A haunted-house thriller about a house which draws energy from its inhabitants and selects its own "keeper" from the family of Ben and Marian Rolf, who rent the strangely-affordable house one fateful summer then find themselves slowly succumbing to its creepy powers.
James T Myers
William F Nolan
The Gist (Burnt Offerings) - THE GIST
Part of the problem was bad timing. By 1976, houses haunted by nothing more than ancient, undying evil were passé. John Hough's The Legend of Hell House (1973) had pulled out all the stops within the subgenre, requiring future attempts to go big or go home. In Stuart Rosenberg's The Amityville Horror (1979), the plague upon that house was nothing short of Satanic, while Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) reset the gold standard for paranormal activity, making the low tech Burnt Offerings seem as quaint and curious as The Cat and the Canary (1927). Dan Curtis was looking to break free of the doldrums of his Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows and such terror telefilms as The Night Stalker (1972) and Trilogy of Terror (1975); Burnt Offerings was his presumed passport to the majors. The chance to actualize the Marasco novel came via the intervention of (of all people) Sergio Leone. The Italian filmmaker was desperate for Curtis to release the rights to Harry Gray's Depression era crime novel The Hoods; as a convincer, Leone agreed to underwrite any other project of Curtis' choice. A deal was struck, Curtis moved on to Burnt Offerings and Leone turned The Hoods into Once Upon a Time in America (1982). Though the movie was a profitable release, Curtis returned to television and did not direct another feature until 1993.
Bette Davis reportedly accepted a part in Burnt Offerings because she had bills to pay and wanted to work. Once on location, however, she quickly developed a distaste for her co-stars. She complained to one journalist that her co-star Oliver Reed had gotten drunk one night and tumbled down a hillside while playing the bagpipes. She didn't like Karen Black any better, telling the press she "changes her makeup in the middle of a scene, so nothing matches on the screen. She sleeps all day, never goes to rushes and you can't hear a bloody thing she says on the set. When I made movies you could hear me in a tunnel."
Davis's co-stars weren't the only ones to experience her wrath. According to Lawrence J. Quirk in Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis, the actress "yelled so often at producer-director Dan Curtis that he walked off the set and disappeared for days. She was nervous about how the DeLuxe Color would make her look and argued endlessly with cinematographers Stevan Larner and Jacques Marquette, frightening them into dropping and smashing valuable camera lens. She walked in and out of other people's dressing rooms hollering that the original novel by Robert Marasco "stank," that the screenplay was lousy, and that she might have to rewrite the whole thing herself...When Producer Curtis sent a mild-mannered man to point out to her the disadvantages inherent in the unfortunate publicity such negative interviews would attract, which might affect bookings and future reviews, she yelled at him so furiously that the poor man retreated in tears and later vomited in the men's room. When told of this later, she said, "Good - it got all the damned puke out of him. Let's hope he took a good crap, too - he was full of it when I talked to him!"
While Davis may have terrorized the entire cast and crew of Burnt Offerings, most critics were decidedly unfrightened by the movie. Variety noted that the film "might have been interesting if director Dan Curtis hadn't relied strictly on formula treatment," and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times said, "it's a tricky business, making a supernatural thriller with artistic ambitions. Roman Polanski and William Friedkin have pulled it off in recent years, with subtle blends of the mundane and the preternatural. And, come to think of it, The Legend of Hell House brought out the fun in this sort of material very well. But Burnt Offerings just persists, until it occurs to us that the characters are the only ones in the theatre who don't know what's going to happen next."
Yet, to call Burnt Offerings "the dregs" is to pay it a backhanded compliment via the metaphor of winemaking. Designed by the legendary Eugène Lourié and enacted by a better than average cast (Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart and Bette Davis), the film offers a syllabus of shocks whose cumulative effect is, like rustic Italian grappa, surprisingly potent. A highlight is the recurring specter of a grinning hearse driver (Anthony James), whose joie de mort is Curtis' best, cheapest special effect. Reining in their egos, Bette Davis and Oliver Reed show disarming vulnerability as a traumatized child grown to uncertain middle age and his elderly aunt; the scene in which they cower pitiably as the hearse driver pushes an empty casket toward them is both chilling and deeply sad.
