I'll not reveal much about the plot, except to emphasize that it's not a ghost story. The house itself is a character, as it is in the best movies of this kind, from The Haunting to Crimson Peak. It's not enough (and may be a great deal too much) to have creepy carved newels. The Haunting does amazing things with the illusory faces you seem to see in patterns on the wall at night. Burnt Offerings seems to rely mainly on an attic window that stays lit a lurid red at night. It was shot at the Dunsmuir House, where a number of movies have been filmed. There's a pool, unfortunately, but it's used to good effect.
I'm familiar with Karen Black mainly from Trilogy of Terror. That little doll has lived in my nightmares since I saw it as a fourteen-year-old. I thought Black was quite effective in Burnt Offerings, especially in the final moments, which I saw coming from a mile away, but was still genuinely scared by. That's what a good haunting story does well. It lets you in on the secret pretty much right from the get-go, but toys with you, taunting you until just the right pitch of suspense has been reached. Timing is everything.
And there's this chauffeur. With shades. Sometimes he smiles. It's terrifying. And a mysterious locked room that no one can ever go into. That right there is the stuff of bad dreams. In fact, put a sealed room in pretty much any kind of movie, and you've got a ho
All in all, the movie has a weird kind of logic that reminds me of the nightmares I had when I was a little kid. Like the one about the picture in the yellow living room that silently wanted me to go get a candy from the candy dish. Ugh. Everything is out to get you, the movie seems to say. It's watching you. What is watching you? Who knows? But it watches. The world is sunny. It smiles. It smiles at you.
Though marred by one or two cheesy scenes, this is a good movie that I won't soon forget.
And then there's The House that Dripped Blood (1971), one of those horror anthologies released by Amicus Productions. As a haunted house movie it's terrible. The stories, though taking place in the same house, are all quite different, and have nothing at all to do with the setting, except for one or two ominous references shoehorned into the script. Contrary to the advertising, the house doesn't drip blood, and as a matter of fact I don't think there's one drop of blood in the whole production. And it's got vampires, even. What a waste of a good set! A rather nice and creepy little house, murky and slightly run down and with just the right amount of ornament.
Still, it seems a bit churlish to grouse about a movie starring both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Two of the shorts are fairly creepy, one involving waxworks and the other a little witch-girl, and a third is mildly amusing. All were written by Robert Bloch. As a whole the film would have been better if it hadn't been so painfully awkward about linking the stories to the house.
So, as a schlocky horror movie, thumbs moderately up, but as a haunted house movie, thumbs down.
I also happened to watch Asylum (1972), another Amicus anthology written by Robert Bloch, and it's much better. Humorously campy at some points, genuinely scary at others, and delightfully bizarre (or gross! – like that little robot's guts!) at still others. In addition to Peter Cushing, it stars Herbert Lom, an actor I'm fond of. Not a haunted house movie, though.