Where horror has moved towards personal threat typified by the unstoppable killing machine who stalks their victims, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and their descendents who persist in modern straight-to-streaming lowbrow fare, in the history of the genre it was the haunted house which was the traditional form, most often with a tragic history which led to the sinister reputation of the building such as in the Amityville murders, but sometimes, as in the words of Doctor John Markway in his investigation of Hill House, it is the house itself which is “born bad.”
This may be the case with 17 Shore Road, a remote mansion “suitable for a large family,” on offer as a holiday home for $900 for the whole season between July and Labour Day, “very reasonable for the right people.” Those people are writer Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed), his wife Marian (Karen Black) and their son Davey (Lee H Montgomery), enthusiastically welcomed by the somewhat eccentric siblings Roz and Arnold Allardyce (Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith).
Ben immediately questions just why the offer is so generous for the vast and beautiful if somewhat decayed neoclassical-revival mansion and its rambling estate but his family are charmed and the offer is too good to refuse, though there is one caveat in that the elderly and intensely private Mrs Allardyce will remain in residence with them, Marian to occasionally visit and bring her meals but otherwise their mother is to be undisturbed.
There is much work to be done, the paintwork cracked and graying, the dusty rooms to be aired, all the plants in the sun room dead, but in the words of Roz Allardyce before the impromptu departure of she and her brother, “children are good for the place” which “takes care of itself,” and soon enough they are joined by Marion’s Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and the house becomes a family home.
But despite the sunshine, the swimming pool, the removal of the daily pressures of their lives in the city, the peaceful environment in which they find themselves, there is a toll on the Rolfs, and as Marion works obsessively to bring the house to bloom the seeds of discord are sewn: Ben begins to act out of character, an episode in the pool with Davey which gets out of hand, and then the accident when the gas fire in Davey’s room is turned on, unlit, the windows and doors closed, almost as if the house itself were acting against them, or turning them against each other.
Based on Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel of the same name which predates publication of both The Shining and The Amityville Horror who share its themes (January and September 1977 respectively), Burnt Offerings was filmed in August of 1975 and released the following October, and is available on Blu-Ray by Arrow, transferred from the original film elements and with supporting features including two commentaries, interviews and a gallery of promotional items from the original release including rare international posters and lobby cards.
Directed by Dan Curtis, prolific producer and frequent director of Dark Shadows, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler as well as well as two Emmy award winning miniseries set during and in the aftermath of World War II, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, the original script had been written by Marasco himself but Curtis felt that, like the source novel which it followed closely, the ending simply did not work.
When the opportunity came to direct the feature, Curtis approached his long time friend and associate with whom he had collaborated with on the television movies The Norliss Tapes and Trilogy of Terror, the latter also starring Karen Back, Logan’s Run writer William F Nolan, and together they re-wrote the screenplay from scratch building it to a finale which is both graphic and shocking in contrast to the earlier pacing which hovers between steady and glacial.
With Curtis coming from a television background that was his approach to Burnt Offerings, shot on a tight schedule which was tragically suspended for a week following the sudden death of his daughter, but for what is a relatively straightforward film with little overt directorial style the greatest assets are the mansion itself, actually the thirty seven room Dunsmuir House, built in Oakland, California in 1899, and the ensemble cast, each of them experienced and respected players.
Of the coup of casting the legendary and often intimidating Bette Davis, Curtis recalls that she loved the script because it gave her a character rather than a cameo appearance, and as Aunt Elizabeth she plays a hugely atypical role, an oasis of joy as she sits painting in the sunshine as those around her edge towards madness.
Having acted since he was ten years old, the then teenage Lee H Montgomery was aware of Davis from her sinister role in The Nanny but recalls her with great affection and respect, describing her as “his champion” on set, telling how she admonished the boisterous Oliver Reed to be careful of his younger co-star during the intensely physical pool scene.
Also interviewed is Anthony James, the silent chauffeur who plagues Ben’s nightmares, a role expanded by Nolan as “the physical manifestation of the house,” who says of Davis that “only a few people were allowed in her dressing room,” but that he was one of them, spending the afternoon having long talks with her; James was very fortunate to be able to renew his friendship with Davis, “a dear, dear person,” on 1978’s Return to Witch Mountain.
Regrettably only present in a single scene consciously and conspicuously framed askew which recalls his time as the Penguin on Batman, Burgess Meredith is superb as Arnold Allardyce as is Eileen Heckart as Roz. “I was aware of how brilliant she was,” Black states, but to her regret they never worked together again, though it was a reunion for her and Meredith who had played her father on The Day of the Locust for which they both received Golden Globe nominations.
A BAFTA winner for her costume designs on The Day of the Locust, Burnt Offerings also saw Black clothed again Ann Roth who dressed her to conceal the fact that she was several months pregnant during the shoot, and out of the production came a long friendship between Black and Montgomery who was often invented to attend parties at her house.
“She was as sweet as could be,” he says of Black, who apparently has nothing but good memories of everyone he worked with, Meredith, whom he knew from his memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone (“You could tell he really loved kids”), Curtis (“He was a great guy”) and the notorious Oliver Reed in whose care he was once placed and who proceeded to get his young charge drunk, though Davis had a frostier relationship with the man whom Nolan says she regarded as “a boorish alcoholic.”
Somewhat overlong and critically dismissed upon original release, Burnt Offerings is a respectable horror film in the mould of classic Americana, one of the last made before the genre was reinvented by George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and their peers and perhaps it is for that reason that it is largely overlooked on this side of the Atlantic, which is all the more reason to appreciate this new package.