Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Burnt Offerings is more or less your standard haunted house movie, which means that it has the usual weaknesses, the story isn't going to be surprising and that whether or not it is successful mostly relies on how much atmosphere and suspense it can generate. Good news is Dan Curtis, director of the not exactly good but still pretty darn fun Trilogy of Terror, manages to squeeze a little juice out of the tired premise. It's got a solid cast (including Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis and Burgess Meredith), enough technical assurance to know how to make the house a foreboding presence without going overboard on the German Expressionism (although Davis way overuses the soft focus), and a little bit of a central mystery/what-the-hell-is-going-on element that lends some suspense.
The big flaw is the one that seems to haunt most movies of this ilk: over-reliance on unscary, arbitrary special effects and meaningless supernatural shenanigans. It's just not scary to see a backyard pool start making big waves and thrashing a little kid around. I submit that the potentially scary thing about ghosts is not whether or not they can physically manipulate reality, but what the ghosts represent psychologically or imply about our own fates. Yet time and again, haunted house movies rely on ghosts knocking over chairs and levitating beds and stupid shit like that. What makes it egregious in Burnt Offerings is that there's a great hook (the ghosts seem to slowly be possessing the members of the house) that frequently is ignored in favor over tired pyrotechnics.
It starts strong, but then wavers for a good while in the middle. Fortunately, Burnt Offerings rallies for a solid ending. The last 5 or 10 minutes sets up a classic "don't go back in the house!" scenario that has some real tension, and climaxes with a creepy payoff that, while not exactly unpredictable, gives the movie the edge it had sometimes lacked.