July 31, 2011

John Barry's soundtracks - atmosphere for outer space


My life in space with the music of John Barry

I've regularly listened to John Barry's soundtracks for many years, but when I'd heard he'd died, on January 30th, I stopped listening to his music. The news was a shock, out of the blue. I didn't want to be reminded that there'd be no more of the music I've grown up with. It's taken a few months for me to start again and I just wanted to talk a little about my very favourite of his tracks.

He scored outer space like no-one else. Previous sci-fi movies set in space famously used classical music (2001: A Space Odyssey) or electronic atmospherics (Forbidden Planet), but John Barry's take was more about awe, mystery and trepidation, retaining the danger of humanity living outside the atmosphere.

As long as I can remember going to the cinema, we're talking mid-1960s, I remembered his music. My Mum took me to see a re-release of You Only Live Twice (1967) in 1968. At the start of the story, a US space rocket is followed by another. The surprise of it opening up, then swallowing the other, never left me. The track 'Capsule In Space' describes danger approaching during a space walk. The score accompanies the action perfectly, but also works as a stand-alone piece. The experience in the cinema was enough to put me off space travel, the same way Jaws put me off swimming in the sea.

I was then old enough to see Bond films in the cinema during their first run. I especially loved the exciting music to the ski chases in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). So much so that I'd concentrate on carrying the music away with me in my head. I did this for years until I could afford or find the soundtracks.

I was delighted there was another scene set in space in Diamonds Are Forever(1971), during the launch of a killer satellite. After several stage separations, the beautiful weapon deploys, then begins picking off targets around the world. The tempo of the space march '007 and Counting' matches its graceful motion, alternated with the horrendous power it unleashes.

The theme tune to Diamonds Are Forever really imprinted on me. The impact of Barry's James Bond theme songs were combined in the cinema with the most lavish, widescreen 'pop videos'. Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra and Shirley Bassey singing top ten hits with huge, naked, pop art visuals by Maurice Binder. The music and the images were also associated with the anticipation of two hours of the most exciting films of the time. For many years after their release, Bond movies weren't seen outside of cinemas, being continually re-released until TV eventually paid huge sums to show them, Dr No (1962) wasn't shown on TV in the UK until 1975. I had the chance to see each one several times in the cinema - the music was part of the attraction of seeing them again.

The soundtracks never stayed in circulation on vinyl for very long. If you were lucky, they'd maybe appear when a new format, like music cassettes, were introduced. The search for the albums missing from my paltry collection kept me hunting through record shops looking for secondhand records or cassettes. For many years, this James Bond Collection double-album (above) was the only Bond music to be reissued. A life-saving compilation of cues from the original soundtracks, at a time when there were dozens of weedy soundalike albums. Geoff Love cover versions weren't a sufficient alternative to the real deal.
I'd even record my favourite sections off the TV, when no soundtrack was available. I waited decades for many missing cues to finally appear when the expanded James Bond soundtracks were released in 2003.

But meanwhile, John Barry made more space music. After Star Wars (1977)became a big box office hit, he composed for three more outer space movies, around 1979. But he remained true to his earlier approach of danger and mystery.

Moonraker put James Bond in his very own Space Shuttle. 'Flight Into Space' describes the tension of the launch in the familiar march motif. Again Barry describes the wonder of being in space and the surprises revealed out there.

Another track 'Space Lazer Battle' anticipated some of the aural effects he'd use in The Black Hole. The scene of astronauts fighting in zero gravity is far more convincingly done than the one in The Green Slime. While Moonraker is far from the best Bond movie, I've enjoyed the soundtrack literally hundred of times.

The main title to The Black Hole (1979) makes it sound almost like a sea-going adventure. Again there's a foreboding tone accenting the hazards, particularly from the black hole itself. This time, the whole album accompanies deep space. Barry's music has to carry the entire climax of the film with the track 'Into The Hole', using increasingly mysterioso effects.

Lastly, I'll even mention Starcrash (1978). John Barry sometimes scored movies he later regretted. It may be embarrassingly (though enjoyably) awful, but tracks like 'Launch Adrift' are particularly beautiful. While the album isn't as consistent as the other two, it's still John Barry in his prime.

