Horror Film Review: Burnt Offerings (dir by Dan Curtis)


This 1976 film is about a family so obnoxious that their own house tries to kill them!

Well, maybe it’s not entirely the family’s fault. The film suggests that the house would have tried to kill anyone who lived there because the house itself is possessed by ghosts or Satan or something of that nature. Still, you can’t help but feel that the house took some extra joy out of destroying the Rolf family.  I know that I got some extra joy out of watching them get destroyed.

Ben (Oliver Reed) is a writer. Ben’s wife, Marian (Karen Black), is a flake who becomes obsessed with the house as soon as she sees it. Their son 12 year-old son, Davey (Lee Montgomery), is …. well, there’s no nice way to say this. He’s a brat. He’s the type of kid who you would be terrified of your kid befriending at school because then he’d want to come hang out at your house all the time. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that he’s a brat but the audience does. And finally, Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) is Bette Davis, which means that she spends most of the movie delivering her lines in the most overdramatic and arch way possible.

The Rolfs are renting the house for the summer. The owners of the house are the Allardyces (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart) and you would think that people would know better than to rent a house from Burgess Meredith. I mean, how many horror films in the 70s specifically featured Meredith as some sort of emissary of the devil? The Rolfs are asked to do two things: look after the house and look after Mrs. Allardyce, who lives on the top floor and never wants to be disturbed. The Rolfs are assured that they’ll never see Mrs Allardyce and the Rolfs are like, “Sure! That makes sense!”

Anyway, as soon as the Rolfs move in, the house starts to make weird noises and shingles start flying off the roof and, at one point, Ben nearly drowns his son in the pool.  And while it’s kind of understandable, considering how annoying his son is, it’s still not a good look.

Yep, it’s pretty obvious that the house is evil but Marian loves it, almost as if she’s becoming …. possessed! Meanwhile, Ben keeps having visions of a sinister looking chauffeur (Anthony James, whose creepy smile is the only memorable thing about this film) and Davey keeps standing too close to the outside chimney. You don’t want to do that when a house hates your guts.

It all leads to the inevitable ending, which involves people getting tossed out of windows and *ahem* crushed by chimneys. The family’s so obnoxious that you can’t help but cheer when that chimney comes down.  In fact, to be honest, as little as I think of this movie, I always specifically watch it just to see that chimney come down on one certain character.  Things might not work out well for the Rolfs or anyone else watching this rather slow and predictable movie but at least the house survives.

Fly, baby, fly!

Now, I will admit that I do own this film on DVD, simply because I love the commentary track.  Director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the film’s screenwriter, William F. Nolan, watch and discuss the film and it quickly becomes obvious that none of them remember much about making it.  While Karen Black tries to keep the peace, Curtis and Nolan bicker over who is most responsible for the parts of the film that don’t work.  When Anthony James shows up as the creepy chauffeur, Dan Curtis says that he doesn’t remember his name and then gets visibly annoyed when Karen Black spends the next few minutes talking about what a good actor Anthony James is.  It’s all enjoyably awkward and, as someone who has hosted her share of live tweets, I couldn’t help but sympathize with everyone’s efforts to find something positive to say about Burnt Offerings.

Blue Thunder (1983, directed by John Badham)


Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is a Vietnam vet-turned-cop who pilots a police helicopter for the LAPD.  Every night, he and his partner, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) fly over Los Angeles, helping to keep the peace and peeping on anyone undressing in a high-rise apartment.

Murphy is selected to serve as the test pilot for what is described as being the world’s most advanced military helicopter, Blue Thunder.  Blue Thunder is so advanced that the pilot can control the gun turrets just by turning his head and it’s also been supplied with the latest state of the art surveillance equipment.  The pilot of a Blue Thunder can literally spy on anyone while listening to and recording their conversations.  With the Olympics coming up, the city of Los Angeles wants to test out the Blue Thunder as a way to control the crowds and prevent crime during the Games.

Murphy may be impressed by the helicopter but he has his reservations about the program.  He immediately sees that Blue Thunder could be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands.  Those wrong hands would belong to Col. Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell), who was Blue Thunder’s first pilot and also Murphy’s commanding officer during Vietnam.  Murphy is still haunted by the atrocities that he saw committed by Cochrane during the war.

When it turns out that Murphy was right to be suspicious of Cochrane’s intentions, the movie turns into an exciting aerial chase above Los Angeles, with Murphy in Blue Thunder, trying to outrun F-16s, heat-seeking missiles, and eventually Cochrane, who enters the chase in a Blue Thunder of his own.

