Saturday, October 2, 2010

31 Days Of Horror: Day 2: Burnt Offerings

I love haunted house films in theory, but more often then not, not in practice. Conceptually speaking, out of all the standard “Movie Monsters” the haunted house is the most potent. Our home is supposed to be the one place we’re safe. The one place we can take our armor off and truly be ourselves. “A Man’s home is his castle.” And the idea that that refuge could be malignant. Waiting patiently to hurt us badly in the places we’re most vulnerable, is a powerful one.

Unfortunately for every truly effective take on this idea, for every The Haunting, The Shining, and Poltergeist; there are ten movies which feature well heeled actors looking vaguely bored until someone in a sheet walks by.

So lets give Burnt Offerings some points for ambition. Though it’s not entirely successful it does have some ideas about what it wants to do.

The story is standard boilerplate, Reed and his family rent a country manner far beyond their ways and means, for only nine hundred dollars for the entire season. Little do they know the collateral will be their souls!!! (Shuddup it’s late). The result is one of those crazy ass, “Wait Wut?” casts that periodically popped up in the seventies. I mean Oliver Reed (“Oh thank God. He’s always Drunk and surly!”), Betty Davis, Burgess Meredith, and Karen “Cockeyed” Black all in the same movie? Jesus there must have been some days on that set. It rivals The Sentinel in quantity if not stamina.

Oliver Reed and Davis seem pointedly amused by one another. Davis gives a fine performance. At such late a date one must admire both the dignity that Davis composed herself with in the majority of her scenes, and the lack of vanity it must have took to let herself look so God awful in others. Seriously there are scenes in this where she looks like the crypt keepers mother. I’m talking decrepit. Unfortunately, Reed and Black have not an eighth of their chemistry. Understandable, as Black is one of the most phenomenally least charismatic actresses to ever have an underserved run of good luck.

The problem is that Burnt Offerings traffics very little in the way of boo scares. The horror is derived, supposedly from watching Reed’s and Black’s relationship fracture. Only we don’t give a damn about that relationship, and neither for that matter do Reed or Black. While Reed and Black seem so or less indifferent to each other that the fracturing of their bond feels like a forgone conclusion, not a tragedy.

In the meantime Burnt Offerings none too successfully walks the fine line between deliberately paced and slow. Alternating scenes of the couple half heartedly arguing with a few genuinely disturbings scenes. Most courtesy of a creepy ass grinning Chauffer, but also including a particularly disturbing scene, in which Reed almost drowns his son in the pool, without seeming to realize what he’s doing. His horseplay crossing from jolly to malevolent without the boundary between the two ever really being clear.

Things heat up in time for a climax whose unrelenting grimness after a relatively staid preceding two hours is more likely to invoke an arched eyebrow then terror.

At the end of the day, Burnt Offerings is a noble, but unsuccessful effort. I give it points for trying, and I’m glad I watched it. But I won’t be in any hurry to see it again.

EDIT: As I am want to do after finishing my review I perused the interwebs to see what other reviews said of the film in question.

That's how I came across this little gem from Ebert.

"Burnt Offerings" is a mystery, all right. What's mysterious is that the filmmakers were able to sell such a weary collection of ancient cliches for cold hard cash. That's why they're rich and the rest of us are poor.

I love it when he gets catty.


Aaron said...

Honestly I think this is the first negative review I've heard of this movie, which makes me happy because I did not like this movie at all.

"...walks the fine line between deliberately paced and slow"

In my opinion, it's just slow. And boring. End of story. Even worse than the movie was the quality of the DVD print. Not sure which version you watched, or where you watched it, but the one I saw looked like someone vomited vasoline all over the lens. I can't stand movies with that overly blurry look.

Nice write-up, Bryce. Looking forward to whatever else you got up your sleeve throughout October.

Will Errickson said...

I just reviewed the original novel by Robert Marasco; underwhelming is the word. So with a cast like this, I was hoping the movie version would amp it up some, but no, you're on the money. Half-hearted is right.

Emily said...

I actually fell in love with Burnt Offerings when I watched it about a year ago. It may be telling that I'm normally NOT a haunted house fan, like werewolves, they just don't get to me.

But what I liked about BO was what it did to the parents. That early swimming pool scene is kind of terrifying, and it says something for a film when it's Oliver Reed who comes off like the good guy! Karen Black's character is seduced by the house, by the THINGS, and she ultimately cashes in her family for it. It's darn sad.

The film is too long to be sure, and I can understand a lot of poeple just not digging it. For me though, it did something really unique and haunting with the old haunted house gimmick.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Aaron: Oh yeah I really got the Vaseline look. But I couldn't figure out if that was due to the quality of the DVD, or the style the film was shot in thanks to it's (ahem) older cast.

@ Will: That was an interesting review on your part. Funny that King acknowledged it as the influence on The Shining, given that his improved on the work at every opportunity.

I saw a bit of House Of The Devil there myself.

@ Emily: I can totally see that movie. The problem is, I could never get invested in Black, or the kid. Davis and Reed were fun. But I just cared about them because they're Oliver Reed and Bette Davis, and thus are intrisically awesome, not so much because I cared about their character's fates.

Rob said...

Agreed (in spades) about Karen Black-never saw any of the talent others raved about. Love everything I've seen with Oliver Reed, and love a lot of the things with the great Bette. But oh, I'm in for it: I don't LOVE Burnt Offerings, but it scares me silly (saw it about a month ago @ 4AM) and had to turn on the lights and read a book. The Hearse chauffeur, the final reveal of Mrs. Allerdyce, the gradual, increasing bitchiness of the mom-aye. And I thought the son was unusual in that he made a lot more sense than the adults and wasn't "movie-kid" annoying-as a kid, that ending TRULY upset me. So yeah, though it's no classic (E.G. The Shining) I found it scary as eff, but yes, that vaseliney lense was annoying as hell.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Rob: Like I said, this isn't a movie I can blame anyone for liking. The Chauffer is hella creepy. It just didn't work for me.

And I kind of think they blew the final reveal of Mrs. Allerdyce


The reveal itself was fine, even if we figured it out way before everyone else. But it cuts from her standing up to Reed Shrieking in Terror, turning and just throwing himself out of the window.

It's like "Dude you could have handled it better. At least try to make it to the door."

Though him falling through the windshield two inches from his son was pretty righteous.