Burnt Offerings (film)

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Burnt Offerings
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
Directed byDan Curtis
Written by
Based onBurnt Offerings
by Robert Marasco
Produced by
CinematographyJacques R. Marquette
Edited byDennis Virkler
Music byBob Cobert
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • August 25, 1976 (1976-08-25)[1]
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million[2]
Box office$1.56 million[3]

Burnt Offerings is a 1976 American supernatural horror film co-written and directed by Dan Curtis and starring Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Bette Davis, and Lee H. Montgomery, with Eileen Heckart, Burgess Meredith and Anthony James in supporting roles. It is based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Robert Marasco.[4] The plot follows a family who begins to interpersonally dissolve under supernatural forces in a large estate they have rented for the summer.

Produced by Alberto Grimaldi's Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), Burnt Offerings was filmed on location at the historic Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California. It was given a domestic limited theatrical release through United Artists in August 1976, which expanded later that fall. While the film received mixed reviews from critics, it won several awards in 1977. In the years since its release, the film has been analyzed by film scholars as a commentary on materialism and the dissolution of the American family.


Writer Ben Rolf, his wife Marian, and their 12-year-old son Davey tour a large, shabby, remote neo-classical 19th-century mansion to rent for the summer. The home's eccentric owners, elderly siblings Arnold and Rosalyn Allardyce, offer them a bargain price of $900 for the entire summer, with one odd request: Their elderly mother will continue to live in her upstairs suite, and the Rolfs are to provide her with meals during their stay. The old woman is obsessed with privacy and will not interact with them, so meals are to be left in her sitting room outside her locked bedroom.

The family arrives at the house with Ben's elderly Aunt Elizabeth. Marian becomes obsessed with caring for the home, and wears the Victorian-era garments she finds in Mrs. Allardyce's suite, while distancing herself from her family. Of particular interest to her is Mrs. Allardyce's sitting room, which contains a massive collection of framed portraits of people from different eras, apparently former occupants of the house. Mrs. Allardyce's meals go mostly untouched, according to Marian. Various unusual circumstances occur during the summer; after Davey hurts himself playing, a dead plant starts to grow again; Ben cuts his hand on a champagne bottle, and a dead light bulb is mysteriously repaired; Ben is haunted by a vision of an eerie, malevolently-grinning hearse driver whom Ben first saw at his mother's funeral years earlier. With each accident that occurs, the house appears to rejuvenate itself, feeding on the family's energy.

Marian slowly becomes possessed by the energy of the house. Aunt Elizabeth suddenly becomes ill and dies, after which the dead flowers in the solarium bloom. When Marian does not attend Aunt Elizabeth's funeral, Ben angrily confronts her about her obsession with the home and decides to leave the next day. Ben later sees old shingles and siding falling away, replaced by new ones as the house restores itself. Now convinced that the house is a living entity, Ben attempts to escape with Davey but a tree blocks the road. He sees Marian as the chauffeur and falls catatonic.

The next day, while Davey is swimming and a catatonic Ben is watching him, the pool water turns into vicious waves, pulling the boy under. Marian rescues her son, and the incident awakens Ben from his catatonia. Marian agrees that it is time to leave but insists on going back inside to inform Mrs. Allardyce. When she fails to return, Ben goes inside to find her. He is horrified when he discovers that the elderly woman upstairs is his wife, who has inexplicably aged. "I've been waiting for you, Ben!" she says. Ben recoils in horror. Waiting in the car, Davey is shocked to see his father plummet from the attic window, landing on the car's windshield. In shock, Davey runs toward the house and is killed when one of the chimneys collapses on him.

Afterward, the Allardyces are marveling at the restored beauty of their home and rejoicing over the return of their "mother". In Mrs. Allardyce's sitting room, the photo collection now includes portraits of Ben, Davey, and Aunt Elizabeth.



