FILMS FROM THE VOID is a journey through junk bins, late night revivals, under-seen recesses, and reject piles as we try to find forgotten gems and lesser-known classics. Join us as we lose our minds sorting through the strange, the sleazy, the sincere, and the slop from the past and try to make sense of it all.
The viewing of Burnt Offerings was determined entirely because my wife and I had been out and about pretty much all day on Saturday, so come late afternoon, it was couch and movie time. I was clicking through movies on Amazon, and when the title came up, my wife was like, “Ooh, what’s that?”
It’s one of those that I’ve been meaning to check out — ’70s horror with Karen Black should be a no-brainer — but the description on Amazon Video was enough to loop us both in: “In the great tradition of haunted house chillers comes this frightening tale of the supernatural set in a sprawling old country mansion.”
Plus, you know: Bette Davis? I mean, by 1976, we’re a solid decade plus past What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, meaning even her revival was in the rear view at this point, so she just doesn’t give a fuck in this movie. It’s really great to see her not having to expend hardly any energy at all and still act laps around Karen Black. That said, her role’s pretty minimal, and aside from some early introductory scenes with Dub Taylor, Burgess Meredith, and Eileen Heckart, the film is a family piece with Black, Oliver Reed, and former rat friend, Lee Montgomery playing the Rolfs.
It’s a slow burn for the first hour. From the description, you know you’re in for a haunted house movie, and the repeated allusions to a Mrs. Allardyce, who lives upstairs and needs to be taken care of — but is never seen — lend things a mysterious vibe. But even before that’s set in place, however, there’s a sense that the house might have a presence of its own.
Montgomery’s character, a twelve-year-old boy named Davey, cuts his knee climbing around outside before the family’s even committed to renting this house for the summer. And when Taylor’s handyman, Walker, shows a dying plant to Meredith’s Arnold Allardyce, we see that it’s suddenly got a bit of a bloom to it.
Terrible things begin affecting the behavior of the family. Reed’s father almost drowns son Montgomery in the pool as they horse around, in a scene which starts out fun and steadily descends into absolute horror. The scene is horrific, because it’s not like “haunted house” scary, but “child abuse” scary.
The film continues on, with Black getting more and more obsessed with the appeal of the home, Reed slowly going mad with nightmares of his childhood, and Montgomery taking the brunt of the psychological impact of both. It’s more of a drama for the middle of the film, with a lot of tense, terse conversations between Black and Reed, as well as Davis sort of looking on and going mad, herself.
So many of the scenes of discomfort and horror in Burnt Offerings work because of the lack of confirmation for so long. I’m a sucker for any film where you’re never quite certain as to whether the antagonist is supernatural or just a plain old awful human. There’s also something about the fact that the scene where Reed’s tossing Montgomery around actually has Reed tossing Montgomery around.
There’s no stunt double, proving for the umpteenth time that ’70s movies certainly know how to really give the viewer a feeling of children in danger — mainly by actually placing real kids in the way of legitimate harm. It’s certainly sickening, but devastatingly effective because of it.
That family dynamic is part of the appeal for fellow horror fan and writer Abbie Stutzer. I asked her for a few words on the film when I saw that we’d both seen it within days of each other, and here’s what she had to say:
“I like the take on the perfect family that is so easily undone by internal and external forces. The connection to the father’s mom, the aunt, the mom, while thin, definitely shows that every family has something dark they are dealing with. And any movie that has the determination to put a kid in legit danger, death, gets my vote. It’s so rarely done, especially in the ’70s.”
You should follow Abbie on Twitter (@AbbieStutzer) and check out her recent piece for Bloody-Disgusting, “Horror Was Giving Us Strong Female Characters Long Before ‘Wonder Woman.’”
Burnt Offerings is currently streaming via Amazon Prime, or available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.