Among his many soundtracks, I notice a few tracks that seem out of step with the rest of the score - otherworldly moments reminding me of his 'space music'. In Beat Girl (1960) the track '2000 AD', in Midnight Cowboy (1969) there's 'Science Fiction'. In the superb score to King Kong (1976), the haunting 'Full Moon Domain'. And in Dances With Wolves (1990), 'Stands With A Fist remembers'.

Barry's last non-soundtrack albums The Beyondness of Things (1999) and Eternal Echoes (2001) continued with echoes of the lost 'wild' west from Dances With Wolves. In both, there's a sense that he's summing up his life and saying farewell. But I had no idea that it was going to be so soon.

Of course there's much more to his music, and no matter what you think of the movies, here are my favourite John Barry soundtracks to recommend to you:

Some exceptional James Bond soundtracks I haven't mentioned, From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and The Living Daylights (1987). They set high standards for how to make action even more exciting.
The Ipcress File (1965) accompanied the low-key flipside of spying in the Cold War. This soundtrack propelled Barry into the A-list of soundtrack composers.

Deadfall (1968) woke me up to his being superb music, not just a backing track. The fourteen minute 'Romance for Guitar and Orchestra' at the heart of Deadfall is one of Barry's greatest achievements. Working with director Bryan Forbes, the track had to be woven into the film, being performed in front of the camera, as well as scoring the action of the robbery scene that intercuts with the concert hall footage.

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (1972) is a rare musical from Barry. With songs as beautiful as they are strange.

King Kong (1976) is one of his very best scores, again to be enjoyed many more times than the movie.

My playlists of his music are made up of my very favourite tracks, cherry-picked from his albums. In all, they're still over 14 hours long. Some of it represents forty years of listening... and counting.

July 24, 2011

STAR WARS (1977) vs THE DAM BUSTERS (1955) - raiders of the movie archives

The extensive inspiration for Star Wars' first Death Star mission...

I've just re-watched two WWII movies, 633 Squadron (1964) and The Dam Busters (1955), much-loved in the UK after regular TV showings for years of Saturday nights during the 1970s and 80s. It's now an easy observation that the finales for both films provided inspiration for the climax of the first Star Wars (1977), which should really make them more popular now. But looking around in books, magazines and websites dedicated to Star Wars, there's little or no mention of them.

I loved Star Wars when it came out, and pounced on anything written about it at the time. I was surprised that the 1977 Star Wars 'Official Collectors Edition' magazine started with 16 pages of acknowledged influences on the themes and designs of the first Star Wars film. There are photos from the original Flash Gordon serials, The Mark of Zorro, True Grit, Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan and dozens more American productions, plus the robot Maria from Germany's Metropolis. I didn't realise how many films hadn't been mentioned.

I've rewatched The Making of Star Wars ...as told by C-3PO and R2-D2 documentary (released on VHS and laserdisc, and coming soon to the Blu-ray special edition), free TV publicity for the initial movie release. It briefly shows airplane footage from a black-and-white American movie (Jet Pilot?). The voiceover is, "The adventure into which Luke Skywalker is thrust is derived from World War II dogfights as shown in Hollywood films...". My gripe now is that half the movies actually referenced for the outer space battles weren't made in Hollywood, but in Britain (as was much of Star Wars). Like the magazine, this documentary parades clips from similar American movies of the 1940s, of swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, swordfighting Zorro and cliffhanging Flash Gordon.

This casual mention of dogfights, often abbreviated to 'World War II footage' fails to describe an extensive echoing of scenes from a few specific movies, re-using visual composition of unique shots, their blocking, lighting, and even dialogue. While many directors would screen movies to their crew before a production to establish mood or tone, here we have other people's movies being cut up and used as moving storyboards. Not just black-and-white war movies, but big-budget, widescreen colour classics. Of course, this 'referencing' didn't happen in isolation.

