Greg Goodsell here -- since I recently covered a film I saw with my late father at the time of its release, ROLLERBALL, I will bookend this with a film I saw with my late mother at the time of its release, BURNT OFFERINGS! This film has quite a pedigree -- and all-star cast, and is directed by DAN CURTIS, the king of made-for-TV horror! They just remade his DARK SHADOWS for the big screen with Johnny Depp, and -- let's talk about something else...
Here we are introduced to the dazzlingly dysfunctional Rolf family! KAREN BLACK is Mom, Ken Russell favorite OLIVER REED is Dad, and repulsive child actor Lee Montgomery -- the one who befriended the rat in the movie BEN, which in turn led to an early hit for singer Michael Jackson, are motoring to their summer home! It’s the imposing, isolated Allardyce estate, that they’re to occupy for the summer. They’ve got the crumbling manse for a song, but as everyone knows, there’s always a very heavy price to pay –
Here is the still beautiful -- but rapidly decaying Allardyce estate. Mrs. Rolf is bound and determined to spruce the place up to its former glory, and she gets her wish. As we shall see…
BURGESS MEREDITH plays the flamingly flamboyant Arnold Allardyce, the wheelchair-bound son of the Allardyce clan! Meredith could overact with the best of them -- HURRY, SUNDOWN, OF MICE AND MEN, ROCKY, THE SENTINEL, TV’s Batman “The Penguin” -- the list extends out into infinity! He lived to the ripe old age of 90 and was in the GRUMPY OLD MEN movie series right up until he passed on!
And here is EILEEN HECKART as sis Roz Allardyce! Heckart, like Meredith has a list of acting credits several miles long! She tells the Rolfs that "the house takes care of itself" and part of the very reasonable summer rates is the family must look after old mother Allardyce, who never leaves her attic bedroom!
Here's something about Karen Black I bet you didn't know -- we courted Black for an interview with Screem magazine several years ago and she turned us down flat because we were a "horror" publication! Since she is a devout Scientologist, it is against her beliefs to appear in a film with supernatural overtones. She insists that HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, TRILOGY OF TERROR and this film are "science-fiction" movies! Go figure! I guess her religion has given her much strength -- look at what it did for fellow Scientologist John Travolta recently!
-- and how could we forget BETTE DAVIS as the lovably dotty Aunt Elizabeth! This role for her was a stretch -- in lieu of being a malevolent Baby Jane or Nanny, Bette begins the film as a feisty little old lady who falls into dementia. Her downfall is truly tragic!
Mama Allardyce, forever unseen, works on her picture collection in secret. Cue one of the many similarities to THE SHINING. For your information, BURNT OFFERINGS was a book AND movie long before Kubrick and King tangled on that modern masterpiece.
The house's Olympic-sized swimming pool becomes a focus of dread pretty darn quick!
Here, the house begins to exert its psychic toll on poor Aunt Elizabeth, as she seemingly puts on 20 years in a matter of days!
Reliable character actor ANTHONY JAMES plays the ghastly chauffeur, the only really visible phantom in this “haunted house” story. This ghastly vision is fresh from Oliver Reed’s funeral for his mother he experienced as a child. While James has a resume a mile long, for the ultimate in James goodness, check out THE TEACHER (1974), an odd role for an actor usually cast as a bad guy in westerns – he plays a charmingly inept and hilarious serial killer!
GASP! It's the hearse and the evil chauffeur from Mr. Rolf's mother's funeral, rolling into the modern day!
Ask not for whom the bell tolls....
Oops! Someone left the gas on in junior's bedroom! Who did it? Aunt Elizabeth, have you been hitting the Nyquil again?
Poor Aunt Elizabeth is at death's door! A matter of days ago she was the prototypical little old lady in tennis shoes, and now she appears in the final throes of Alzheimer's! DEADLY SERIOUS NOTE: Sometimes it happens that way.
BURNT OFFERINGS relies totally on understatement, and little details that only the viewer can pick up. Karen Black has become a Stepford Wife with a vengeance, and has begun to make some very interesting wardrobe changes -- it will all make sense at the end.
We're running out of room, so let's just say that things go from bad to worse. Mr. Rolf becomes an abusive bully, Mrs. Rolf becomes a bubble-headed hausfrau and junior is continually underfoot, a victim in his parent's ongoing tug-of-war! But as the old song says, “Oz didn't give nothin' to the Tin Man that he didn't already have!”
Cue big shock conclusion -- Mrs. Bates, oops, Mrs. Allardyce? This flick does steal from the best.
Mr. Rolf has had enough! Goodbye, Allardyce estate!
AAAAAAAAhhhhh! My kindly mother turned her head from the movie screen at this point.
A very long movie at nearly two hours, BURNT OFFERINGS benefits from a less-is-more approach and lots of little atmospheric touches that the viewer must discover. It also holds a moral: beautiful homes harbor some drastically unhappy families!