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.