Burnt Offerings was part of a trend in 1970s horror films focused on the supernatural, such as The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976), Audrey Rose (1977), and The Amityville Horror (1979).[5] It also was one of many horror films in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), presenting the negative impacts of middle class life, such as empty-headed consumerism; in the film, the family is destroyed by a house they otherwise dreamed of, generic-looking, in the middle of nowhere, and meant for leisure.[6] Writer Paul Meehan notes in his book The Haunted House on Film: An Historical Analysis (2019) that it is the first film to depict the psychological destruction of a family facilitated by supernatural forces in their home.[7]

In the 1978 book An Introduction to American Movies, Steven C. Earley cited Ben's fall onto a car window as an example of the high presence of violence in films of the 1970s.[8] Retrospective reviews viewed the story as a criticism on obsession on property ownership[9] and the destruction of the nuclear family.[10]

Literary critic John Kenneth Muir suggests that the film's depiction of Marian's supernaturally-driven obsession with the home and its physical state can be interpreted as a commentary on materialism, and the concern of physical matter over human and familial relationships.[11]



In a Variety piece published on December 11, 1969, it was announced a project named Burnt Offerings would be directed by Bob Fosse from a screenplay by Robert Marasco; Turman Films and Cinema Center Films would be producers and Lawrence Turman executive producer.[1] Although it never materialized, a novel of the same name by Marasco was published in 1973.[1] The American Film Institute inductively reasoned the book may have been written based on the un-produced screenplay.[1] The title of the film and source novel derives from the Bible, referring to a "sacrifice by fire" and a "gift offered to God."[12]

Burnt Offerings was directed by Dan Curtis, best known for television horror works such as the TV series Dark Shadows (1966–1971) and made-for-TV films like The Night Stalker (1972). Not counting House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) —theatrically released feature film adaptations of the TV series— it was the only original theatrical feature he ever directed.[13] When offered to do the project, he found the novel uninteresting, particularly what he called its "nothing" ending, and joked to himself, "I bet some idiot who doesn't know what he's doing will come along and make this."[14]

William F. Nolan removed the first third of the book where the family was in New York City, and the chauffeur was conceived by him and unique to the film.[13]


The film was shot at the Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California

Filming took place in August 1975 at the historic Dunsmuir House in Oakland, California.[15] Burnt Offerings was the first film to be shot at the Dunsmuir House, which appeared as a main location in the horror film Phantasm several years later.[7]

Bette Davis reportedly had conflicts with Karen Black during the shoot, feeling that Black did not extend to her an appropriate degree of respect and that her behavior on the film set was unprofessional.[16] Davis also expressed disdain for Reed, whom she later referred to as "possibly one of the most loathesome human beings I have ever had the misfortune of meeting."[17]


Box office[edit]

Burnt Offerings was given a limited theatrical release through United Artists on August 25, 1976, opening in Los Angeles and Buffalo, New York.[1][18][19] It premiered in New York City the following month, on September 29, 1976.[1] The release expanded on October 13, 1976, with the film ranking at number one at the United States box office this weekend.[20] The film went on to gross $1.56 million.[3]

Critical response[edit]

Arizona Republic critic Mike Petryni was frightened by the film, particularly the smiling chauffeur, but felt it was ruined by an emphasis on constant thrills over subtle horror. He also was confused about several concepts, such as why Marian was depicted as frequently handling Mrs. Allardyce's trays.[21] George Anderson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette criticized the film as dependent on typical horror tropes such as shocks and loud music hits; he also described the tension as "a lot of sinister huffing and puffing to little effect", noting how most of the runtime is spent on mystery of which characters are the antagonists or protagonists.[22] Ron Cowan of the Statesman Journal described the film as a "less than Grand Guignol venture" with a "stellar cast," concluding: "The house is a real charmer...  especially when it sheds its shingles and siding and neatly disposes of troublesome people. By then, though, the movie's pace may have disposed of some of the audience."[23]

While calling Meredith and Heckart the best performers in the film, Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe argued the material gave the actors little to work with; he called Black "particularly inconsistent", Reed "looking like an eggplant", and stated Davis "tries to create a Bette Davis character without any Bette Davis lines to work with, so all she can do is puff and snort a lot".[24] Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times gave the film an unfavorable review, writing that it is "too trite, too drawn-out and repetitious, too poorly motivated and finally too vague in the nature of its supernatural evil to make it."[18]

