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).
Invaders from Mars (1986) | Tobe Hooper’s 1950s sci-fi homage misfire lands on Blu-ray in the UK
Glancing at the retro credits of the Final Cut Entertainment Blu-ray UK release of this 1986 sci-fi, director Tobe Hooper’s homage to the 1950s classic, Invaders from Mars, about a small-town boy who is convinced aliens are taking over the minds of his parents and townsfolk, should have been as inventive and rewarding as John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly.
It had Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) and Dan Jakoby (Arachnophobia) on script duty, the legendary Stan Winston conceiving some great creature effects, John Dkystra doing the impressive visuals, and Christopher Young supplying a suitably cosmic score. The cast, meanwhile, was a who’s-who of favourites, including Louise Fletcher, Karen Black, Timothy Bottoms and Bud Cort.
But, and it’s a big but, Invaders from Mars was made by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’ Cannon Films, and they were notorious for creating some of the VHS-era’s worst films (just check out the Electric Boogaloo documentary). Not only that, it was the second of Hooper’s three-picture deal with the misguided Israeli cousins to misfire – spectacularly. His first was the hugely expensive sci-fi flop Lifeforce (you can read all about that here).
The problem with Hooper’s Invaders is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious sci-fi, a spoof, or a kiddie-friendly adventure. There’s also no action or suspense, and Hunter Carson, who plays David, is plain awful (he probably only got the job because he was Karen Black’s son). The original David, Jimmy Hunt, puts in a cameo as the Police Chief which made me smile, as did the in-joke of setting the film in the same town as another sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Now, there’s a reimagining that’s just as good as the original.
But if you are a Tobe Hooper fan and don’t have a multi-region player (to view the Scream Factory Blu-ray release, which boasts a commentary from Hooper), then this Final Cut Entertainment Blu-ray UK release comes in at second best, and includes the following extras:
• A career in Cannon/Tobe Hooper in the 1980s with film historian David Del Valle
• Mission to Mars: The Special Effects of Tobe’s Invaders by Alec Gillis (art department co-ordinator and creature effects crew)
• Red Planet Recollection: Remembering Invaders from Mars by Leslie Dilley (production designer)
• Creative Concepts: An interview with William Stout (concept artist)
• Invaders from Mars concept art presented by William Stout