The 1976 film Burnt Offerings co-written and directed by TV movie maker Dan Curtis shares a lot of similarities with The Shinning in its storyline and themes along with the fact that it was also based on a novel of the same name from 1973 by Robert Marasco. Surprisingly this cult horror classic and its source material actually came first.
Marian and Ben Rolf (Karen Black and Oliver Reed) and their young son David (Lee Montgomery) are looking to rent a house for a long summer vacation and happen upon a stunning 19th-century mansion in the California countryside at a surprisingly low price.
Although Ben is dubious that there will be a catch Marian adores the place and the unusual old Allardyce siblings (played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) living there seem nice enough if slightly strange. Agreeing to take the place the brother and sister reveal one small proviso which is that their incredibly elderly mother must remain in the house for the duration of the hire.
Assured that she is no trouble the family agree with Marian taking sole duty of looking after the solitary and secretive invalid and soon move in along with Ben’s elderly but vivacious Aunt Elizabeth (legendary actress Bette Davis) and enjoy the sun, the grounds and their spacious ornate new home.
Slowly however things take a turn towards the terrifying as eerie incidents and near fatal accidents begin to befall the family without any explanation. The personalities of the adults begin to transform with Ben overcome by rage nearly drowning his son in the pool and Aunt Elizabeth losing her energy, health and will to live while Marian becomes more and more obsessed with attending to the Allardyce matriarch in her locked room.
As the family slips into fear and in-fighting it seems the house around them becomes more alive returning from its decaying and destitute state to full former glory and original beauty. Desperate to save their child from whatever is controlling them the Rolf clan must fight against the invisible and uncanny force before it takes over them all.
As mentioned comparisons between Burnt Offerings and The Shinning seem obvious as well as with The Amityville Horror and the multitudes of haunted house movies that have sprung up during the last few decades just showing how influential it was accentuated by the fact that it won several awards on release at Sitges Film Festival and Saturn Awards.
The story and its stylings reach further back however to the American Gothic genre and Edgar Allan Poe particularly The Fall of the House of Usher both of which merge the unnatural and otherworldly with real life blending psychological and supernatural horror together much like Burnt Offerings does.
Setting an ominous tone early on with the especially creepy performances of Burgess Meredith (best known from Rocky and playing The Penguin in the 60’s Batman TV series) and Eileen Heckart and the sinisterly shot mysterious mansion the film builds slowly squeezing out as much tension as possible with only a few fear filled outbursts such as Ben’s deeply disturbing swimming pool attack against his only offspring.
The acting is top notch especially from Oliver Reed and Karen Black who completely commit to both the characters and the spooky situation taking Ben and Marian from a loving happy and conventional couple into chaos and insanity and remaining convincing throughout.
Fans of 70’s haunted house horror’s and American Gothic movies will delight in Burnt Offerings and those unaware of it should most definitely check it out for the acting and expertly crafted unsettling atmosphere alone that will most defiantly leave you with chills.