BURNT OFFERINGS is a remarkably faithful film adaptation of the 1973 novel of the same name by Robert Marasco. One of my favorite films from childhood, I recall it airing on NBC-TV in the late 1970's on almost a yearly basis, and then it became a perennial favorite on many independent stations during the 1980's. When I saw the film on VHS I was shocked at how much footage was cut from some of its television airings, which is a shame because the film moves at a deliberately slow pace.
Bolstered by terrific performances and a better-than-average script, the star of the film is the Dunsmuir House and Gardens in Oakland, California, a sprawling 37-room mansion on 50 acres of gorgeous land. Oliver Reed and Karen Black are Ben and Marian Rolf, a couple who consider renting this incredible dwelling for the summer with their young son, David (Lee H. Montgomery of BEN), and Ben's Aunt Elizabeth (played brilliantly by Bette Davis). They are greeted at the house by Walker the Handyman (Dub Taylor of those crazy Hubba Bubba commercials from the late 1970's) who introduces them to the renters, two eccentric siblings played wonderfully by Eileen Heckart and Burgess Meredith who inform the Rolfs that they can rent the house for two months for $900.00 if they agree to a slight catch: they must agree to take care of their 85 year-old mother, Mrs. Allardyce, who lives in a room at the top of the mansion. All they have to do is prepare food for her three times a day and leave it in her sitting room. Understandably hesitant to buy into this peculiar "arrangement", Ben and his family return home to contemplate their next move. Marian is gung-ho from the get-go, so Ben reluctantly acquiesces to her wish to rent the house and concurs with the terms set forth by the Allardyces.
Returning to the house with Aunt Elizabeth in tow, the family engages in some fun banter concerning Elizabeth's desire to procure a driver's license. Director Curtis sets up the Rolf's as a family that the audience can relate to and almost feel as though they are along for the ride. When they reach the house, the Rolf's are shocked to find that the Allardyce's have left them the keys to the home and are nowhere to be found.
As Davey is ordered by his father to unpack the car, Marian attends to Mrs. Allardyce. Despite knocking on her door multiple times and talking to her, the old woman never responds. Marian assumes she's sleeping.
As the days progress, Davey and his father clean out the pool and fill it with water, while Marian prepares meals for Mrs. Allardyce and becomes more in awe of the old woman's music box and photo collection, the latter of which is strange in two respects: not only are the photos of people who are of varying age and do not appear related, but none of them are smiling. When Marian listens to the music from the music box, she goes into a dreamlike trance, oblivious to all external sounds.
What transpires from this point on is no less than the most obvious "inspiration" for Stephen King's THE SHINING. The uneventful settling into the house suddenly takes a U-turn when Ben inexplicably tries to drown Davey in the pool during a maniacal episode of unprovoked rage. Later that night, Ben, contrite and baffled by his behavior, dreams of his mother's funeral when he was just a young boy. In the dream, cinema's scariest chauffer smiles at him. As the film progresses, a series of near-fatal "accidents" that threaten the very fabric of the family unit and their physical well-being leaves the viewer wondering why they just don't get the hell out of the house, but closer examination of the film reveals why they do not. It is in this respect, as well as the film's denouement, where the film triumphs over the novel.
The one image people tend to remember from this film more than any other is Anthony James' frightening turn as the chauffeur. His smile behind the dark sunglasses is rumored to have made teenage girls scream as they watched it in a theater or, more often than not, at sleepovers.
Dan Curtis, the creator of the popular TV show DARK SHADOWS, used his TV crew to make this film, much like Hitchcock did when he filmed his self-proclaimed "fun picture" PSYCHO. Fortunately, he shot the film with a cinematic eye, which results in some very interesting camerawork. He employs the use of low-angle shots with the idea of the theatrical audience in mind, "looking up" at the actors on the screen. I wish that I had seen this film in a theater! If you have the patience to watch a thriller that takes its time, BURNT OFFERINGS is worth seeing.
I usually avoid discussing a film's transfer to video because I do not feel that I am in any authoritative position to do so, but the release of BURNT OFFERINGS on Region 1 NTSC DVD is so disappointing that I must address it. Originally scheduled for release on laserdisc in 1997, the project was postponed and eventually scrapped due to MGM's inability at that time to secure suitable film elements for the transfer. If the new DVD transfer is any indication, this issue still persists today, as it boasts a dark and uneven look. In fact, the film looks only marginally better than the NTSC VHS transfer from the 1980's. I hate to think that the film's negative is either missing, in really bad shape, or destroyed, because the image is lacking in detail. The film print itself is fairly free of dirt, it's just that the transfer � which might have been made from an interpositive film element transferred to video using not up-to-par telecine technology at the time � is extremely dull. It does not appear to be struck from a theatrical print considering the lack of tell-tale reel change markers in the film's upper right-hand corner. BURNT OFFERINGS was filmed in August 1975, and one could argue that the film's age is a factor, but I disagree � CITIZEN KANE was shot in 1941 and it looks gorgeous. Other reviewers of this DVD have waxed enthusiastically over the transfer, but I cannot imagine why. Perhaps this is how the film was shot?
Unfortunately, the film's sound fares no better. The dialog is unbearably low, sound effects are strident, and Robert Cobert's musical score, indubitably one of the creepiest and most frightening scores ever written for a film, fairs only slightly better, and even this is in mono. Disappointingly, a soundtrack album was never issued, with the minimal exception of a Cobert compilation CD that included several tracks from the film mixed in with other productions he scored.
If you love this film as much as I do, purchasing the DVD is a no-brainer. The disc includes a theatrical trailer, and a combo-commentary with Karen Black, Dan Curtis, and the film's screenwriter William F. Nolan, though I wish that they all had viewed the film prior to the commentary, as some of their comments are truly unbelievable.
I visited the Dunsmuir House and Gardens while in California on business some years ago. The last two photos that I have included were taken by me. The first is of the house, and the second is what's left of the swimming pool, now off-limits to people because earthquakes in the area have made the land unstable.