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Creepy haunted house movies either leave open the possibility that it's all in the characters' minds (The Shining) or kick down the doors with all-out house related mayhem (The Amityville Horror). Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings seems to toy around with both concepts but ultimately settles on being a noisy, obnoxious camp-fest. I was under the impression that nothing much actually happens in this city-slickers-on-vacation schlocker but after the completely insane ending I have to say that that's not accurate. Remember how Amityville just sort of stopped at the end, with no explanation or wrap-up? Yeah, this is different from that. The ending in Burnt Offerings may not make a lot of sense but it's sure to rattle your nerves.
But before I get ahead of myself, the movie is a somewhat leaden mix of creepy house cliches. A family rents a huge house in the country for the summer. The father and mother (Oliver Reed and Karen Black) want something relaxing and the price is too cheap to pass up. To his credit, Reed's character knows something isn't right but given that the house's sibling owners (played by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) are clearly insane, and the catch is that the house comes with a shut-in old woman in the attic, any reasonable person should have run away immediately. But rent they do and it isn't long before various crazy stuff starts to happen, including a touch of possession whereby Reed nearly drowns his young son (Lee Montgomery of Ben fame). This lengthy scene is a pretty disturbing example of demonic child abuse and would probably leave most viewers with a nasty taste in their mouths.
The film drags along from one creepy set piece to the next without necessarily doing much original until the end rolls around. That's when the film looks like it might become a straight rip off of Psycho. But it doesn't. It becomes something really, really weird. I don't know if it was that I watched it late at night or that I had the volume cranked way too loud but the ending made my skin crawl. I guess that's what the filmmakers wanted and it's what bumped the film to a Rent It rating.
Given that the material is pretty weak overall the performances need to be fun and they often are. Bette Davis is wasted as the auntie who tags along to the house but Reed growls and roars as the possessed pop and Black is her usual loopy, hilarious self. Meredith and Heckart are on screen far too little for how kinky and weird their performances are.
The anamorphic video looks pretty bad. The films appears to have been shot with soft focus and the transfer smears the look even further. Compression is visible at times and overall the picture looks weak and ugly.
The Dolby Digital Mono audio is similarly poor. Voices are muddy and indistinct while the noisy score (by the hilariously named Robert Cobert) blares indiscriminately.
A commentary track from director Dan Curtis, co-writer William F. Nolan, and co-star Karen Black is fun. Curtis and Nolan are a bit boring considering that this isn't exactly Citizen Kane and there isn't much of interest for them to discuss, but Black is just as wacky here as she is in the film. Her attempt to dissect the ending is bizarre. I wish she'd do commentary tracks for other films - including films she wasn't in! A trailer is also included.
A pretty poor excuse for a horror film, Burnt Offerings gets by basically on the weirdness of its ending and some of the performances. I was hoping for more Baby Jane-style hilarity from Davis but Black, Reed, Meredith and Heckart are memorably warped.