Stephen King acknowledged a debt to Marasco's novel in writing The Shining and Burnt Offerings anticipates key bits of business in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Curtis hated Marasco's original ending and claimed he came up with his own in fifteen minutes. This is entirely likely, as the payoff of that quarter hour is a reworking of the fruit cellar scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960); Curtis varies the recipe slightly, sending his protagonist up to the attic but also in search of a woman named Marian. A downbeat ending always seems to elevate the stock of any horror film and the denouement of Burnt Offerings is especially grim. In the parlance of joke tellers, it's a "way-homer" that only really clicks upon reflection. Curtis' tack ensured sufficient word of mouth in 1976 and thirty five years later still has people talking.
Producers: Dan Curtis, Robert Singer
Director: Dan Curtis
Writer: Dan Curtis, William F. Nolan, Robert Marasco (novel)
Music: Bob Cobert
Cinematography: Jacques R. Marquette
Editor: Dennis Virkler
Production Designer: Eugène Lourié
Make Up Artist: Al Fleming
Costumer: Ann Roth
Cast: Oliver Reed (Ben Rolf), Karen Black (Marian Rolf), Bette Davis (Aunt Elizabeth), Lee H. Montgomery (David Rolf), Burgess Meredith (Arnold Allardyce), Eileen Heckart (Roz Allardyce), Dub Taylor (Walker), Anthony James (The Chauffeur), Jim Myers (Dr. Ross), Todd Turquand (Young Ben), Joseph Riley (Ben's father).
by Richard Harland Smith
Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine (E.P. Dutton)
Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk (Signet)
Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers (Thomas Dunne Books)
The Girl Who Walked Home Alone by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster)
Evil Spirits: The Life of Oliver Reed by Cliff Goodwin (Virgin)
The Gist (Burnt Offerings) - THE GIST
TCM Remembers - Eileen Heckart
Eileen Heckart, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Butterflies Are Free (1972), died December 31st at the age of 82. Heckart was born in 1919 in Columbus, Ohio and became interested in acting while in college. She moved to NYC in 1942, married her college boyfriend the following year (a marriage that lasted until his death in 1995) and started acting on stage. Soon she was appearing in live dramatic TV such as The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. Her first feature film appearance was as a waitress in Bus Stop (1956) but it was her role as a grieving mother in the following year's The Bad Seed that really attracted notice and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Heckart spent more time on Broadway and TV, making only occasional film appearances in Heller in Pink Tights (1960), No Way to Treat a Lady (1968) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986). She won one Emmy and was nominated for five others.
TCM REMEMBERS DAVID SWIFT, 1919-2001
Director David Swift died December 31st at the age of 82. Swift was best-known for the 1967 film version of the Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (he also appears in a cameo), Good Neighbor Sam (1964) starring Jack Lemmon and The Parent Trap (1961), all of which he also co-wrote. Swift was born in Minnesota but moved to California in the early 30s so he could work for Disney as an assistant animator, contributing to a string of classics from Dumbo (1941) to Fantasia (1940) to Snow White (1937). Swift also worked with madcap animator Tex Avery at MGM. He later became a TV and radio comedy writer and by the 1950s was directing episodes of TV series like Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Playhouse 90 and others. Swift also created Mr. Peepers (1952), one of TV's first hit series and a multiple Emmy nominee. Swift's first feature film was Pollyanna (1960) for which he recorded a DVD commentary last year. Swift twice received Writers Guild nominations for work on How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Parent Trap.