The Dam Busters targeting computer is made of wood.
The young directors who ruled Hollywood in the 1970s, 'The Movie Brats', all came from film schools. They'd studied and dissected classic cinema, sometimes shot-by-shot, heralding an era of movie-making full of intensive homage. Spielberg used camera techniques he'd watched, famously using Hitchcock's 'reverse zoom' from Vertigo for a very different use in Jaws. Brian De Palma would riff on Hitchcock's plots (Obsession, also derived from Vertigo), as well as camera technique.

The Brats weren't above remakes, like Scorsese's Cape Fear, De Palma's Scarface and Spielberg's Always. Earlier on, George Lucas wanted to adapt Flash Gordon (previously filmed as three cliffhanger serials in 1936, 1938, 1940) but discovered the rights had already been purchased (and eventually used for De Laurentiis' 1980 movie). Instead, he wrote Star Wars in the same vein, exploring the same inspirations as Alex Raymond's original comic strip. But that story only explains the space fantasy setting.

The extended climax of the first Star Wars was a dazzling technical and emotional achievement, key to the box-office success of the film and ensuring the birth of a franchise. Despite the assault on the Death Star being in outer space, the X-Wings and TIE fighters glide like airplanes, grouping in battle formations like WWII fighter planes. The mission is to fly into and along the Death Star trench for a remote chance at hitting a well-defended target. This was also the climax of The Dam Busters (1955) and 633 Squadron (1964). The squadrons in The Dam Busters have to fly low over a mountain reservoir to hit a specifically pinpointed weak spot on a dam (to flood enemy factories). 633 Squadron fly low along a narrow, high-sided, heavily-defended fjord to target a specialised fuel factory. Both targets are far more logical than the gaping flaw in the design of the Death Star. The suspense and excitement generated by these scenes are the reason so many elements have been re-used in the climax of Star Wars.

But scarce mention has been made of these movies or how they were used. Here's the best I could find. Joe Johnston (director of The Rocketeer and Captain America) was a visual effects illustrator for Industrial Light & Magic, interviewed in Cinefantastique. He talks about storyboarding the final battle for Star Wars in 1975, using 16mm footage that Lucas had compiled "from World War II dogfights". "A lot of it was from Battle of Britain. Some of it was from Bridges At Toko-Ri, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Jet Pilot, 633 Squadron and some of it was actual combat footage. Quite a bit of footage came from the movie Dam Busters." (1978 Cinefantastique double issue - vol 6. no. 4/vol. 7 no. 1, p.78),

In American Cinematographer magazine (July 1977), there's an example of a storyboard 'conversion' on page 744 - a sketch of a shot of two planes diving(which looks like it's from Tora! Tora! Tora!) shown next to the equivalent sketch of an X-wing and a TIE fighter in the same positions, same shot composition, the horizon mapped onto the edge of the Death Star. This would then be the storyboard for the visual effects department.

Usually there are only few movies that get name-checks when the subject is raised, even in the weightiest books on the making of the film. In the George Lucas Interviews (edited by Sally Kline), Lucas refers to a few of the same movies as Joe Johnston "plus about 45 other movies". To me that's a very poor tribute to the film-makers who unwittingly provided blueprints for one of the most famous scenes in movie history.

Common knowledge is now that "World War II footage" was used, when it should be 'World War II movie footage'. Personally, the impression I'd always had was that they'd just used combat footage. But I hadn't realised there's more than a logistical similarity between the missions in The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron and the Death Star run. Using combat footage as technical reference material would add to the realism. Using other movies' special effects shots and set-ups is unimaginative.

Now I'm not going to micro-analyse all the similarities for you, and I'm surprised no-one else has put a slew of parallel shot breakdowns of the Death Star trench scene online, with a ton of screen captures best-guessing how these films were used. (Not to mention the dialogue also lifted from The Dam Busters). It's obviously extensive, and just as innovative as it is cheeky. But I'm not going to devote any more time proving the point.