I’m always surprised that Blue Thunder doesn’t have a bigger following than it does.  It’s an action classic, with a gritty performance from Roy Scheider, a villainous performance from Malcolm McDowell, and comedic relief from the always reliable Daniel Stern.  Even Warren Oates is in the movie, playing Murphy’s LAPD commander!  The script actually does have something relevant to say about the militarization of America’s police forces (and it feels downright prophetic today) and the chase scenes are all the more exciting because they were filmed in the era before CGI and have an authenticity to them that is missing from most modern action films.

Blue Thunder is a perfect example of the “don’t do this really cool thing” style of action film.  The Blue Thunder helicopter is described as being a danger to everyone in the country and the movie even ends with a note saying that real-life Blue Thunders are currently being designed.  But I don’t think anyone who has ever watched this film has thought, “I hope they stopped making those helicopters.”  Instead, this movie makes you want to have a Blue Thunder of your very own.  They’re so cool, who wouldn’t want to fly one of those things?

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: In the Heat of the Night (dir by Norman Jewison)


The 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, tells the story of two very different men.

Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi.  In many ways, Gillespie appears to the epitome of the bigoted Southern cop.  He’s overweight.  He loses his temper easily.  He chews a lot of gum.  He knows everyone in town and automatically distrusts anyone who he hasn’t seen before, especially if that person happens to be a black man or from the north.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a black man from the north.  He’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department and he’s as cool and controlled as Gillespie is temperamental and uncouth.  Tibbs has no patience for the casual racism that is epitomized by lawmen like Chief Gillespie.  When Gillespie says that Virgil is a “fancy name” for a black and asks what people call Virgil in Philadelphia, Virgil declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!,” with an authority that leaves no doubt that he expects Gillespie to do the same.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

For once, that old joke is correct.  When a Chicago industrialist named Phillip Colbert is discover murdered in Sparta, Chief Gillespie heads up the investigation and, assuming that the murderer must be an outsider, orders Deputy Wood (Warren Oates) to check out the train station for any suspicious characters.  When Wood arrives at the station, he discovers Virgil standing on the platform.  Virgil is simply waiting for his train so that he can get back home to Philadelphia.  However, Wood promptly arrests him.  Gilespie accuses him of murdering Colbert, just to discover that Virgil’s a police detective from Philadelphia.

Though neither wants to work with the other, that’s exactly what Gillespie and Virgil are forced to do as they investigate Colbert’s murder.  Colbert was planning on building a factory in Sparta and his wife (Lee Grant) makes it clear that, if Sparta wants the factory and the money that comes with it, Virgil must be kept on the case.  Over the course of the investigation, Gillespie and Virgil come to a weary understanding as both of them are forced to confront their own preconceived notions about both the murder and life in Sparta.  In the end, if it’s impossible for them to truly become friends, they do develop a weary respect for each other.  That is perhaps the best that one could have hoped for in 1967.

I have to admit that it took me a few viewings before I really appreciated In the Heat of the Night.  Though this film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, it’s always suffered when compared to some of the films that it beat.  One can certainly see that the film was superior to Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  But was it a better film than The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde?  Did Rod Steiger really deserve to win Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty?  (Amazingly, Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

To be honest, I still feel that In The Heat of the Night was probably the 3rd best of the 5 films nominated that year, superior to the condescending Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate.  The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I thought Steiger blustered a bit too much and the film’s central mystery didn’t really hold together and, to a large extent, I still feel like that.

But, at the same time, there’s a lot to appreciate about In the Heat of the Night.  On subsequent viewings, I came to better appreciate the way that director Norman Jewison, editor Hal Ashby, and cinematographer Haskwell Wexler created and maintained an atmosphere that was so thick that you can literally feel the Mississippi humidity while watching the film.  I came to appreciate the supporting cast, especially Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Anthony James, and Larry Gates.  (Gates especially makes an impression in his one scene, playing an outwardly genteel racist who nearly cries when Tibbs reacts to his slap by slapping him back.)  I also came to appreciate the fact that, while the white cop/black cop partnership has subsequently become a bit of a cliche, it was new and even controversial concept in 1967.

And finally, I came to better appreciate Sidney Poitier’s performance as Virgil.  Poitier underplays Virgil, giving a performance of tightly controlled rage.  While Steiger yells his way through the film, Poitier emphasizes that Virgil is always thinking.  As in the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier plays a dignified character but, here, that dignity is Virgil’s way of defying the demands and expectations of men like Gillespie.  When Virgil does strike back, it’s a cathartic moment because we understand how many times he’s had to hold back.

