Burnt Offerings (1976) | Why does Dan Curtis’ American Gothic haunted house chiller still frighten me so?
This is the face of the man who scared the bejesus out of my 12-year-old self… and he’s coming back to haunt me once again with Arrow’s HD release of Dan Curtis’ 1976 horror Burnt Offerings – coming out tomorrow (17 October).
Ben (Oliver Reed) and Marian (Karen Black) can’t believe their luck when they rent a vast country mansion for just $900 for the entire summer. All they have to do is look after the house as if it was there own – and to take a daily tray up to the elderly and reclusive Mrs Allardyce.
But as they settle in with their son Davey (Lee Montgomery) and Ben’s beloved aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis), the house begins to exerts a dark influence on the inhabitants – especially Marian, who becomes obsessed with the unseen old lady at the top of the stairs.
As more strange occurrences take place, it soon becomes evident to Ben that the house is an evil living presence… Can he convince Marian to leave with the family before its too late?
Burnt Offerings is one of the most underrated chillers of all-time. Co-written, produced and directed by the legendary Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, Trilogy of Terror), and adapted from the 1973 Robert Marasco novel by Logan’s Run author William F Nolan, its a rare thing indeed: being subtle in its horror, featuring a standout cast, and spinning social commentary in its inventive take on the old haunted house story: one in which the viewer becomes an unwitting voyeur as the family firstly fall under the house’s spell, then slowly being consumed by it.
There are scenes that have haunted me for decades: like the rough house play between father and son in the swimming pool that turns deadly dangerous, the house shedding its old shingles as it rejuvenates itself, and that grinning ghostly chauffeur that haunts Ben’s visions. The fact that the chauffeur was the spitting image of my own dad only added to my own nightmares. And don’t start me on that chimney…
From the cameos by Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart to child actor Lee Montgomery, everyone in the cast is brilliant, especially scary-eyed Karen Black whose transformation into the house’s clean-freak servant (in Victorian gothic garb, of course) is genuinely disturbing. But for me, it’s Bette Davis who really impresses. Watching her carefree, chain-smoking Aunt Elizabeth wither away before our eyes is terribly sad and truly terrifying.
It’s been decades since I first saw Burnt Offerings, and revisiting it, I prayed that I would not be disappointed. Thankfully I wasn’t. If anything, I’ve learned to appreciate it even more as it’s not only an excellent exercise in creeping terror, it also has an insightful underlying theme about the destruction of the American Dream in possessing material things.
THE ARROW SPECIAL FEATURES
• High Definition Blu-ray and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature, transferred from original film elements by MGM. (This is the same print as the Kino Lorber release, and looks terrific. It’s so pristine, you can practically feel the sweat and blood pouring off poor Ollie Reed, and the shadowy cinematography really shines).
• Original uncompressed PCM mono audio.
• Optional English subtitles.
• Audio commentary with Dan Curtis, Karen Black and William F Nolan. I’m so going to nominate this for a Rondo. It’s not only informative and insightful, it’s an important historical record as both Dan Curtis and Karen Black are no longer with us.
• Audio commentary with film critic Richard Harland Smith. (After hearing Curtis and co, I haven’t really bothered with this… as yet).
• Acting His Face: Interview with actor Anthony James (aka that scary chauffeur).
• Blood Ties: Interview with actor Lee Montgomery. This is what I sought out first after revisiting the movie, and its great to hear about Lee’s experiences of working with theatrical giants like Bette Davis (who took him under her wing) and Oliver Reed (who got him drunk).
• From the Ashes: Interview with screenwriter William F Nolan (this guy is legend)
• Animated gallery
• Collector’s booklet (first pressing only).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1974) | Jack Palance bears his fangs in Dan Curtis’ macabre melodrama
In the 1970s, the name Dan Curtis was synonymous with horror and fantasy on TV. Having cut his fangs on the long-running Gothic soap Dark Shadows in the late-1960s, he gave many a young horror fan sleepless nights – myself included – with genuinely frightening TV movies like The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror, adaptations of Victorian horror classics, including Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and big-screen forays (Burnt Offerings being my favourite).
