Movies We Like
Dan Curtis is an unsung television legend. He cut his teeth as the creator of the beloved spooky soap opera Dark Shadows that ran from 1966-1971. He also wrote and directed it. Then he produced the two classic TV movies The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler (directing the second) which eventually evolved into the cult series Kolchack: The Night Stalker. He went on to direct more '70s horror films for the small screen that today are looked back on as seminal and groundbreaking, including The Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror, Dead of Night and Dracula (with Jack Palance). By the '80s he would also make his mark producing the enormous WWII miniseries The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. But surprisingly, other than a pair of quickie Dark Shadows spin-off movies made to cash in on the success of the show, he only directed one theatrical film, his own adaptation of Robert Marasco’s 1973 best-selling horror novel Burnt Offerings. Seeing it today, it is hard to believe it was a theatrical film, with its washed out colors and fade-outs after each act as if commercials are about to come on. It looks just like one of Curtis’ '70s TV movies -- and that’s just one of the reasons I love it.
Marasco’s novel and Curtis’ film predate two massive books and movies with similar threads, The Shining and The Amityville Horror, by a few years. In fact, along with titles like Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, The Legend of Hell House, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The Sentinel and (from Japan) Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s House, as well as countless TV movies, they help make the '70s the golden age of haunted house flicks. One of the many points that gives Burnt Offerings the edge over its competition is its cast made up of all-time scenery chewers; as the nice family in peril you have Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis. Yes, Bette Davis! And she’s fairly contained compared to the other two. As the kid you have perennial '70s TV kid Lee Montgomery. (At this point, the fifteen-year-old was already an on-set veteran and probably ready for Reed’s mugging, having acted alongside George C. Scott in his self-directed vanity ham-off The Savage is Loose).
The spook house in Burnt Offerings is actually a 19th century California countryside mini-mansion. (It's obviously California, although the original occupants have sorta Southern accents). A clean cut couple, Marian and Ben (Black and Reed), rent the rundown house for the summer, so that maybe Ben can work on his PhD or something. They also tote along their mopey son, Davey (Montgomery) and Ben’s sharp-tongued, but loving old aunt Elizabeth (Davis). The eccentric old brother and sister who rent it to them for next to nothing ($900 for two months!) ask that they just feed their old mamma upstairs three meals a day. And for good measure, the old family is played by no-slouches-in-the-ham-department Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor and Burgess Meredith (in full campy Tennessee Williams mode). The old siblings are delighted to hand it over to such youthful renters and the house slowly begins to change the new family. Marian becomes obsessed with the mamma upstairs (who the audience and the rest of the family are never introduced to). She starts to dress and behave in an old-timey manner and spends hours staring at the items on her antique dressing table and her Victorian music box. Ben becomes more and more aggressive with Davey; in one creepy scene he overtly manhandles him in the pool. Even worse, he has memories of his mother’s funeral and is haunted by the grinning hearse driver, played by the silent Anthony James who specialized in looking creepy throughout his career. The usually spunky Aunt Elizabeth seems to become more frail and confused every day, while poor Davey grows more wimpy. As events get more intense, the house seems to be able to rejuvenate itself, perhaps feeding off the family's energy -- or something like that.
For film geeks and fans of '70s B-movies there is an extra kick out of seeing Karen Black and Oliver Reed paired up; both had some major performances, but neither ended up as superstars. Black, an unconventional beauty, only had a couple of major performances in important films. Five Easy Pieces, The Day of the Locust and Curtis’ own Trilogy of Terror come to mind, along with Hitchcock’s final film Family Plot, but it’s enough to make her an actress that fully represents her era. Reed is another story. He was a hulky British bruiser who specialized in playing dangerous men; he is actually playing against type here as a mild-mannered family man. The musical Oliver established him, and his work with Ken Russell (Women in Love, The Devils, Tommy) made him iconic, but like Black his resume (even in the '70s) is full of forgettable flops. Interestingly, today he may be best known for the culty horror films he did. Starting with Burnt Offerings, he would also over the next several years appear in David Cronenberg’s The Brood and the great killer snake/kidnapping thriller Venom. That dopey musical Oliver might have won the Best Picture Oscar, but I bet these days Burnt Offerings sells more DVDs.
As a kid seeing Burnt Offerings it, like most of Curtis’ work, utterly terrified me. To this day James’ hearse driver is up there with the dead kid knocking on the window in the TV movie Salem’s Lot as the biggest nightmare-causing moments of my childhood. Perhaps I can’t look at Curtis’ body of work with new eyes and I still see it the way I did as a young kid who was glued to the television. On the other hand, I still think the two Night Stalker TV movies hold up well. (The TV series not so much, although I loved it growing up.) I’m not fully sure if someone seeing Burnt Offerings for the first time today would find it as chilling or the ending as shocking as I do, since maybe I am still seeing it through young eyes. Maybe Burnt Offerings is only for a secret cult of us who grew up during this period -- others are invited to watch it, but they must have an appreciation for '70s TV and a filmmaker who could never escape it.