In the Heat of the Night may not have been the best film of 1967 but it’s still one worth watching.

Six Other Films From Crown International Pictures That Deserved An Oscar Nomination!


An hour ago, I told you about the only Oscar nomination that was ever received by Crown International Pictures, one of the most prolific B-movie distributors of the 70s and 80s.  That nomination was for Best Original Song for Crown’s 1972 film, The Stepmother.

Here are 6 more films from Crown International Pictures that I think deserved some Oscar consideration:

The Teacher (1974)

“She corrupted the youthful morality of the entire school!” the poster screamed but actually, The Teacher was a surprisingly sensitive coming-of-age story about a relationship between a younger man and an older woman.  Jay North and Angel Tompkins both give excellent performances and Anthony James shows why he was one of the busiest character actors of the 70s.

2. The Sister In Law (1974)

John Savage has been acting for several decades.  He’s appeared in a number of acclaimed films but he’s never received an Oscar nomination.  One of his best performances was in this melancholy look at love, betrayal, and ennui in the early 70s.

3. Best Friends (1975)

One of the strangest films ever released by Crown International, Best Friends is also one of the best.  A road trip between two old friends goes terribly wrong when one of the friends turns out to be a total psycho.  This well-acted and rather sad film definitely deserves to be better-known than it is.

4. Trip With The Teacher (1975)

Zalman King for Best Supporting Actor?  Hell yeah!

5. Malibu High (1979)

Surely Kim Bentley’s performance as a high school student-turned-professional assassin deserved some sort of consideration!

6. Don’t Answer The Phone (1980)

Don’t Answer The Phone is not a particularly good movie but it certainly is effective.  It made me want to go out and get a derringer or some other cute little gun that I could carry in my purse.  That’s largely because of the performance of Nicholas Worth.  Worth plays one of the most perverse and frightening murderers of all time and Worth throws himself into the role.  It’s one of the best psycho performances of all time and certainly worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Horror On The Lens: Burnt Offerings (dir by Dan Curtis)


To be honest, I really don’t like Burnt Offerings, a 1976 film about what happens when an odd family moves into an even odder house.  I find it to be slow and predictable and, to be honest, the only part that really works are the flashback scenes that feature a skeletal Anthony James playing a sinister chauffeur.

However, I’ve discovered that there’s a lot of people online who disagree with me and who consider this to be one of the best haunted house movies ever!  So, in the spirit of agreeing to disagree, here is Burnt Offerings

(If nothing else, the film is worth it for the chance to see Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, Anthony James, and Burgess Meredith all in one film together.)

Back to School #14: The Teacher (dir by Howard Avedis)


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“She Corrupted The Youthful Morality of an Entire School!” the tagline for the 1974 film The Teacher screams out.

Uhmmm, no.

In fact, that’s probably one of the most deceptive taglines in the history of film advertising.  However, we shouldn’t be surprised that it was used.  Like The Young Graduates, The Teacher was produced by Crown International Pictures.  Crown International was all about getting people to buy tickets and they probably figured that more people would pay to see a movie about a teacher corrupting “an entire school” than they would for a film about a 28 year-old teacher having an affair with one (and only one) 18 year-old who has recently graduated high school.

The relationship is between Diane (Angel Tompkins) and Sean (Jay North).  Diane lives next door to Sean’s family.  She’s married to a man who spends most of his time on the road, racing motorcycles and only occasionally calling his wife.  Diane is a teacher but we only briefly see her standing outside of the local high school.  While Sean admits that he has always had a crush on her and, at the start of the movie, even spies on her while she’s sunbathing, it’s never made clear whether or not Sean was ever actually in any of her classes.  In fact, the only thing controversial about their eventual relationship is that there’s a 10 year age difference between them.  But that really doesn’t seem to bother anyone, with the exception of two old women who happen to see Diane and Sean out on a date.

Teacher and Not A Student

Teacher and Not A Student

That, of course, doesn’t mean that Diane doesn’t have anything to teach Sean.  As the film’s theme song tells us, “Every boy needs a teacher, to help show him the way…”

But here’s the thing.  Considering how tawdry one would naturally expect a film like The Teacher to be, it’s actually treats Diane and Sean’s relationship with a lot of sensitivity.  Tompkins and North have a lot of chemistry together and both of them give natural and believable performances.  In many ways, this film is a sincere attempt to explore an unlikely relationship.  I’ve always felt that in almost every 70s exploitation film, there’s an art film waiting to break out.  That’s certainly the case with The Teacher.

