they recognise. There is reference to the fact that Karen Black was 5 months pregnant at the time of filming. I didn’t really catch Karen Black’s character’s hair getting greyer but so, too, were the other adults.
The second audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith starts with a reminder of how old the first audio commentary was, as Dan Curtis and Karen Black had died since then. He fills in a lot of gaps, including reminding that ‘Burnt Offerings’ is a quote from the Bible. Smith also compares the original book by Robert Marasco and other films from time to time. I like the way he describes the difference between gothic and horror genres. They intermingle but not necessarily the same which was a lesson for me. Smith also gives a history lesson of gothic/horror films that link to ‘Burnt Offerings’ along the way.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to make of Smith’s audio commentary and although it looks like he’s reading it, with the amount of detail he’s giving, I doubt if he’d have been able to do it entirely from memory.
On to the extras. The villainous-looking actor Anthony James, who played the chauffeur, explains how his face was his career. When he was young, I often thought he looked a bit like Anthony Perkins. His insights into Bette Davis and how they get on is interesting. He also gives some insight from working with Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman in ‘Unforgiven’ (1992). There’s also a history of the difficulties in getting his autobiography published, ‘Acting My Face’.
Lee Montgomery, who played the boy Davy, relates his time on the film and with Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Karen Black.
Co-screenwriter William F. Nolan (he also co-authored the novel ‘Logan’s Run’ with Clayton Johnson) discusses working with Dan Curtis on the film and other things. He isn’t the first to point out that Oliver Reed was constantly drunk at night and didn’t get on Bette Davis. Mind you, from other extras, Davis was also a bit of a diva herself, complaining all the time.
Looking objectively about the house sucking the life from the family, it’s only the repeat viewings that you realise what is going on and not just a family crisis. If anything, I think it’s too subtle in that you don’t really make the connection that it is the house causing the effect and not just them falling apart by being in isolation. After all, the family don’t go out to buy food or even see if they have neighbours, who might have told them about other odd things about the house. The funeral and even the doctor visiting later tends to throw that a bit because it means you don’t see all the scenes only those that pertains to the house. With a modern name understanding, if you’re like me, you do have to wonder what happens between the scenes depicted.
Then again, I tend to accept things like Marion’s clothes changes as a natural thing, largely because of accepting what is on the screen than question it even today. If you’re a woman with an open wardrobe with clothes in your size, wouldn’t you want to try some of the clothes on from time to time? It might have helped had the others recognised different changes in each other, despite the changes in themselves.
Having watched this film three times now, one question that does puzzle me why weren’t there photos of Roz and Arnold Allardyce amongst the photos on the shelf at the end? After all, the house does like to keep photographs.
(region B blu-ray/region 2 DVD: pub: Arrow Films. 2 dvd/blu-ray 111 minute film.
cast: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Lee H. Montgomery, Dub Taylor, Anthony James and Bette Davis
check out website: http://http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/ – its cheaper to buy direct.