Film critic Roger Ebert called the film "a mystery, all right", concluding "Burnt Offerings just persists, until it occurs to us that the characters are the only ones in the theater who don't know what's going to happen next."[25] Variety stated "The horror is expressed through sudden murderous impulses felt by Black and Reed, a premise which might have been interesting if director Dan Curtis hadn't relied strictly on formula treatment."[4]

Retrospective reviews[edit]

Donald Guarisco of Movie Guide called the film "worthy of rediscovery by the horror fans who missed it the first time", concluding "In the end, Burnt Offerings is probably a bit too methodical in its pacing for viewers accustomed to slam-bang approach of post-'70s horror fare but seasoned horror fans will find plenty to enjoy..."[26] In addition to the slow build, Starburst's Robert Martin spotlighted its cast, particularly the chemistry between Reed and Montgomery, Black's "loving and murderous" combination, and Davis' "uncomfortable" heart attack scene.[27] However, he also felt the overall product was held back by its TV film look, particularly its "flat cinematography" and visuals that were more "clever" than scary.[27]


Award Subject Nominee Result Ref.
Saturn Awards Best Horror Film Burnt Offerings Won [28]
Best Director Dan Curtis [28]
Best Supporting Actress Bette Davis [28]
Sitges Film Festival Best Director Dan Curtis [29]
Best Actor Burgess Meredith[a] [29]
Best Actress Karen Black [29]

Home media[edit]

On August 26, 2003, MGM Home Entertainment released a region 1 DVD of Burnt Offerings. The original video shape is in wide screen (16:9) and also features an audio commentary with Dan Curtis, Karen Black and William F. Nolan. The DVD was poorly received. Reviewers criticized the video quality, which appeared to have been shot with soft focus,[30] and the Dolby Digital Mono audio that made the voices muddy and indistinct.

A Blu-ray edition of the film was released on October 6, 2015 by Kino Lorber.[31]


Burnt Offerings
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedJune 28, 2011

Like most other Dan Curtis works, the music for Burnt Offerings was composed and conducted by Robert Cobert. In 2011, years after the film's release, the original full soundtrack album was released by Counterpoint and was limited to only 3,000 copies. The album features all of Cobert's original score, plus alternate tracks not used in the film including two alternate Music Box Themes. The CD booklet is 20 pages long and illustrated with photos taken from the set of the film during production.[32] An original suite of the film's soundtrack can be found on the 2000 Robert Cobert collection album The Night Stalker and Other Classic Thrillers.

Track listing[edit]

All tracks are written by Robert Cobert

1."Foreboding Evil"1:32
2."Memories of a Lifetime"2:06
3."17 Shore Road"2:08
4."Mrs. Allardyce's Room"0:53
5."Music Box Theme"2:50
6."Danger at the Pool"2:53
7."Funeral Dream"1:28
8."The Pool After Dark"0:32
9."Rendezvous Gone Wrong"2:10
10."Aunt Elizabeth Investigates"2:06
11."The Chauffeur"1:04
12."The Clocks Restart/The Gas Leaks"0:50
13."Marian & Aunt Elizabeth's Quarrel"2:06
14."Aunt Elizabeth Falls Ill"4:42
15."Music Box Theme"1:29
16."Terror Up the Stairs"2:19
17."The Greenhouse"0:26
18."Rejuvenation and Attempted Escape"2:44
19."The Ride Back"1:32
20."Swimming Pool"4:52
21."Ben Confronts Terror"1:43
22."The Final Horror"1:29
23."A House Reborn/End Title"3:08
24."Marian Rolfe"0:32
25."House Eternal"1:42
26."Family in Danger"1:35
27."Main Title (Outtake)"3:18
28."Music Box Theme (Piano Version 1)"2:51
29."Alternate Music Box Theme #1 (Celesta Version)"1:06
30."Alternate Music Box Theme #2 (Piano Version 2)"2:21
31."Music Box Theme (shorter version)"2:37
32."Main Title (Reprise-Outtake)"0:45
Total length:01:05:22


