Burnt Offerings is a 1976 horror movie that stars Oliver Reed, Karen Black an Bette Davis. Now is that a dream cast for a horror movie or what? And did I mention Burgess Meredith plays a supporting role? With a cast like that you can be sure that scenery will get chewed.
Marian (Karen Black) and Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed) are a nice couple with a 12-year-old son named Davy. They’re looking for a house to rent for the summer and when they find one it almost seems to good to be true (always a dangerous thing when you’re a character in a horror movie). The house is huge, old and gorgeous. And the slightly dotty brother and sister, Arnold and Roz Allardyce, who own it are asking for a ridiculously low rental. The only thing is their elderly mother won’t leave the house so they’ll have to share it with her but they assure the Rolfs that she’s really no trouble at all. They’ll hardly even know she’s there. There’ll be plenty of room for the Rolfs and for Ben’s aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) who lives with them.
Marian has fallen hopelessly in love with the house already, although Ben is a little suspicious. When they move in they find the brother and sister gone. They don’t actually see the old lady. Everything seems fine though. Although one or two odd incidents do occur. The house suddenly looks slightly different. And some rough-housing in the pool between Ben and Davy gets out of hand. In fact Davy is almost drowned.
Ben eventually decides that perhaps it would be better if they left. But Marian (who has changed both her hairstyle as well as her style of dress) will not leave, even after further rather frightening incidents. She spends an inordinate amount of time upstairs in old Mrs Allardyce’s room. Ben still hasn’t set eyes on the old lady. He is increasingly worried. What is to become of them?
Burnt Offerings looks good. The house is terrific. Dan Curtis’s direction is workmanlike but reasonably effective. The big problem is the script, by Curtis and William F. Nolan. The ideas have potential but they don’t really do much with them. And at 116 minutes the film is just a touch too long and just a little on the slow side.
But all is not necessarily lost. All it needs is a couple of outrageously over-the-top performances and it can still work. And that’s where Karen and Ollie come in. Can they produce sufficiently over-the-top performances to save the movie? You bet they can.
Karen Black is superb. A lesser actress would have played Marian as a perfectly ordinary woman who slowly gets drawn into the weirdness of this house. But Karen Black’s acting, even when she’s not playing psychos, always bristles with manic nervous energy and suppressed hysteria. And that makes her particularly effective in this role because it overcomes the suspension of disbelief problem. You don’t have any trouble believing that this is a woman who is going to be sensitive to any weirdness in her environment. And black gives the character a vulnerability that ensures that she never loses our sympathy.
Oliver Reed is just as good. His big asset is that he’s Oliver Reed. He could always do subtle and restrained acting if that was what was called for, being being Oliver Reed you know that at any minute that restraint could be throw out the window.
Bette Davis lands the most thankless role. Her character is underwritten and doesn’t serve all that much purpose. She has her moments, but she’s completely overshadowed by the two leads.
Not a great movie but if (like me) you’re a big fan of Oliver Reed and Karen Black then it’s definitely worth a look.