However, The Teacher isn’t just about Diane “teaching” Sean.  It’s also about a guy named Ralph, who also happens to be obsessed with Diane.  (When, at the start of the film, Sean is spying on Diane, little does he suspect that Ralph is spying on him.)  We know Ralph is a bit off because he’s always talking to himself, he drives a hearse, and he’s played by Anthony James.  You may not recognize his name but if you’re a fan of 70s and 80s exploitation cinema, you know who Anthony James is.  He’s one of those very intense, very creepy-looking character actors who would always show up playing psychos and evil henchmen.

Anthony James

Anthony James

Ralph is not only obsessed with Diane but he also blames Sean for the death of his younger brother.  It seems that Sean and Ralph’s brother were spying on Diane when, somehow, Ralph’s brother ended up falling to his death.  (If you get the feeling that literally every male in this film appears to spend the majority of his time watching Diane — well, you’re right.)  Ralph wants vengeance and, in his defense, Sean never really does seem to be that upset about the death of his best friend.

Because this film was made in the 70s, it all leads to surprisingly somber ending that will probably inspire you to reconsider any belief you may have in a benevolent God.

I have to admit that, out of all the Crown International films that I’ve recently watched, The Teacher was a favorite of mine.  Watching the film — with its constantly shifting tone and it’s mix of arthouse pretension and grindhouse melodrama — is an odd experience that epitomizes everything that I love about old exploitation films.

Thank you, Crown International, for always being you.

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10 (Plus) Of My Favorite DVD Commentary Tracks


It seems like I’m always taking a chance when I listen to a DVD commentary track.  Occasionally, a commentary track will make a bad film good and a good film even better.  Far too often, however, listening to a bad or boring commentary track will so totally ruin the experience of watching one of my favorite movies that I’ll never be able to enjoy that movie in the same way again.  I’ve learned to almost always involve any commentary track that involves anyone credited as being an “executive producer.”  They always want to tell you every single detail of what they had to do to raise the money to make the film.  Seriously, executive producers suck. 

However, there are more than a few commentary tracks that I could listen to over and over again.  Listed below are a few of them.

10) Last House On The Left (The Original) — Apparently, there’s a DVD of this film that features a commentary track in which stars David Hess and Fred Lincoln nearly come to blows while debating whether or not this movie should have been made.  The DVD I own doesn’t feature that commentary but it does feature a track featuring writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham.  The thing that I love about their commentary is that they both just come across as such nice, kinda nerdy guys.  You look at the disturbing images onscreen and then you hear Cunningham saying, “We shot this scene in my mom’s backyard.  There’s her swimming pool…”  Both Craven and Cunningham are remarkably honest about the film’s shortcomings (at one point, Craven listens to some of his more awkward dialogue and then says, “Apparently, I was obsessed with breasts…”) while, at the same time, putting the film’s controversy into the proper historical context.

9) Burnt Offerings — When Burnt Offerings, which is an occasionally interesting haunted house movie from 1976, was released on DVD, it came with a commentary track featuring director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the guy who wrote the movie.  This commentary track holds a strange fascination for me because it, literally, is so mind-numbingly bad that I’m not convinced that it wasn’t meant to be some sort of parody of a bad commentary track.   It’s the commentary track equivalent of a car crash.  Curtis dominates the track which is a problem because he comes across like the type of grouchy old man that Ed Asner voiced in Up before his house floated away.  The screenwriter, whose name I cannot bring myself to look up, bravely insists that there’s a lot of nuance to his painfully simple-minded script.  Karen Black, meanwhile, tries to keep things positive.  The high point of the commentary comes when Black points out that one actor playing a menacing chauffeur is giving a good performance (which he is, the performance is the best part of the movie).  She asks who the actor is.  Curtis snaps back that he doesn’t know and then gets testy when Black continues to praise the performance.  Finally, Curtis snaps that the actor’s just some guy they found at an audition.  Actually, the actor is a veteran character actor named Anthony James who has accumulated nearly 100 credits and had a prominent supporting role in two best picture winners (In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven).

8 ) Cannibal Ferox — This is a good example of a really unwatchable movie that’s made watchable by an entertaining commentary track.  The track is actually made up of two different tracks, one with co-star Giovanni Lombardo Radice and one with director Umberto Lenzi.  Lenzi loves the film and, speaking in broken English, happily defends every frame of it and goes so far as to compare the movie to a John Ford western.  The wonderfully erudite Radice, on the other hand, hates the movie and spends his entire track alternatively apologizing for the movie and wondering why anyone would possibly want to watch it.  My favorite moment comes when Radice, watching the characters onscreen move closer and closer to their bloody doom, says, “They’re all quite stupid, aren’t they?”