  1. ^ Shared with Burgess's performance in The Sentinel (1977).[29]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Burnt Offerings". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 29, 2021.
  2. ^ Sterritt, David (September 13, 1976). "Excitement--and waiting: That's how life is for actors and crew on location with the big-budget thriller 'Burnt Offerings' In Dunsmuir House Old style is done with". The Christian Science Monitor. p. 23.
  3. ^ a b Nowell 2011, p. 256.
  4. ^ a b Variety film review; August 25, 1976, page 20.
  5. ^ King 2007, p. 124.
  6. ^ Snyder 1982, p. 4.
  7. ^ a b Meehan 2019, p. 130.
  8. ^ Earley 1978, p. 117.
  9. ^ Berriman, Ian (December 2016). "Burnt Offerings". SFX. No. 28. p. 109. Retrieved May 28, 2021.
  10. ^ Blackford, James (February 2017). "Burnt Offerings". Sight & Sound. 27 (2): 96. ProQuest 1866536668. Retrieved May 28, 2021.
  11. ^ Muir 2007, p. 381.
  12. ^ Malless & McQuain 2003, p. 29.
  13. ^ a b Morton, Lisa (May 2015). "Interview: William F. Nolan". Nightmare Magazine. Archived from the original on May 5, 2023.
  14. ^ Beck, Marilyn (July 29, 1976). "Why is Dan Curtis so pleased?". The Courier-Journal. p. 19 – via Newspapers.com.
  15. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 154.
  16. ^ Spada 1993, p. 414.
  17. ^ Wolcott, James (June 24, 2013). "Reed All About It". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on May 5, 2023.
  18. ^ a b Thomas, Kevin (August 25, 1976). "Gothic Gumbo in 'Offerings'". Los Angeles Times. p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
  19. ^ "Commercial Openings". The Buffalo News. August 20, 1976. p. 40 – via Newspapers.com.
  20. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 207.
  21. ^ Petryni, Mike (September 24, 1976). "'Burnt Offerings' is spooky". Arizona Republic. p. 71 – via Newspapers.com.
  22. ^ Anderson, George (October 13, 1976). "Burnt Offerings Mild Thriller at Warner". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 18 – via Newspapers.com.
  23. ^ Cowan, Ron (October 29, 1976). "'Burnt Offerings' at the mall". Statesman Journal – via Newspapers.com.
  24. ^ Dyer, Richard (October 5, 1976). "'Burnt Offerings' hard to swallow". The Boston Globe. p. 24 – via Newspapers.com.
  25. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 8, 1976). "Burnt Offerings: Movie Review". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on July 16, 2012 – via RogerEbert.com.
  26. ^ Donald Guarisco, Rovi. "Burnt Offerings: movie review". Movie Guide. Archived from the original on February 8, 2012. Retrieved December 13, 2011.
  27. ^ a b Martin, Robert (October 18, 2016). "Burnt Offerings". Starburst. Retrieved May 29, 2021.
  28. ^ a b c Sprague, Mike (August 25, 2020). "This Day in Horror History: BURNT OFFERINGS with Karen Black Premiered in 1976". Dread Central. Archived from the original on May 5, 2023.
  29. ^ a b c d "10ed. Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic i de Terror (1/10 - 8/10)". Sitges Film Festival. Archived from the original on February 5, 2012.
  30. ^ Jawetz, Gil (August 26, 2003). "Burnt Offerings: DVD Review". DVD Talk. Retrieved December 12, 2011.
  31. ^ Tyner, Adam (September 25, 2015). "Burnt Offerings Blu-ray". DVD Talk. Archived from the original on May 4, 2023.
  32. ^ Garbarini, Todd (June 29, 2011). "SOUNDTRACK REVIEW: "Burnt Offerings – a Hell of a Great Score"". Cinema Retro. Retrieved December 14, 2011.


External links[edit]