A few years ago I was sitting around in the dark with a friend telling ghost stories. Some of the best come from haunted house movies, so I immediately launched into stories from some classics like THE INNOCENTS or THE HAUNTING (the original). My friend brought up a couple tales from BURNT OFFERINGS, tales I found intriguing. So when I saw BURNT OFFERINGS coming up on cable, I immediately TiVo’d it. The end result was an occasionally chilling, but mostly silly movie that could have been so much more.
I love, love, love haunted house movies. One of my biggest regrets in life is how few good ones exist. Why is this? Perhaps because most movies fail to have a good answer to one simple question: “If the house is clearly haunted, then why stay?” THE INNOCENTS and THE HAUNTING, for instance, both have perfectly reasonable explanations. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and countless others never do. BURNT OFFERINGS unfortunately never does either. A shame really, because the potential was there.
Karen Black and Oliver Reed play a married couple who, along with their son, find a grand old house in the country to rent for the summer. They should have run away screaming when crazy Burgess Meredith rolls in on a wheelchair grinning at them like a starving man eyeing a ham sandwich. Or the fact that it costs only $900 to take the place for the summer. Nevertheless, they jump for the deal and before we know it they spruce the place up. Hmm, a couple with a son in a secluded house – sounds a bit like THE SHINING doesn’t it? The only difference is this couple brings along Reed’s aunt, Bette Davis, who adds a lot more star power to the movie than it deserves.
Of course, the place is haunted, and as the movie goes on we are let in on this secret with a few hints: Reed goes nuts one day and almost strangles his son in the pool; an old lady (we think) is hidden away in a room and never opens her door; a variety of creepy old photos populate the place; Reed starts getting nightmares about a hearse and its freakish driver; Black starts to get amazed by how the house seems to clean itself up; and on and on. Therein is a bit of the problem. BURNT OFFERINGS is looooong. Two full hours of walking around, opening doors, not opening doors, etc etc. Where’s the payoff?
I suppose the payoff is the end, which has a nice twist – I think. It’s not entirely clear what the whole thing is about. What is clear is that Karen Black overacts in all her cross-eyed glory, while Oliver Reed, normally no stranger to overacting, actually does an excellent job in the lead. The movie certainly has its goose-bump producing moments, but what it needs is serious editing to clarify the story and move things along with a quicker pace. And it needs an answer to the question, “If the house is haunted, then why stay?” Without these things, it’s another sad what-could-have-been entry into the haunted house genre.
RATING: ** (out of four)