The three directors of Airplane! (1980) Jim Abrahams, Jerry and David Zucker, all referred to Zero Hour! (1957) because they'd never directed a movie before. Besides spoofing the plot and the dialogue, they even looked at the film to choose camera see-ups. The difference here is that they got nervous and bought the rights to Zero Hour! in case they were later accused of plagiarism (they tell this story on the Airplane! DVD commentary track).

Cinema is rife with homage, but it seems that Spielberg and Scorsese talk about their influences and 'quotes' freely and often. Quentin Tarantino energetically diverts fans back to his beloved grindhouse classics. But no-one is leading Star Wars followers to all of its major inspirations.

The proof is in the referenced films themselves. I'd encourage you to watch a few in Joe Johnston's list and play spot-the-homage for yourself! If you're going to steal, steal from the best.

(1955, UK)

I'm looking forward to seeing Tora! Tora! Tora! and Battle of Britain again on Blu-ray, in search of further quotations, but it was The Dam Busters and 633 Squadron that reminded me of all this. In both films, the whole story is devoted to the final mission.

The Dam Busters aims for historical accuracy, describing inventor Barnes Wallis' own determination to persuade the military that his eccentric-looking 'bouncing bomb' could successfully be deployed. It's a story of perseverance and also a tribute to the airmen who practised for and flew the final mission. Especially those who didn't return. Of course it's not a thrill-machine like Star Wars, but a dramatic story heightened by the fact that it happened for real. Slightly surprising that a major film of the era was made in black-and-white and aspected 1.33, but probably because it wanted to intercut actual wartime footage of the bombing test runs.

It stars Michael Redgrave (Vanessa's dad), probably better known to you from Dead Of Night (1945) and Richard Todd (Asylum, House of the Long Shadows). Fun to see a young Robert Shaw (Jaws, From Russia With Love) so early in his career. Director Michael Anderson later made Logan's Run and Orca - The Killer Whale!

See also DVD Beaver for a thorough and informative review of The Dam Busters on Blu-ray, with their persuasive DVD/Blu comparison screenshots.

(1964, UK)

633 Squadron has a fast-paced, action-oriented story, but felt like a pumped-up remake of The Dam Busters in widescreen and colour. There's gun battles, nasty Nazis and much more aerial action. Their target, at the end of a long sea inlet (flat base of the water, high steep mountains to the sides) is as close to a natural double for the Death Star trench as you could wish for (until Firefox came along). There's less drama, more melodrama. Less emotion, more shouting. It's an exciting, easy watch, but the modelwork is unbelievably small in scale, something that barely registered when I used to watch it on a small TV. Cliff Robertson (Obsession, Spider-man) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) star.

These films, Tora! Tora! Tora! (an epic reconstruction of the attack on Pearl Harbor) and Battle of Britain were all made when there were still enough operational aircraft around not to have to rely on special effects. They all have really impressive scenes of restored World War II airplanes taking off and in flight. Battle of Britain even hazardously recreated aerial dogfights between swarms of British and German planes.

I'm now wondering if Peter Jackson's upcoming remake of The Dam Busters will bring us full circle and look like Star Wars...

Finally, please check out the hairstyle of actress Ursula Jeans, who plays Barnes Wallis' wife in The Dam Busters. Nice buns!

July 17, 2011

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1970) - Bronte gets the AIP treatment

(1970, UK)

Trying not to lose that Witchfinder General vibe...

Please don't think Bronte sisters' adaptions will start featuring regularly here. But this 1970 adaption of the gothic melodrama utilises some of the best talents in American International Productions of that time.

I'm still catching up on everything that Robert Fuest directed. Besides the stylish camp of The Avengers, Fuest could also excel at a straightforward chiller like the original And Soon The Darkness. Wanting to avoid being typecast for Vincent Price serial killings, Fuest turned down Theatre of Blood.

Fuest may not adapt Wuthering Heights faithfully, but with an excellent cast, and using the West Yorkshire moors as an authentic location, AIP get another gloomy melodrama at least reminiscent of Witchfinder Gerneral's historical setting. With the same cinematographer, John Coquillon, presenting an even bleaker British countryside.

