A look back at the hungry haunted house of Burnt Offerings

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Oct 13, 2016, 3:39 PM EDT

In the pantheon of great haunted houses, the Allardyce family home has not always gotten its due.

That's the setting of Burnt Offerings, the 1976 film directed by Dan Curtis and based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Robert Marasco. The novel itself has become a cult classic over the years, and the movie -- which celebrates its 40th anniversary on Oct. 18 -- has always enjoyed a following of its own as an eerie thriller built more on atmosphere and mood than blood and visceral shocks.

When he wasn't directing epic TV miniseries like The Winds of War, Curtis' tastes decidedly leaned toward the horror genre on both the small and big screens. He created the classic supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows, directed the two feature films based on the show (House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows) and also directed legendary horror TV movies like The Night Stalker (1972), its sequel The Night Strangler (1973), The Norliss Tapes (1973), Dracula (1974) and the beloved Trilogy of Terror (1975).

His forays into theatrical filmmaking were few, but perhaps the best-remembered one is Burnt Offerings. The book by Robert Marasco focused on the Rolf family, husband Ben, wife Marian and young son Davey, who along with their Aunt Elizabeth decide to spend the summer at a large, rather shabby mansion in upstate New York instead of sitting in a sweltering apartment in Brooklyn. The rent is just right, but there's one catch: Owners and siblings Arnold and Roz Allardyce's mother lives in a secluded room on the house's top floor and will remain there, not interacting at all with the Rolfs, with the only stipulation being that Marian leave her breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

Not long after the Rolfs settle in, strange things begin to happen and while Marian becomes more obsessed with the house and the unseen old woman upstairs, the Allardyce mansion begins to take a dangerous toll on the other members of the family. Life-threatening incidents, sudden illness and unexplained manifestations coincide with the bizarre sight of the house seeming to revitalize itself, and it isn't too long before the true nature of the Allardyce home and the woman upstairs become malevolently clear.

Curtis and co-screenwriter William F. Nolan (a noted sci-fi and horror writer in his own right, who co-authored the novel Logan's Run and also wrote Trilogy for Terror for Curtis) changed the location of the story from New York to California, but otherwise stayed largely faithful to Marasco's text. Two other significant changes were made: the climactic scenes were beefed up to clarify the book's somewhat more ambiguous ending, and the character of the Chauffeur (Anthony James), a figure from Ben's past mentioned only in passing in the book, was expanded and in fact became one of the movie's most frightening elements, appearing to Ben at several junctures in the story.

The Allardyce house and the effects it has on its occupants resembles in some ways the infamous Overlook Hotel from Stephen King's The Shining, and it's been said that reading Marasco's book at least partially inspired King to write his tale. He did list Burnt Offerings as one of his 100 favorite horror novels in his 1982 genre overview, Danse Macabre, and the idea of a house that feeds itself off the life force of the people inside it has become something of a genre staple in the decades since Burnt Offerings (the book and movie) came out, both in King's work and that of other horror writers. 

The mansion in the movie was actually played by Dunsmuir House, located in Oakland, California. Listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, Dunsmuir House was built in 1899 by Alexander Dunsmuir, heir to a coal business fortune. Eerily, Dunsmuir, who built the house as a wedding gift for his new bride, died on his honeymoon and never got to live in it. His widow did go to live there, but passed away herself two years later in 1901. 

Decades later, it was purchased by the City of Oakland and eventually turned into a cultural and historic landmark. Burnt Offerings was the first movie shot there (Curtis claimed that the whole film was done there, with no sets built) and among the movies that were later filmed at Dunsmuir are Phantasm (1979), the James Bond adventure A View to a Kill (1985), the horror spoof So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) and the Clint Eastwood thriller True Crime (1999).

Curtis' cast was small but effective. Karen Black (who died in 2013 from cancer) was one of the most visible actresses of the late 1960s and the 1970s, racking up appearances in seminal films of the era like Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Day of the Locust (1974) and Nashville (1975). At the same time, she showed up in the disaster film Airport '75 and memorably played multiple roles in Trilogy of Terror. She continued to work in TV and movies regularly until falling ill in 2010, with horror roles sustaining her career and even giving her a latter-era cult following herself.

The great Oliver Reed also became a similar cult figure and, in a just world, would still be with us playing super-villains somewhere. But he died in 1999 at the age of 61 while filming his last role in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, supposedly keeling over while tipping back a drink at the local pub after a long day's shoot. One of British cinema's quintessential bad boys, Reed was a hellraiser and alcoholic who sadly became almost better known for his drinking binges than his screen work. He had a long relationship with the horror and sci-fi genres through movies like The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Damned (1963), The Shuttered Room (1967) and The Brood (1979), and the rumored decision by the producers of the James Bond franchise to pass on casting Reed as 007 was once called one of the biggest missed opportunities in British film history.

Aunt Elizabeth was played by the legendary Bette Davis, one of the greatest actresses of all time, who had reportedly sworn to never appear in another horror movie until Curtis talked her into doing Burnt Offerings. Famously irritable, Davis allegedly clashed with both Black and Reed during production; she felt the former did not show her the proper respect while the latter would wake her up with his drunken singing in the hallway of the hotel at which they stayed during the month-long shoot (although she was known to toss a few back herself). Always an actress who did what was best for the character and dismissed the idea of needing to looking glamorous on film, Davis let herself look shockingly haggard and frail in Burnt Offerings as the first victim of the Allardyce house.

Seen today (it was recently reissued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber in a nice edition featuring interviews with Nolan, James and Lee Montgomery, who played Davey, along with audio commentaries ported over from the original DVD), Burnt Offerings is still effective and surprisingly restrained for its time. In a decade that gave us the more visceral shocks of horror classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes, Burnt Offerings was an almost quaint throwback to the idea that less is more and that what is unseen is what is most terrifying. The shabby yet sunny Allardyce house and its grounds are intimidating, yet a refreshingly far cry from the Gothic edifices that often populated haunted house movies. 

If anything, Curtis' roots as a TV director hamper him from creating an even more sinister atmosphere in the movie than he already has: the film is lit and often composed like a small screen production, and you can almost imagine it as a "Movie of the Week" right alongside Curtis' other genre TV outings. A richer, moodier, more cinematic look might have elevated Burnt Offerings to the upper tier of classic haunted house movies. Glimpses of that style can be seen in the sequences involving the Chauffeur, a truly spectral character inhabited vividly by the gaunt James. 

As it stands, Burnt Offerings may not sit alongside the likes of The Haunting, The Shining and The Innocents in the highest circle of the haunted house subgenre, but its terrific cast and score, methodical yet increasingly tense pacing, and its unique conception of the house as a "living thing" that needs to replenish itself from the life forces of those who enter it, make the movie ripe for continued rediscovery -- like the Allardyce place itself.