BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) Blu-ray
Director: Dan Curtis
Kino Lorber

A rare theatrical feature from one of TV's busiest producer/director of the 1960s to the 1990s, the modern gothic thrills of BURNT OFFERINGS arrive on Blu-ray in glorious HD, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Married couple Ben (Oliver Reed, THE DEVILS) and Marion Rolf (Karen Black, TRILOGY OF TERROR), along with their 12-year-old son David (BEN star Lee Montgomery) rent an old mansion in country for the summer. One of the catches of the dirt cheap rental is that the owners' 85-year-old mother has to stay there, but it's only a matter of leaving meals for a woman that never comes out of her room (or that the audience ever sees for that matter). But the house seems to have an adverse effect on the couple. Ben almost drowns his son in some out of control pool play and has nauseating hallucinations of a grinning hearse chauffeur (Anthony James, THE TEACHER). Marion becomes obsessed with the antique items in the house, and keeps a close, possessive watch over the old woman's room at the top of the house. Young David is almost asphyxiated with gas, the couple's aging auntie (Bette Davis, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) becomes increasingly ill, and their strange behavior becomes increasingly and unexplainably extreme. Why don't they leave this house? Quite simply, the house won't let them!

After his 1960s daytime soap "Dark Shadows" became something of a cult phenomenon, Dan Curtis became the king of the 1970s TV horror movie. Serving as producer and/or director on a number of the era's genre telefilms (THE NIGHT STALKER, THE NORLISS TAPES, DRACULA, DEAD OF NIGHT, etc.), Curtis' work was usually solid and exemplar of its type. By the mid 1970s, Hollywood was on a scare kick with decently budgeted thrillers, and with BURNT OFFERINGS Curtis would find himself producing, directing and co-writing his first theatrical film in nearly five years, since no one else wanted to take on the property. Based on a popular 1973 novel (I had to read it in school!) by Robert Marasco, BURNT OFFERINGS is not perfect (what film is?), but still is an absorbing haunted house movie with good plot devices, some nail-biting scenarios, notable photography and a first-rate cast.

BURNT OFFERINGS is kind of an update of the “House of Usher” story, in that the house is the real living monster and that theme is well drawn out here. Without elaborate special effects, the PG-rated film is able to convey a sense of unknown menace, and although the ending is predictable (maybe it wasn't back in '76), it's still quite eerie, commencing very violently. Reed and Black are good as always, and Davis is given a smaller sympathetic part, rather than the wicked bitches she was accustomed to playing at this time in her career. Great support is provided by Eileen Heckart (THE BAD SEED) and Burgess Meredith (THE SENTINEL) as the suspiciously eccentric sister/brother owners of the house, as well as character great Dub Taylor (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAKE) as a handyman. Almost 40 years after it was released, BURNT OFFERINGS has not dated that badly at all, and is definitely worth revisiting for those who like old-fashioned type "haunted house" movies, especially in a spiffy new transfer.

Previously offered on DVD from MGM in 2003, Kino Lorber now releases the film on Blu-ray (it’s also being released on standard DVD using the same HD master). The 1080p presentation preserves the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the remastered transfer looks impeccably clean. Parts of the film were shot with some kind of diffusion lens, so scenes which came off soft or hazy in the previous DVD are handled far better here. Detail and clarity are more than pleasing, colors are bold and distinct, and there’s excellent textures in the natural looking fleshtones, while black levels are solid throughout. The grain structure looks completely natural here and is only heavier in several brief nighttime shots. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track has clear dialog and there are no distortions or problematic background hiss (Bob Cobert's Dark Shadows-esque score also sounds delightful).

Extras on this Blu-ray include an audio commentary with Dan Curtis, Karen Black and co-screenwriter William Nolan, originally conducted for MGM’s 2003 DVD release (sadly, both Curtis and Black have passed away since that time). This supplement was originally orchestrated by film historian Darren Gross, but his voice is not heard in the final product. The commentary is a hoot but tends to jump all over the place with the participants often watching the movie rather than sharing recollections (Nolan at times seems to be interviewing the other two!). There are still some fun anecdotes to be found (Curtis talks about opening scenes that he shot but cut out, Black reveals that she was a few months pregnant during shooting, etc.), but it would have been great to have more detailed accounts of Reed, Davis, Meredith and others. Film historian Richard Harland Smith does the new second audio commentary, opening by describing the occasion as bittersweet since so many of the participants from the film have since passed on. Smith fills the long running time discussing such things as the origins of the term “burnt offerings”, background on the cast and their performances, and he makes comparisons to this film and others which also dabbled in the same “haunted house” or supernatural vein. He also points out differences between the original novel and this cinematic “cautionary tale” and notes that for viewers of a certain age, the chauffeur character compares with “The Tall Man” from PHANTASM and Freddie Krueger from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Kino has produced a trio of terrific new featurettes for this release. “Anthony James: Acting His Face” (17:33) is an interview with the veteran character actor (known mainly for his villainous roles), as exclaims how he got movie and TV parts based on his appearance rather than his thespian abilities. He tells some on-the-set stories on key films in his career (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE UNFORGIVEN) and on BURNT OFFERINGS, he tells of how well he got on with Bette Davis and that he would sit in her dressing room and chat with her for long periods of time (he would also go on to appear opposite the actress, as well as Christopher Lee, in RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN). James, who firmly believes luck has a lot to do with how a successful acting career is made, also describes the difficulties he had getting his memoirs published. “Blood Ties: Lee Montgomery on BURNT OFFERINGS” (16:29) has the Canadian-born actor describing his auditioning for Dan Curtis and immediately getting hired. Montgomery who seems to have been a big fan of the genre as a child (he knew Burgess Meredith from “The Twilight Zone” and Davis from THE NANNY before working with them) had a great time making the film, describing Curtis as a “father figure” and Black as a “second mom”, and he also got on well with Reed (he recounts the famous pool scene), as he got initiated into his entourage (“Reed’s Raiders”) with the expected results (he got a bit drunk, causing his mother to confront the actor). Montgomery also shows his original shooting script, signed by the cast and crew! “From the Ashes: William F. Nolan on BURNT OFFERINGS” (13:21), Nolan tells how Richard Matheson set up his meeting with Curtis to do writing work for him, starting with THE NORLISS TAPES. He gives his spin on how the cast got on and behaved (and how Davis loathed Reed), what he brought to the screenplay (the character he created of the chauffeur who acted as the “guardian of the house”) and his reaction to the film’s negative criticism at the time of release (both Nolan and Montgomery also make note of the tragic suicide of Curtis’ daughter, which happened in the middle of the shoot).

Steve Senski is on hand for a “Trailers From Hell” segment, as he talks about the plot and that Curtis must have had a lot of clout to gather such a wonderful cast. There is also a “Portraits of Fear” animated still gallery as well as the original United Artists theatrical trailer. (George R. Reis)