7) Race With The Devil Race with the Devil is an obscure but enjoyable drive-in movie from the 70s.  The DVD commentary is provided by costar Lara Parker who, along with providing a lot of behind-the-scenes information, also gets memorably catty when talking about some of her costars.  And, let’s be honest, that’s what most of us want to hear during a DVD commentary.

6) Anything featuring Tim Lucas — Tim Lucas is the world’s foremost authority on one of the greatest directors ever, Mario Bava.  Anchor Bay wisely recruited Lucas to provide commentary for all the Bava films they’ve released on DVD and, even when it comes to some of Bava’s lesser films, Lucas is always informative and insightful.  Perhaps even more importantly, Lucas obviously enjoys watching these movies as much as the rest of us.  Treat yourself and order the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2.

5) Tropic Thunder — The commentary track here is provided by the film’s co-stars, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr.  What makes it great is that Downey provides his commentary in character as Sgt. Osiris and spends almost the entire track beating up on Jack Black.  This is a rare case of a great movie that has an even greater commentary track.

4) Strange Behavior — This wonderfully offbeat slasher film from 1981 is one of the best movies that nobody seems to have heard of.  For that reason alone, you need to get the DVD and watch it.  Now.  As an added bonus, the DVD comes with a lively commentary track featuring co-stars Dan Shor and Dey Young and the film’s screenwriter, Bill Condon (who is now the director that Rob Marshall wishes he could be).  Along with providing a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia, the three of them also discuss how Young ended up getting seduced by the film’s star (Michael Murphy, who was several decades older), how shocked Condon was that nobody on the set seemed to realize that he’s gay, and why American actors have so much trouble speaking in any accent other than their own.  Most memorable is Young remembering the experience of sitting in a theater, seeing herself getting beaten up onscreen, and then listening as the people sitting around her cheered.

3) Imaginationland — As anyone who has ever listened to their South Park commentaries knows, Matt Stone and Trey Parker usually only offer up about five minutes of commentary per episode before falling silent.  Fortunately, those five minutes are usually hilarious and insightful.  Not only are Parker and Stone remarkably candid when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of their work but they also obviously enjoy hanging out with each other.  With the DVD release of South Park’s Imaginationland trilogy, Matt and Trey attempted to record a “full” 90-minute commentary track.  For the record, they manage to talk for 60 minutes before losing interest and ending the commentary.  However, that track is the funniest, most insightful 60 minutes that one could hope for.

2) Donnie Darko — The original DVD release of Donnie Darko came with 2 wonderful commentary tracks.  The first one features Richard Kelley and Jack Gyllenhaal, talking about the very metaphysical issues that the film addresses.  Having listened to the track, I’m still convinced that Kelley pretty much just made up the film as he went along but its still fascinating to the hear everything that was going on his mind while he was making the film.  However, as good as that first track is, I absolutely love and adore the second one because it features literally the entire cast of the movie.  Seriously, everyone from Drew Barrymore to Jena Malone to Holmes Osborne to the guy who played Frank the Bunny is featured on this track.  They watch the film, everyone comments on random things, and it’s difficult to keep track of who is saying what.  And that’s part of the fun.  It’s like watching the film at a party full of people who are a lot more interesting, funny, and likable than your own actual friends.

1) The Beyond — This movie, one of the greatest ever made, had one of the best casts in the history of Italian horror and the commentary here features two key members of that cast — Catriona MacColl and the late (and wonderful) David Warbeck.  The commentary, which I believe was actually recorded for a laserdisc edition of the film (though, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen a “laserdisc” and I have my doubts as to whether or not they actually ever existed), was recorded in 1997, shortly after the death of director Lucio Fulci and at a time when Warbeck himself was dying from cancer.  (Warbeck would pass away two weeks after recording this commentary).  This makes this commentary especially poignant.  Warbeck was, in many ways, the human face of Italian exploitation, a talented actor who probably deserved to be a bigger star but who was never ashamed of the films he ended up making.  This commentary — in which MacColl and Warbeck quite cheerfully recall discuss making this underrated movie — is as much a tribute to Warbeck as it is to Fulci.  Highpoint: MacColl pointing out all the scenes in which Warbeck nearly made her break out laughing.  My personal favorite is the scene (which made it into the final film) where Warbeck attempts to load a gun by shoving bullets down the barrel.  The wonderful thing about this track is that Warbeck and MacColl enjoy watching it too.