Color, 1976, 115m.
Directed by Dan Curtis
Starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, Lee Montgomery, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart, Dub Taylor
Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After conquering the realm of TV horror with the popular soap opera Dark Shadows and such made-for-TV films as Trilogy of Terror, The Night Stalker, and Dracula, producer-director Dan Curtis made a bid for big screen success with this creepy, slow-burn adaptation of a novel by Robert Marasco. Curtis's only prior theatrical efforts were the two Dark Shadows films, and here had a chance to pull in some major Hollywood stars to ride the wave of occult fascination currently packing in audiences with the likes of The Omen the same year. The result is one of the most unnerving PG-rated films of its era, suggestive enough to still play on TV intact but deliver enough chills to stick in viewers' minds for years.
The Rolf family, consisting of father Ben (Reed), mother Marian (Black), son David (Montgomery), and aunt Elizabeth (Davis), decides to spend the summer at a large mansion out in the country, rented from peculiar siblings Arnold (Meredith) and Roz Allardyce (Heckart). Some conditions come with the property: they must take care of their invalid mother, Mrs. Allardyce, who remains confined to her upstairs room. Marian takes on the assignment with great dedication, and the rest of the family is charged with taking care of the house's upkeep, a challenge unto itself. That includes maintaining the large swimming pool and cleaning the grounds, but oddly enough, the house seems to be regenerating with their presence. Potentially fatal accidents start to occur and Elizabeth's health takes a rapid decline, while a sinister chauffeur can be seen turning up on the property. Soon it becomes clear that all of the newcomers are in far more danger than they could have imagined.
The idea of making an all-star haunted house movie is a solid one, and Curtis pulls it off nicely here thanks to some canny casting choices. Reed's boiling intensity is used to good effect here, most notably a harrowing swimming pool scene, and Black had already proven her chops with Curtis in Trilogy of Terror (while Montgomery would excel the following year in one of Curtis's finest achievements, the "Bobby" segment of Dead of Night). Though her role is smaller, Davis is sympathetic in an atypically genteel role; she also proves once again that she can be a prime screamer when the occasion calls for it. Regular Curtis composer Bob Cobert churns up an effectively eerie score, and the decision to shoot at the sprawling Dunsmuir House in California (versus the book's Long Island location) gives the film a strong atmosphere that pays off with a memorably grim climax in which various pieces of the house's architecture come into play. Extra points for that hearse-driving chauffeur (played by a wordless Anthony James), who gets some of the film's scariest moments. The film still feels a bit TV-safe at times in its execution and pacing (the middle third gets a little pokey), but when it works, it really delivers.
Burnt Offerings has remained a home video mainstay since the VHS days, with its DVD bow in 2003 from MGM coming with a reasonably good anamorphic transfer that did the best it could with the heavy filters and diffused light that permeate almost every shot. Extras on that release include a theatrical trailer and a fine audio commentary with Curtis, Black, and co-screnwriter William F. Nolan, offering a very light and lively stroll back through the making of the film including the tricks of the adaptation process (the book ends somewhat differently with a more direct connection to the title), the ups and downs of working with Reed, and challenges of shooting in a real, rather famous location.
In 2015, Kino Lorber brought the film to Blu-ray and DVD with the same commentary and trailer plus a substantial amount of new material as well. A second commentary by esteemed film writer Richard Harland Smith tackles the film from a literary and movie buff perspective including its place in the canon of haunted house movies and the height of the horror fiction craze, and a Trailers from Hell version of the trailer is also thrown in. Three new featurettes have been commissioned, all worth watching: "Acting His Face" (17 mins.) with James explaining how he got his start as an actor and took on the film's most sinister role without getting a single line of dialogue; "Blood Ties" (16 mins.), a great chat with the upbeat Montgomery including his memories of being a child actor and particularly his fond recollections of and enduring friendship with the late Black; and "From the Ashes" (13 mins.), in which Nolan goes solo to talk about the adaptation process and how he and Curtis jettisoned an entire opening narrative segment from the film. A "Portraits of Fear" animated gallery provides a wealth of poster art, lobby cards, and production stills. The HD transfer is a very welcome step up, tackling the challenging textures and soft look of the film with greater skill and delivering a more natural, subdued layer of film grain, while the DTS-HD MA English mono track sounds solid.
Arrow Video tackled the film for a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD set in 2016, utilizing the same HD source but bumping up the bit rate considerably (the film now takes up 7GB of additional space compared to the American disc). The Kino Lorber presentation was no slouch, but this one visibly handles the powdery look even better in motion when compared side by side. Both commentaries, the trailer, the three featurettes, and the gallery have all been carried over (only the Trailers from Hell option is missing), and the LPCM English mono audio now comes with optional English subtitles, a nice touch that will make this the preferred option for hearing-impaired horror fans. The set comes with a reversible sleeve offering the original poster art or a new design by Haunt Love, while the first pressing also contains a liner notes booklet with an essay by Kat Ellinger.