Robert Marasco first wrote BURNT OFFERINGS as a script for a film meant to be directed by Bob Fosse in the late sixties. When that project fell through, he turned his ideas into a 1973 novel that was successful enough to be given its own film adaption. Fate probably had the right idea because this time, TV horror heavyweight Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS, THE NIGHT STALKER) was enlisted to bring Marasco’s story to the screen. William F. Nolan (who adapted two of Richard Matheson’s tales for Curtis’ TRILOGY OF TERROR) reverted Marasco’s novel back to screenplay form adding more than a few frightening concepts of his own. The resulting movie would have little impact theatrically but a generation of TV viewers would eventually end up traumatized by it just the same.
Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed), oldster Aunt Liz (Bette Davis), wife Marian (Karen Black) and son Davey (Lee Montgomery) decide to spend the summer in a glorious, though visibly ill-kept mansion. The entire family is sick of city life and Ben just can’t say no to the marvelous, low-cost offer to rent the place they’ve gotten from strange siblings Arnold (Burgess Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart). The only stipulation is that the duo’s elderly shut-in mother who resides in an attic suite and is likely to be never seen, must be given a tray of food three times a day. Things go swimmingly well at first but soon everyone in the Rolf family is clearly negatively influenced by the house; Marian becomes obsessed with housecleaning; Aunt Elizabeth loses all her spunky mojo; and Ben begins to have visions of a creepy chauffer from his childhood along with murderous urges towards his son. Moreover, each time a family member takes a psychological blow, the house appears to grow stronger as if it’s thriving upon their mental anguish.
BURNT OFFERINGS uncoils quietly for much of its runtime but every so often it cleanly lands a strike that leaves lasting scars. Ben’s hallucinations of a smiling chauffer/hearse driver (Anthony James) are particularly memorably dreadful. This lanky harbinger of doom can easily be seen as a precursor to such cinematic grimacing ghouls as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s Freddy Krueger, POLTERGEIST 2 & 3’s Reverend Kane and “The Tall Man” from PHANTASM (Note: BURNT OFFERINGS & PHANTASM both utilize to great effect the Dunsmuir-Hellman Historical Estate as the location for their horrific happenings).
If BURNT OFFERINGS wasn’t exactly built as an Oscar contender nobody seems to have informed the cast, all of whom bring their scene-chewing, A-game to the material. One truly disturbing scene involves Oliver Reed’s Ben transforming from protective father to rage-faced monster in an instant. While swimming in the backyard pool with son Davey, Ben turns an innocent moment of horseplay into a near drowning incident. The parent-on-child violence is hard to behold at any age and the sequence skillfully stokes both a parent’s fear of losing control of their emotions and a child’s fear of being physically overtaken by a suddenly unrecognizable guardian. Stephen King has admitted to being a fan of the original book and it’s not hard to believe at least some of the horrifying nature of this pool scene dripped its way into his THE SHINING.
BURNT OFFERINGS was not a success with audiences or critics upon release. In a decade very welcoming to supernatural elements in film, it actually lost money. No matter though, Dan Curtis’ more familiar stomping ground, television would eventually insure that Marasco’s tale left its rightful mark upon viewer’s psyches. I can tell you from experience that this was a movie that played very often in late night syndication and perhaps it just naturally worked better on the more patient small screen. It’s a film that offers no happy endings, that spares no one (look out for that falling chimney!); a wicked chiller with a many-pronged downbeat conclusion (one fate even mirrors Curtis and Black’s previous brilliant effort, TRILOGY OF TERROR). Like most horror films, It’s especially powerful when viewed right before bed, when the mind is more vulnerable to the unsettling vibes it delivers. Critics and cynics can scoff all they want, like the house it depicts, BURNT OFFERINGS will always quietly have the last laugh.
The similarities between Burnt Offerings and The Shining might extend past King’s novel. The final shot of Burnt Offerings and Stanley Kubrick’s movie are eerily similar. I have no idea if Kubrick or Diane Johnson (who wrote the script) ever saw Curtis’ film.
And the opening is pretty much exactly the same too with the family trio driving to dreaded place with mom and dad in the front and son in the back seat of car.
Plus yeah, the M.O. of the evil place is pretty much the same as they are both looking for eternal caretakers.
I honestly doubt The Shining would exist without Burnt Offerings. The only real addition is the psychic kid.
In any case, I bet Stephen King himself prefers Dan Curtis over Kubrick and enjoys Reed’s performance over Nicholson’s.
I’ve always really liked Burnt Offerings since I saw it as a kid. I was probably around the same age or a bit younger than the little boy in the film so all the trauma he went through really made an impression on me. It’s a disturbing slow burn movie that should really appeal to fans of the current A24 trend. I watched it again a few months ago and still found that ending devastating.
I love this movie! The last look we get of Karen Black at the climax ruined many a night sleep for young me!
Just watched this one for the first time a few weeks ago. I have no idea what took me so long, since this is the sort of thing I love. It quickly became one of my favorites.
I feel the same way. There’s a whole other level if you saw this one as a kid around Davey’s age. Especially that ending with the chimney. This was a time when it was very rare that a kid would be killed in a horror movie. It’s really alarming especially when you add the ol’ seventies freeze frame to the death! Yikes.
That ending! I wasn’t sure if I should describe it too much in the post but it does remind me of the ending of Trilogy of Terror. Karen Black just transforms herself with her facial expressions alone! It’s chilling. Plus to see the whole family bite it in a matter of minutes is devastating.
So glad you saw it and can verify that it works for new viewers! I’m partial to any and all haunted house movies myself and this one really has a mood about it. Even the way it’s shot- all soft and fuzzy like a dream gets to me!