And towering above them all (to use a line from the trailer) is this handsome adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from a screenplay by the legendary Richard Matheson, with Jack Palance (who’d previously done Jekyll & Hyde) pulling on the well-worn cloak and fangs.
While the influence of Universal and Hammer’s Gothic classics is evident, Curtis’ teledrama aims to be more faithful to Stoker’s source material, but flavors it with some high romance by fusing the Count’s connection to real-life 15th-century soldier statesmen Vlad Tepes with a subplot about him pursuing the reincarnation of his beloved Elizabeth, who died at the hands of an invading army (something Coppola would also do in his 1992 adaptation).
Jack Palance reigns in the over-acting to give a deeply affecting performance. He plays Dracula as an obsessed stalker and a caged animal waiting to explode. And boy, doesn’t he so when his coffins are set on fire and he looses his lost love (a sensuous looking Fiona Lewis) a second time? Nigel Davenport gives his Van Helsing muscle, guts and intelligence, but Simon Ward is quite insipid as the floppy-haired Holmwood. However, it’s Penelope Horner’s brave Mina (oddly pronounced here) who comes off the real hero when she puts herself up as bait so the vampire hunters can capture, corner and kill the bloodsucker.
Now Curtis always made his images count (I still cant forget Trilogy of Terror‘s Zuni doll), and this macabre melodrama provides many that continue to haunt: the mist rising from a black Transylvanian lake; the pack of Alsatians racing toward Dracula’s mountain-top castle; Lucy’s tear-stained corpse and her rain-swept funeral cortège decked in the finest Victorian mourning garb (Goths will love that one), not to mention Palance’s vengeful Dracula pacing the room in circles, his cloak flapping about like some hideous black spectre.
The classy period drama also makes splendid use of the British and former Yugoslavian locations; a fleet of vintage carriages; a real-life castle (Trakoscan in Croatia); and some grand homes – especially so that old favourite, Oakley Court, in Windsor, which serves as the exterior for Carfax Abbey.
This Screenbound Pictures presentation (available on region free Blu-ray and DVD) has been transferred and restored in 2K HD from the original 35mm camera negative which gives great justice to Curtis’ atmospheric cinematography and is a fitting addition to their Screenbound Classic Movie Collection.
From The Cat Creature to Killdozer and Trilogy of Terror, the ABC Movie of the Week was pure TV gold
For anyone growing up in the early-1970s, the ABC Movie of the Week (which originally aired in the US from 1969-1976) was their earliest exposure to a world of weird, for it was these ‘big movies made for the small screen’ that both veteran film-makers and young guns got the chance to create crazy, offbeat projects, the most memorable being the ones that delved into horror, the supernatural, sci-fi and psychological terror.
It was here that Steven Spielberg launched his career with Duel (which ended up getting a cinema release on the back of its success on TV in the US), while the late great Curtis Harrington got to make camptastic fare like How Awful About Alan; and Dan Curtis (he of TV’s Dark Shadows fame) scared the pants off impressionable kids – like myself – with Karen Black’s massive eyebrows and a murderous Zuni doll in Trilogy of Terror (without doubt my all-time favourite).
The TV strand gave veteran Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby, John Carradine, Gloria Swanson, Gale Sondergaard, Olivia De Havilland and many more the chance to show off their starry talents (although some not so gracefully – like Swanson in Killer Bees: truly dreadful), while household names like Bewitched‘s Elizabeth Montgomery showed they could do more than twitch their nose (who can forget her chilling turn as Lizzie Borden?). Roddy McDowall, meanwhile, seemed be in every one of them. The ABC Movie of the Week was also the launching pad for some of TV most memorable genre-busting shows like The Immortal, The Night Stalker, The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky and Hutch. Truly, this was the golden age for telly movie making.
Are you a fan of the ABC Movie of the Week, then why not check out the Facebook fan group (click here) or check out Michael Karol’s book The ABC Movie of the Week Companion: A Loving Tribute to the Classic Series (available from Amazon)[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rM-Vkd7On2Q%5D