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Step inside a vacation house of horror in this terrifying thriller that "does for summer homes whatJaws did for a dip in the surf" (The New York Times)! Starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith and Bette Davis, this riveting haunted-house chiller delivers "hidden terrors [that] mount creepily as the film builds to a climax of pulverizing fright" (Rex Reed)! Marian (Black) and Ben (Reed) find it hard to believe that for only $900 they've rented a sprawling old country mansion for the entire summer. But as they settle into their isolated estate with their son and Ben's aunt (Davis), they find themselves surrounded by a living presencean evil, hypnotic, occult forcethat feeds on torture, fear and murder.
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I need to preface this review by saying that I have huge nostalgia for this movie. Every so often during the 1980's this film would appear on television. This was before cable when we only had a few major networks and a couple of public television stations. I remember on some Sunday afternoon I would discover this movie was playing again on TV and I'd sit there, riveted, watching this grand old mansion very slowly devour this unsuspecting family.
People tend to pick at this movie's flaws and faults, and to compare it to other haunted house films. Yes, it has a very similiar concept to certain movies, like The Shining (1980), like The Haunting (1963). It's a supernatural tale but the house is the evil force.
This film provides a few very effective chills, at least for me. The musical score with its deep, menacing strings and eerie tinkling piano works very well. I love Bob Cobert's compositions (The Night Stalker, Dark Shadows, etc). Also, the image of the gaunt funeral chauffeur is very powerful and unforgettable, like a nightmare image. And the old house where they filmed Burnt Offerings is amazing and beautiful.
The film is based on the novel by Robert Marasco. The book delves much deeper into the themes explored in the film, particularly Marion Rolf's obsession and transformation. I enjoyed reading it; it's a well paced horror thriller not unlike other good books of that time, such as the work of Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives, Rosemary's Baby, etc).
Director Dan Curtis throws some nice creepy touches in the film. His timing is quite good. The cast works pretty well here.
The fun part is watching the house begin to change, and at the same time watching Karen Black changing; a touch of gray in her hair appears, and then eventually she begins dressing more like an older woman in dowdy shawls and dresses, with a cameo or brooch.
There's hardly any gore until the end where there's a sudden dash of blood for good measure. The movie is definitely an exercise in atmosphere and ambience. It is very macabre, there's no doubting that. The ending is really fun. Seeing Karen Black in that chair, glaring hatefully... "I've been waiting for you, Ben..." Good stuff.
I can forgive some little imperfections and faults in the film:
Oliver Reed whispers 90% of his lines (that's just his style).
The family should leave the house but it's entirely too late when they try to.
You can figure out the ending ages before it happens.
The camera angles are mostly pointing up at the actors from below so it feels like you're a cat watching them.
Sometimes it seems like the movie was shot through gauze or with a smear of Vaseline on the camera lens.
But there's so much in this movie that I really enjoy which far outweighs the negatives. It's just a really creepy film to me. Granted, it is not as good as The Changeling, but it's worlds better than a lot of horror films that have come and gone since 1978.
Note: The audio commentary on the dvd (by actress Karen Black, director Dan Curtis, and cowriter William Nolan) is a dull dud and a waste of time.