Thursday, June 13, 2013

Once Burnt...

The haunted house is a common theme in horror movies, but this little-known gem from the 1970s is among the most terrifying of the genre.

In Burnt Offerings (1976), a young family are offered a charming but somewhat dilapidated Long Island estate for the summer at an attractively low price. It seems ideal, even if the owners—a pair of elderly siblings—are eccentric and the house needs a lot of loving care.  But there’s a reason for the low rental price: The mother of the two old-timers is still alive and living upstairs in the attic, and will need three meals a day brought to her on a silver tray. Nevertheless, they can’t resist the idea of living in this grand house with its extensive grounds and swimming pool in need of renovation. They agree to the terms.

The cast is first-rate. Oliver Reed is Ben Rolf and Karen Black is his wife, Marian. Lee H. Montgomery is their 11-year old son Davey. Feisty, cigarette-puffing Aunt Elizabeth is played with precision by a mature Bette Davis. The Allerdyces are portrayed by veteran character actors Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart. 

As the summer progresses, the Rolfs freshen up the premises, restoring the swimming pool in the process. But the house slowly and inexorably sucks the life out of its inhabitants. Energetic Aunt Elizabeth becomes old and tired and feeble. Karen Black becomes obsessed with cleaning and polishing every knickknack in the house as if it were own, totally ignoring the needs of her family. Oliver Reed is tortured by horrifying dreams, becomes psychotic and almost drowns his son. They realize they need to leave this terrible place—if only old Mrs. Allerdyce (unseen by everyone but Marian) were not upstairs!

Produced and directed by Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis, Burnt Offerings foreshadows Kubrik’s The Shining a few years later, as Oliver Reed’s character degenerates into madness in an isolated setting.

Eerie and spooky throughout, a few sequences hit the top of the shock-o-meter: Oliver Reed’s terrifying dream of a demonic chauffeur at his father’s funeral becomes reality as the apparition becomes the angel of death, stalking and scaring ailing Aunt Elizabeth to death. And the revelation of the identity of old Mrs. Allerdyce provides a jolt on a par with the climax of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

I saw this movie with my father when I was 10...and had to revert to sleeping with a night-light for months to come. Even though I now own it on DVD, I hesitate to watch it alone in the house.  

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