TCM REMEMBERS PAUL LANDRES, 1912-2001
Prolific B-movie director Paul Landres died December 26th at the age of 89. Landres was born in New York City in 1912 but his family soon moved to Los Angeles where he grew up. He spent a couple of years attending UCLA before becoming an assistant editor at Universal in the 1931. He became a full editor in 1937, working on such films as Pittsburgh (1942) and I Shot Jesse James (1949). His first directorial effort was 1949's Grand Canyon but he soon became fast and reliable, alternating B-movies with TV episodes.. His best known films are Go, Johnny, Go! (1958) with appearances by Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson, the moody The Return of Dracula (1958) and the 1957 cult favorite The Vampire. His TV credits run to some 350 episodes for such series as Adam 12, Bonanza, Death Valley Days and numerous others. Landres was co-founder in 1950 of the honorary society American Cinema Editors.
BUDD BOETTICHER 1916-2001
When director Budd Boetticher died on November 29th, American film lost another master. Though not a household name, Boetticher made crisp, tightly wound movies with more substance and emotional depth than was apparent at first glance. Instead of a flashy style, Boetticher preferred one imaginatively simple and almost elegant at times. Because of this approach films like The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) and Ride Lonesome (1960) have withstood the test of time while more blatantly ambitious films now seem like period pieces.
Budd was born Oscar Boetticher in Chicago on July 29th, 1916. With a father who sold hardware, Boetticher didn't come from a particularly artistic background. In college he boxed and played football before graduating and heading to Mexico to follow what's surely one of the most unusual ways to enter the film industry: as a professional matador. That's what led an old friend to get Boetticher hired as a bullfighting advisor on the 1941 version of Blood and Sand. Boetticher quickly took other small jobs in Hollywood before becoming an assistant director for films like Cover Girl. In 1944, he directed his first film, the Boston Blackie entry One Mysterious Night. Boetticher made a series of other B-movies, like the underrated film noir Behind Locked Doors (1948), through the rest of the decade.
Boetticher really hit his stride in the 50s when he began to get higher profile assignments, including the semi-autobiographical The Bullfighter and the Lady in 1951 which resulted in Boetticher's only Oscar nomination, for Best Writing. Sam Peckinpah later said he saw the film ten times. Other highlights of this period include Seminole (1953) (one of the first Hollywood films sympathetic to American Indians), the stylishly tight thriller The Killer Is Loose (1956) and the minor classic Horizons West (1952). In the late 50s, Boetticher also started directing TV episodes of series like Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
In 1956, Boetticher started a string of films that really established his reputation. These six Westerns starring Randolph Scott are known as the Ranown films after the production company named after Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. Actually the first, Seven Men from Now (1956), was produced by a different company but all of them fit together, pushing the idea of the lone cowboy seeking revenge into new territory. The sharp Decision at Sundown twists Western cliche into one of the bleakest endings to slip through the Hollywood gates. The Tall T examines the genre's violent tendencies while Ride Lonesome and Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) have titles appropriate to their Beckett-like stories. The final film, Comanche Station, appeared in 1960.
That was the same year Boetticher made one of the best gangster films, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, before watching everything fall apart. He and his wife decided to make a documentary about the famous matador Carlos Arruza and headed to Mexico. There Boetticher saw Arruza and much of the film crew die in an accident, almost died himself from an illness, separated from and divorced his wife (Debra Paget), and then spent time in various jails and even briefly a mental institution. This harrowing experience left him bankrupt but he still managed to complete the film, Arruza (1968), which gathered acclaim from the few who've been able to see it.
Boetticher managed to make just one more film, My Kingdom For... (1985), a self-reflexive documentary about raising Andalusian horses. He also made a cameo appearance in the Mel Gibson-Kurt Russell suspense thriller, Tequila Sunrise (1988). He died from complications from surgery at the age of 85.
By Lang Thompson
TCM Remembers - Eileen Heckart
Released in United States Summer August 1, 1976
Released in United States Summer August 1, 1976