Burnt Offerings (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Mar 07, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Burnt Offerings (Blu-ray Review)


Dan Curtis

Release Date(s)

1976 (February 6, 2024)


United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A+

Burnt Offerings (Blu-ray)

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Haunted house movies generally concern manifestations inside the house, most often ghosts in one form or another. Chills arise from the interaction of these supernatural beings with average people. Burnt Offerings, a variation on the haunted house horror sub-genre, deals with a family that becomes prey to the house itself.

The Rolfs—Ben (Oliver Reed, Gladiator), Marian (Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces) and their son, Davey (Lee Montgomery, Split Image)—answer an ad for a summer rental. On arriving at the address, they’re surprised to see that the vacation house is a huge mansion. The owners, siblings Roz (Eileen Heckart, The Bad Seed) and Arnold Allardyce (Burgess Meredith, Rocky), appear a bit eccentric, but when they quote a rental fee of $900 for the entire summer, Marian is eager to sign on the dotted line.

There is, however, one condition: the Allardyce’s mother lives upstairs and cannot leave the house. If a tray of food can be provided for her three times a day, she will be no trouble since she never leaves her room. To entice the Rolfs, Roz notes, “The house takes care of itself.” Ben is put off, but Marian volunteers to look after the old woman’s meals and the family moves in, accompanied by their Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis).

Almost immediately, odd things start to happen. Dead plants in the greenhouse begin to revive by themselves. Aunt Elizabeth is stricken with a mysterious debilitating malady. Marian becomes possessive and protective of the house, dedicating more and more of her time to its care. At one point, the house seems to be shedding parts of itself. And then there’s the recurring, nightmarish vision of a creepy chauffeur (Anthony James, In the Heat of the Night) smiling demonically.

Director Dan Curtis, known mostly for the daytime serial Dark Shadows and several made-for-TV movies, directed Burnt Offerings on a 30-day filming schedule. the film doesn’t contain big shock moments, monsters, or gripping action sequences. It depends on subtlety and a growing sense of unease. It takes its time allowing the viewer to figure out what is actually happening in this weird house. Based on a novel by Robert Marasco, the screenplay by co-writers Curtis and William F. Nolan portrays the Rolf family as decent folks who simply want a relaxing vacation in the country. The Allardyce siblings seem a bit eerie but the carrot they dangle in front of the family is a luxurious rental for the entire summer at an irresistibly low price that compensates, in their mind, for having to supply meals for old Mrs. Allardyce.

One of the film’s most intense scenes emerges as father and son fool around in the pool while Aunt Elizabeth watches poolside. It soon becomes clear that Ben is “playing” too rough and Davey is struggling. When Ben intentionally holds his son underwater, we wonder why his mood has suddenly changed from loving dad to potential killer. It’s the house itself that’s having an evil effect on the family, attempting to do them harm. But as Davey and Ben decide they want to leave the house, Marian becomes more determined to stay. And there’s Mrs. Allardyce to consider. They can’t leave a helpless old woman alone.

Performances are uniformly effective, though Reed “plays to the balcony” in some scenes. Black shows Marian’s growing attachment to the house in scenes in which she seems transfixed by the tune in a music box, lovingly polishes family photos, and dutifully sees to Mrs. Allardyce’s needs. When Davey accidentally breaks a large glass bowl, she overreacts, frightening the boy and caressing the broken pieces as if they’re human.

Davis has a fairly small role but adds stature to the proceedings. Her character serves as an illustration of the house’s power and gives her a chance to show a range of emotions, from kindly family relative to a tormented person in physical and emotional pain. Davis made this film at a time when she was having late-career success starring in made-for-TV movies. She liked the script because it gave her a sizable amount of screen time.

Heckart and Meredith are nice additions to the cast in small but important roles as the owners of the house. Without overt menace, they nonetheless signal foreboding and are entertainingly bizarre.

Young Lee Montgomery has some heavy-duty scenes and plays them believably. He comes across as a real kid rather than as a professional child actor. His role is substantial, and he appears in the film’s key scenes.

Though he has only a small role, Anthony James is a truly terrifying presence as the gaunt chauffeur with the creepy smile who pops up periodically in gauzy dream flashbacks or nightmares. He’s probably the scariest character in the film.

Burnt Offerings combines the thriller genre with horror in an intelligently written tale of malevolence. With a leisurely pace, the film develops suspense as one incident after another builds to a shocking revelation.

Burnt Offerings was shot by director of photography Jacques Marquette on 35 mm color film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray re-release offers the same high definition master, but now presented on a BD-50 disc with a higher bitrate. Contrast and clarity are quite good, with deep velvety blacks. The color palette ranges from bright hues in outdoor scenes, with blooming flowers especially vibrant. The pool scenes are shot under bright sunlight, contrasting with more somber colors in the house. Surprisingly, director Dan Curtis doesn’t resort much to mysterious shadows and underlit parts of his compositions. A climactic scene, in which an agitated Ben climbs upstairs, was shot in full daylight, missing an opportunity to add to the foreboding atmosphere. Details, such as the wrinkles on Davis’ face, patterns in Black’s clothing, furnishings in the house, a chimney breaking apart, and a downed tree are well delineated.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available (which were not included on the previous release). Dialogue is clear and distinct. Davis exhibits her trademark speech mannerisms, such as unusual emphasis on syllables and distinctive cadences. Sound effects include churning waves in the swimming pool, Davey screaming, parts of the house being shed, a window shattering, and a car trying to ram through a downed tree blocking the road. Bob Cobert’s music has a foreboding tone and is used judiciously so that when we hear it, it creates tension.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Dan Curtis, Karen Black, and William F. Nolan
  • Audio Commentary by Richard Harland Smith
  • Interview with Actor Anthony James (17:33)
  • Interview with Actor Lee Montgomery (16:29)
  • Interview with Screenwriter William F. Nolan (13:21)
  • Trailers from Hell with Steve Senski (3:21)
  • Animated Footage of Images (3:21)
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (2:29)

