While the film received mixed reviews from critics, it won several awards in 1977. Originally set on Long Island, the movie moves the action to California and was the first movie to be filmed at Dunsmuir House, Oakland, California.
The Rolf family takes a summer-long vacation at a large, shabby neo-classical 19th-century mansion in the countryside. The family consists of Marian (Karen Black), her husband Ben (Oliver Reed), their twelve-year-old son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery), and Ben's elderly Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis). The owners of the house are the Allardyce siblings, Arnold and Roz (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart); there is also a caretaker called Walker (Dub Taylor).
The Allardyces inform the Rolfs of a particularly odd requirement for their rental: their mother will continue to live in her upstairs room, and the Rolfs are to provide her with meals during their stay. The siblings explain that the old woman is obsessed with privacy and will not interact with them, so meals are to be left outside her door. Marian eagerly accepts this task, having already succumbed to the allure of the ornate house and its period decor. She becomes obsessed with caring for the home, begins to dress as if she is from the Victorian age, and distances herself from her family. Of particular interest to her is a room near the bedroom of Mrs. Allardyce, which contains collections of framed portraits of people from different eras and a music box.
Various unusual circumstances occur during the summer: After Ben cuts his hand on a champagne bottle, a dead light bulb in the kitchen storeroom mysteriously is revived; while playing in the pool, Ben almost drowns Davey; a gas heater in Davey's bedroom turns itself on and the windows lock shut; Ben is haunted by a dream and a waking vision of an eerie, grinning, malevolent chauffeur whom he first saw at his mother's funeral many years earlier. With each 'accident,' the house regenerates itself.
Initially unknown to her family, Marian is becoming possessed by the spirit of the house. When Aunt Elizabeth suddenly takes ill and dies, Marian does not attend the funeral. She steps into a previously barren room with half-dead flowers only to discover a beautiful, ornate garden. Upon returning home from the funeral, Ben confronts Marian, who retreats to the room outside the bedroom of Mrs. Allardyce. Ben angrily confronts her about her obsession with the home and what the home is doing to their family. When she denies it, he reveals to her his intentions of leaving the next day, "with or without you".
Ben sleeps in an armchair in his son's room but awakens to the sound of old shingles falling off the house. Looking out the window he sees that the house is rejuvenating itself. He attempts to escape with his son but a tree blocks the road. When Marian drives them back to the house Ben accuses her of being a part of what is going on, and then sees her as the chauffeur, and becomes catatonic. The next day, while Davey is swimming and a still catatonic Ben is watching him, the placid pool turns into angry, vicious waves, pulling the boy under as Ben is unable to move. Marian frantically saves her son, and the incident awakens Ben out of his catatonic state although he was unable to move to save Davey. Marian agrees that it's time to leave.
As Ben readies his family to leave, Marian decides to go back inside to tell Mrs. Allardyce they are leaving. When she fails to return to the car Ben goes inside to get her, but cannot find her. Ben decides to confront Mrs. Allardyce, whom he has never seen face to face. Ben is horrified when he finds that his wife is now the old woman in the attic. Ben is thrown from an attic window, landing on the windshield of his car. In shock, Davey runs toward the house and is killed when one of the chimneys falls on him.
With the house now fully rejuvenated and glistening like new, the Allardyce siblings and Walker magically reappear and are heard marveling at the house's beauty and rejoicing over the return of their "mother". The photo collection now includes photos of Ben, Davey and Aunt Elizabeth, the latest of the house's many victims.Karen Black as Marian Rolf / Mrs. Allardyce
Oliver Reed as Ben Rolf
Todd Tarquand as Young Ben
Lee H. Montgomery as Davey Rolf
Bette Davis as Elizabeth Rolf
Burgess Meredith as Arnold Allardyce
Eileen Heckart as Roz Allardyce
Dub Taylor as Walker
Anthony James as The Chauffeur
Jim Myers as Dr. Ross
Orin Cannon as pastor
Filming took place in August 1975 at the Dunsmuir House located in Oakland, California. Burnt Offerings was the first movie to be filmed at the Dunsmuir House. According to a commentary with Dan Curtis, William F. Nolan, and Karen Black, Curtis reveals that his rationale for the fog machine was to be able to shoot "motes."
Bette Davis reportedly had conflicts with Karen Black, feeling Black did not extend her an appropriate degree of respect, and that her behavior on the film set was unprofessional.
Movie 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." 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."
In contrast, Chris Wright of MoreHorror.com praised the film's plot, stating "A simple yet original plot for a movie that is done so well. The acting is superb from all the actors. The low tone music adds a strikingly eerie presence to the movie." Rovi 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 in this film's subtle charms."
In 2003, MGM 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 Curits, Karen Black and William F. Nolan. The DVD was also poorly received. Reviewers criticized the video quality, which appeared to have been shot with soft focus, and the Dolby Digital Mono audio that made the voices muddy and indistinct.
A Blu-ray of the film was released on October 6, 2015 by Kino Lorber.
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 1,000 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 on the set of the film during production. 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.
All tracks written by Robert Cobert.