Bette Davis’ shining cliché filled horror…
The Rolfe family rent an old rambling mansion with a deadly catch.
BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) trailer, Goremeister100 and photos © United Artists
When I think of Bette Davis in her early roles, I think of romantic heroines – usually in black and white films – falling for chiselled debonair men in tuxedos or trilbys. These men fall for her intense doe-eyed charm calling her “darling” in a way only men of that film generation could. Watch any film with Cary Grant to get the idea, An Affair to Remember (1957) being the most darling filled film that I’ve seen him in so far.
I also remember and loved Bette’s later appearance as an ageing dowager with a cutting sense of humour in Death on the Nile (1978) alongside Lois Chiles, George Kennedy, David Niven and Angela Lansbury. Bette’s character was found usually lurking under a huge brimmed hat, with her motives to kill for mounting as the victims piled up. Along with the rest of the cast of this Agatha Christie novel film adaptation whodunnit.
So after hearing about the appearance of her and the male lead in this film, through a Twitter comment in relation to the identity of the child star of this movie, I simply had to watch it. It co-stars Karen Black, who I vaguely recognised from a Jack Nicholson film Five Easy Pieces (1970) and the always great Oliver Reed.
Shockingly I’ve just watched Gladiator (2000) recently, and Reed’s fantastic swan song appearance and
Leaf Joaquin Phoenix in super-creepy mode (again) – as a married couple, Ben and Marian Rolfe. Their 12-year-old son Davey is played by then-child star, Lee H Montgomery.
About 10 years later he dropped his H and played Jeff Malone in the Sarah Jessica Parker dance movie, Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985). This is a movie that should have never been so I could have enjoyed a youngish Harrison Ford in Witness (1985) instead.. but more of that rant and Montgomery in that guilty pleasure review (CLICK HERE if you want to know more…)
I’d always mistaken this and two other horror movies namely The Hand (1981) with Michael Caine – in his 80s curly-haired mop days, what’s not to like – and need I say more – Roger Moore in The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) as really good TV movies with bloody good casts.
It was surprising that this horror, Burnt Offerings (1976) was first seen at the cinema and not behind a cushion on the sofa when it was released. The film has more horror clichés and tropes, than John Cusack’s 2012 (2009) which added these from just about every disaster film ever. These cliches – relevant or not – were topped by George Segal as the ill-fated lounge singer. Similar characters are seen in The Towering Inferno (1974) and Airport 77 (1977) films.
Burnt Offerings (1976) tells of the Rolfe family – Ben, Marian and son Davey – who drive through the opening credits – accompanied by super-creepy music – to look at an old
Southfork Ranch styled mansion in the country, with a view to renting it in the summer while he types up his doctorate. Straight away Darlin Husband and I think of The Shining (1980)’s similar introduction to the Torrance family.
After meeting the crazy caretaker – who looks like Father Jack in Father Ted (1995-98) but with an American accent – he meets the owners of the house Roz (Eileen Heckart) and Arnold Allardyce (Burgess Meredith). Both are more than a bit odd, calling each other brother and sister and not by first names, and just being over the top weirdly OTT dramatic.
Marian loves the house, but Ben doesn’t. Marian is still in love with the house, and even when her son falls off a wooden contraption outside she loves it. The occupants offer them the house for the whole of summer for only 900 dollars on condition that the Rolf feeds and waters their ageing mother and her large collection of plants. Cue potential tropes. And clichés.
Mother lives in the attic apartment. She likes to be alone and never leaves her room. The mother listens to music and sleeps. Mother looks in her sixties even though she’s about 20 years older. Meanwhile, a previously dying plant in a room of dead plants gains a shoot. Cue dramatic scales accompanying this part of the plot which will dance down your spine like a midget Fred Astaire.
So the family move in taking sharp as a button, Ben’s elderly Aunt Elizabeth with them. She is wonderfully played and to perfection by Bette Davis. On visiting the old Mother Allardyce’s living room, Marian notices the old lady’s not eating and becomes concerned about her. But there’s no reply as she questions her, and she doesn’t even come to her bedroom door. She notices the old lady’s vast collection of photographs.
These are pictures of startled looking people who appear of similar ages to the old, older and very old black and white photos pictures of the house found in the dining room. A wee casket is later revealed to be a music box with a haunting tune. Cue more spine-tingling music, as clichés become as often as Frances McDormand has starred in a Coen Brothers movie.
So as the menfolk clean the pool, Marian spends time sorting out the house to her liking. Later, Ben and Davey go for a walk discovering an unkempt graveyard apparently only full of Allardyces with no new interments after 1890. Cue more foreboding music, and another trope yet you are drawn in even more to this movie.
One day is Marian still sorting out the house and listening to the music box (again), things take an unsettling turn outside as Ben is playing with Davey in the pool. He becomes rough with him – looking increasingly demonish – and hurts the boy as he continually throws him in the pool. Davey becomes frightened of his father.
Meanwhile Marian is feeding the plants which are now thriving. During a night with a thunderstorm where many slates and wood falls off the house – mysteriously fixed by the morning – Ben begins to get nightmares of his mother’s funeral with a sinister chauffeur and car. Cue sweaty frightened-looking Ben.
His wife notices the pool has been transformed to look new but is unconcerned. Ben sees the chauffeur in daylight too. Meanwhile, his aunt is sleeping more and after visiting the elderly Mrs Allardyce, we again don’t meet this reclusive old lady, Elizabeth becomes breathless and in pain unusual for this recently more spritely lady.
Things take another mysterious turn, as a gas heating appliance in Davey’s room is switched on leading Davey to become almost unconscious. Also, his normally unlocked doors and windows were mysteriously locked. Marian has a heated argument with Aunt Elizabeth accusing her of doing this…
So by the ending credits of this by the numbers, overly predictable yet immersive movie, you’ll be recalling many similarities to The Shining and more horror movies. But as it’s such a good cast you really don’t care. The film is transfixing as the cast, and who doesn’t like Oliver Reed hamming it up in a good horror?
His character, Ben seems like a normal dad but as he’s played by Oliver Reed you know that he’d not going to remain the placid, bespectacled family man for long. But there are a lot of twists in this movie, regarding all the characters which will keep you hooked throughout.
As for Davis, her scenes with the cast are a delight, contrasting playing a fun witty character at the start, to an old lady in fear for her family’s well-being and doubting her memories. Her scenes with Reed’s Ben are a delight to watch. They have much more rapport than Ben has with his screen family and almost relish in each other’s actions.
The film does only resolve just a few of the tropes and twists – but to be fair there are so many – leaving you frustrated and screaming for more. But with the addition of more tropes from possibly every horror movie ever, but more noticeably The Shining. It’s kind of eerie when you realise Burnt Offerings was released just one year earlier than the book and four years earlier than the film… and at the end, you’ll feel like a James Bond Martini, shaken but not stirred.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This review was entered into the Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon run by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Other reviews with this cast include Lee Montgomery in Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Bette Davis stars in my Death on the Nile, Madam Sin and Murder with Mirrors. Karen Black in Airport 75, Easy Rider and Family Plot. Burgess Meredith stars in Magic and Oliver Reed in The Lady and the Highwayman, Oliver and Venom.