The horror world lost another legend last week as Hollywood mourned the passing of Karen Black. Black was well known to fright film fans for her tour-de-force quadruple performance in the seminal television movie “Trilogy of Terror,” but the actress was far more than a genre actress, appearing in such influential films as Robert Altman’s Nashville, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot. She will be remembered primarily for her work in suspense and horror, however, having worked with everyone from Tobe Hooper in Invaders from Mars to Rob Zombie in House of 1000 Corpses. As the horror it-girl of the seventies, she found herself starring in the understated yet creepy 1976 haunted house film Burnt Offerings.
Burnt Offerings stars Black as Marian Rolf, a woman who, along with her husband, Ben (Oliver Reed from Tommy), and son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery, who would grow up to be hunky in Girls Just Want to Have Fun), is in the market to rent a house for the summer in a rural area of California. The family finds the perfect house and, upon meeting with the owners, Roz and Arnold Allardyce (Eileen Heckart from “One Life to Live” and Rocky’s Burgess Meredith, respectively), they discover that the price is perfect as well. There are only two somewhat odd requests from the owners; first, the Rolfs must love the house as if it was their own, and second, the Allardyce’s mother will continue to live in an upstairs room for the summer. Neither condition is a problem for the family and, along with their Aunt Elizabeth (the incomparable Bette Davis from All About Eve), they move in. Right from the start, the house seems to have a strange effect on them; Marian begins to feel a special kinship with the house, becoming obsessed with a room full of old pictures of former occupants, while Ben starts to become violent and irrational towards his wife and child. It soon becomes obvious that the house is occupied by a strange force that seems to want the Rolfs dead. Marian struggles with Ben to save her family while trying to understand how the old woman upstairs fits into the mystery of the old house.
Adapted from the novel by Robert Marasco, the screenplay for Burnt Offerings was written by William F. Nolan (who wrote for the television anthology “Darkroom”) and director Dan Curtis (creator of the vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows”). With its molasses pacing, creepy imagery, and standout performances from Black and Reed, the film puts on a clinic in the slow burn, suspenseful horror that characterized the seventies in films like The Omen and The Exorcist. While Burnt Offerings is nowhere near as horrifying as either of those films, it still has enough tension to ruffle a few feathers, and still packs quite a punch when it lets loose.
Burnt Offerings was released a few short years before The Amityville Horror, and the similarities between the films are remarkable. The houses in both films come to life, each seeming to have a mind and will of its own. Furthermore, both films end up with the father going through a massive character change as they become possessed by the spirit of the house. The house in The Amityville Horror has a much more definite and darker past, but the mystery surrounding the house in Burnt Offerings is part of the fun; while the audience knows why the Amityville house is haunted, there’s still some questionable ambiguity about the home in Burnt Offerings.
The possession of Oliver Reed’s Ben Rolf is the source of some of the more terrifying moments in Burnt Offerings. In one scene, he is swimming in the back yard pool of the house with Davey. The scene starts playfully enough, with father and son splashing and horsing around. Soon, however, Ben starts violently throwing Davey in the air and catching him, the child screaming the entire time. Finally, Ben dunks the helpless boy underwater and holds him there while Aunt Elizabeth screams at him to stop. The raw animosity of Ben juxtaposed against the weakness of Davey is jarring, and the entire scene is shocking and horrifying. Oliver Reed’s transformation of Ben is part of what makes Burnt Offerings such a memorable film.
The assembled cast in Burnt Offerings is interesting; all of them are respected, big-name talents, but all have history in the horror genre as well. Karen Black is an absolute icon of the horror genre. Oliver Reed played classic roles in The Brood, Paranoiac, and The Curse of the Werewolf. Burgess Meredith is well known as The Penguin on “Batman,” but also had freaky turns in Magic and The Sentinel, as well as many classic roles on “The Twilight Zone.” Eileen Heckart had a part in The Bad Seed, and Bette Davis’ creepiness in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is legendary. Even little Lee H. Mongomery was a horror veteran by the mid-seventies, having been in the rodent thriller Ben a few years earlier. The ensemble that is brought together in Burnt Offerings is a veritable who’s who of seventies horror, an experienced cast whose members each turn in first-rate performances.
Of course, no seventies haunted house movie would be complete without a memorable musical score, and Burnt Offerings has one that was composed by Bob Cobert. Cobert was one of Dan Curtis’ go-to guys, and he provided the soundtracks to “Dark Shadows” and both Trilogy of Terror movies, among many others. His work in Burnt Offerings is pretty typical of the horror fare for the time, a mixture of sparse, spooky piano and lush, lavish orchestral pieces that would be right at home in The Omen or The Amityville Horror. Bob Cobert’s score adds to the slow build that characterizes Burnt Offerings, and the film is much better for having his music within it.
Karen Black left a mark on the horror world that will not soon be erased. The perfect combination of sweet, sassy, and sexy, the appeal that she brought to each and every film in which she appeared is immeasurable. Her legacy will never be forgotten, thanks in part to terrific films like Burnt Offerings.