Commentary # 1 – Director Dan Curtis cut the first 15 minutes of the film, which featured the Rolfs in the city because he felt the scenes weren’t needed and slowed the picture. It took a long time to find the right location—the Dunsmuir mansion in Oakland, California. Curtis went to see Karen Black in San Francisco when she was shooting Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock and asked her to be in Burnt Offerings. They had worked together on the TV movie Trilogy of Terror. Curtis loved the novel but felt it lacked a satisfactory ending. The first screenplay, by the book’s author, Robert Marasco, also had no proper conclusion. Curtis came up with an ending. The director originally shot in CinemaScope but changed back to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 since it was his first feature film and he was used to the latter format. Curtis usually let the actors do the scene and then selected the angles. Improvisation was fine as long as the point of the scene was made. Black was pregnant during the filming but her wardrobe concealed her condition. Bette Davis was thoroughly professional, though she needed Curtis’ frequent reassurance that she was doing a good job. The pool was old and abandoned and had to be made usable. Suspense had to be created during this scene. Funeral flashback scenes are based on Curtis’ funeral for his mother. Karen Black notes that she made only a few scary movies during her career.

Commentary # 2 – Film historian Richard Harland Smith mentions that many of the principal actors and the director of Burnt Offerings have passed away. The title refers to a sacrifice to God, usually of a valuable domestic animal that could represent a loss to the one sacrificing. Brief overviews of the careers of the principal actors are provided. Production designer Eugene Lourie directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, and The Giant Behemoth years earlier. Director Curtis and screenwriter William F. Nolan worked together on previous TV projects. Curtis directed adaptations of Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. The siblings in Burnt Offerings are reminiscent of the Castevets in Rosemary’s Baby—eccentric and evil. Bob Cobert was Curtis’ composer of choice; he scored many TV movies. In the novel, the Allardyces are more like country folk than the way they’re portrayed in the film. Gothic tales catered to people’s baser instincts. The rise of the middle class created a market for gothic literature. Gothic novels were not exclusively horror stories. Horror is “foregrounded” in the short story format and most prominent in the tales by Edgar Allan Poe. The 1960s was the decade of the haunted house, with such films as House of Usher, The Haunting, and The Shuttered Room. Burnt Offerings is compared to The Old Dark House (1932). In both films, the story builds to the revelation of a mysterious upstairs character. Jane Eyre and Psycho also deal with a reclusive individual in an upstairs room. Curtis traded film rights with Sergio Leone; he gave Leone the rights to The Hoods, a novel about Jewish gangs that was adapted into Once Upon a Time in America. Curtis got the rights to Burnt Offerings along with a $2 million budget to make the film. Summing up his commentary, Smith notes “All of the horror is in the service of preserving a picture postcard view of life where everything is nice and nothing is real.”

Interview with Actor Anthony James – James notes that he had to “act his face” because of his distinctive look, and felt he had more to give. He speaks about having long talks with Bette Davis about many things on the set of Burnt Offerings. James was also a painter who tried different styles and finally settled on abstract art. Davis used her influence to get him a show for his paintings. Some of his paintings are shown. He speaks about giving different dimensions to characters, noting “To do art is to wrestle with the Angel of Death.”

Interview with Actor Lee Montgomery – Montgomery knew Dan Curtis from Dark Shadows, which he loved as a kid. He speaks about being in a film and on a film set as a child. He developed a relationship with Bette Davis, who regaled him with stories of picture making in Hollywood. He speaks fondly of Karen Black, who stayed in touch and had great catered parties. During filming, Dan Curtis’ daughter committed suicide and production stopped for two weeks. The Dunsmuir mansion was pretty spooky. It was used for the first time in a feature film for Burnt Offerings.

Interview with Screenwriter William F. Nolan – He first worked with Dan Curtis on a two-hour TV movie. In Burnt Offerings, the house “devours” people to renew itself. Bette Davis couldn’t stand Oliver Reed. He would get drunk and bellow Irish songs in the middle of the night at the hotel where the cast was staying. The house focuses on Marian because she’s becoming the house. The chauffeur is the physical manifestation of the house—its guardian. The subtext of the film is that appearances can be misleading. Burnt Offerings and another film Nolan wrote, Logan’s Run, were released in the summer of 1976. The critics were not kind to either film. The story of Burnt Offerings was more intellectual than the typical horror film.

Trailers from Hell with Steve Senski – Senski speaks about Dan Curtis’ TV movies and his move to feature film production with Burnt Offerings. As the trailer is shown, Senski provides anecdotes about the film.

Animated Footage of Images – In slideshow format, accompanied by Bob Cobert’s music from the film, book covers, photo of author Robert Marasco, black & white publicity stills, Spanish lobby cards, Japanese handbill, German lobby cards, and U.S. lobby cards are shown.

The major problem with Burnt Offerings is that it isn’t very scary. Co-writers Curtis and Nolan are too subtle in their treatment. Curtis came from television, where censorship made graphic horror impossible. But even with greater freedom in the feature format, he’s overly restrained, giving the picture the look of a TV movie with a really fine cast. It might appeal to those who are turned off by visceral, bloody horror, but horror buffs will likely find it far too tame. The horror builds in stages to a climax that’s pretty predictable.

- Dennis Seuling