The Rolf family, led by dad Ben (Oliver Reed), have been looking for a place to spend the summer, and this old gothic mansion out in the countryside seems like the ideal place, but Ben doubts he can afford it. When they reach its front door, they are greeted by the handyman (Dub Taylor) who invites them in where they meet the owner, Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), who wishes them to stay there and act as caretakers for not only the house, but her ageing mother who she reassures them never leaves her room and will be no trouble. And the price she thinks they'll find very reasonable...
Robert Marasco's novel Burnt Offerings was once regarded as one of the finest horror novels of the nineteen-seventies, but is now barely recalled as it is the film adaptation from TV chiller man Dan Curtis that is most likely to spring to mind when the title is mentioned. For a long while it was relegated to "disappointing" status as most who saw it could not get past the fact that Curtis was trying to make the transition from small screen to big, yet more recently it began to be awarded a more welcome appraisal as one of the most unfairly neglected fright flicks of its decade. The truth was that while it was not a total disaster, neither was it particularly deserving of its newfound praise.
Curtis had made a name for himself as the chap to go to for horror TV movies and series, having produced some memorable affairs there, although you could argue that it didn't take much to make an impression on the more easily impressed television audience of its day, still seen, fairly or otherwise, as the lesser of the two media in comparison to the movies when it came to dramatics. His version of Burnt Offerings adopted much the same approach as his earlier efforts, leaving the subtleties of the novel rendered rather obvious when you had to unnerve the audience with shock effects over more creeping dread, although there was an element of that too as Curtis attempted a mounting terror.
One drawback was that it was one of those movies where we were way ahead of the characters, given that we knew going in this was a horror story and therefore the Rolfs appear to be pretty stupid to take the position of caretakers when the Allardyces - Burgess Meredith also shows up as the creepy brother - are so keen to have them stay that they practically give the house to them for nothing. What are they up to, we ponder? It's not a big surprise to say that we never entirely find out, and the ending Curtis and co-writer William F. Nolan (no stranger to chiller fiction himself) offered vaguely explained things in a fashion that verged on the clichéd, but just about got away with it.
Only because the rest of it was so loosely plotted, with each of the four Rolfs having their own troubles to see through once they'd moved into the Allardyce place. Ben begins to suffer traumatic flashbacks to a family funeral which disturbed him, specifically the grinning chauffeur (Anthony James) he saw there and who threatens a return, then mother Marian (Karen Black) gets so tied up with looking after the mysteriously never seen old lady that she neglects everyone else, son David (Lee Montgomery of rat sequel Ben fame) finds himself victimised by both his unhinged father and something unseen, and Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) struggles with worries she is going senile, then a more physical manifestation of the growing panic. As far as the fear goes, this is less one of losing control, though that's part of of it, and more about being no longer capable; the normal responsibilities of the family are ruined by their proximity to the evil house. With a ridiculous finale and only occasional rousing suspense, Burnt Offerings (a title never explained either) was average at best. Sinister strings by Bob Cobert.