Burnt Offerings (1976)

Burnt Offerings (1976), directed by Dan Curtis.

A couple (Oliver Reed, Karen Black) with their son and Auntie (Bette Davis) rent a large estate for the summer at a suspiciously low price. It's a bit run down but not particularly spooky with all that bright California sunshine. The caretakers are odd and the flowers are all dead.

We quickly understand that the house absorbs the life of visitors to rejuvenate itself, the grounds, and the original owners. We watch to see how the evil will be manifested in unexplained happenings and personality changes in the family.

This puts it in the same genre as Amityville and The Shining (1980), if slower and much more modest in execution. I would call the acting and direction very rough. In it's favor we have intimations of a back story involving depression and career and marital difficulties. Also: a standard trope of the family-in-the-haunted-house story is that everyone gets away when they flee on the final night. A film where no one gets away is bold by comparison.

It's soft filtered throughout with actual vaseline on the lens sometimes.

How did they get Bette Davis? She said that her age she was grateful for any role that was more than a single scene cameo.

The director did the Dark Shadows TV series earlier. Same composer. He said the book had no ending so he added his own.

The DVD has a commentary track with the director, writer, and Karen Black. If I made a feature film I'd be proud of it too, but their appreciation is overly effusive. But it's true: everyone loves Burgess Meredith.

They say that theater audiences were crazed with terror during early showings and that many viewers wrote to say it was the scariest film of all time. That is hard for me to believe, but: (1) as I suspect everyone has found, a good audience can really heighten the experience of a film, and (2) different people are scared by different things. Some people can't stand clowns or devil dolls with teeth. In this case the film would frighten those with phobias about being unable to get away from an evil place, and the common terror of having loved ones change.

(Me? I find ghosts, vampires and werewolves ludicrous, but insanity is really scary. In general, the fundamental element of all thrillers and horror films is being in a situation that you cannot cope with. That's why John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could never make a horror film: they can always deal with whatever comes).