After director Michael Reeve's untimely death, it was hard to recapture Witchfinder's success. Stars Vincent Price and Hilary Dwyer were cast in The Oblong Box (1969), but as a loving husband and wife, there were none of the same sparks.

In Wuthering Heights, Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer are together again, as brother and sister. It's fantastic to see them once more in period costume, as completely different characters. At times they look younger than they did in Witchfinder General, playing a pair of rather spoilt landowners. Ogilvy a bit of a twit, Dwyer with an upper-class lisp, but their characters evolve from comic relief to something more tragic...

There's an awful lot of plot to get through - sudden leaps in time and dramatic changes in fortune may even benefit some knowledge of the novel. Even now, it's pacey. Bronte's grand soap opera certainly has enough twists and turns, but also shows the disparity between social classes, especially how women's fortunes depended completely on charity, servitude or marriage.

The leading man is a 23 year-old Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff. This, his first starring role, made enough of an impression to boost his career off the stage and onto include two James Bond films, Flash Gordon and The Rocketeer. In smaller roles are Julian Glover (Star Wars, Quatermass and the Pit) and eccentric character actor Hugh Griffiths who'd appeared in both Phibes films.

Anna Calder-Marshall deserves top billing for her anguished performance as Cathy, ranging from feral servant to lady of the manor, but Judy Cornwell is also excellent, with almost as much screen time.

Never read Emily Bronte's book and hadn't seen any other film versions, so the unfolding story was a fascinating ride to the bitter end, haunting even. I was enchanted by the cast and Michel Legrand's (The Thomas Crown Affair) memorable soundtrack (recently remastered and expanded for a Silver Screen CD).

Looking good for its age, the film is presented 16:9 anamorphic widescreen on DVD.

A recent TV adaption of Wuthering Heights (2009) has an interesting cast, starring Tom Hardy (Inception, Chopper) and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead). Don't think I could take it seriously with the wig that Hardy's wearing...

July 15, 2011


Opening week, London, 1980...

Here's something I should have done more often, take photos of cinemas in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the front of London's Odeon Leicester Square, (the one that backs onto Charing Cross Road). I'm looking up at the hoarding above the main doors, the first week that The Empire Strikes Back was on worldwide release in the US and the UK. Usually Britain got the prints several months after the US, so this was special.

Note that it was a 70mm presentation, and in stereo! I also saw Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind at this cinema, and the use of stereo was certainly a novelty back then, if a little scary at times with some of its more directional effects. Stereo systems first appeared at these large city cinemas before being added to local multiplexes.

I think I was using up a roll of film with this shot. Film was expensive, developing film and paying for prints was expensive. Therefore, I've not got any other shots like this...

July 08, 2011

INNOCENT BLOOD (1992) - a vampire in Pittsburgh

(1992, USA)

After worshipping John Landis' early films Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and An American Werewolf In London, by the end of the 1980s I was completely dispirited by his hit-and-miss comedies. But a return to horror in 1992 proved interesting and is now one of my Landis favourites. Again it blends modern cynicism, comedy and blood. That year it got lost in a flurry of vampire movies, much like we're deluged with zombies at the moment.
The core of Innocent Blood is a cross-breed of vampire horror with mob thriller, and the casting of Anne Parillaud, hot off Nikita. Luc Besson's 1990 thriller led to a US remake and two TV series. It was bizarre to see the action highlight - the kitchen shootout - not only being reused in John Badham's The Assassin (1993, starring Bridget Fonda) but also the first TV pilot for La Femme Nikita (1997, starring Peta Wilson).

Parillaud is sensational in Nikita, a female Leon, perfectly cast as an ethical vampire. She delivers physical confidence in her superhuman abilities, brash nudity, disarming Gallic sexiness, only hampered by her faltering English, which sounds really weird when she goes all deep-voiced and plasma-hungry. Despite her vampire abilities, she sometimes resorts to using a gun, presumably to trade off the Nikita role.

But I'm not telling you the plot. The story starts twice over as the two main characters are introduced before they meet. One is Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia), an undercover cop trying to bring down a Pittsburgh crime boss (Robert Loggia). He risks blowing his cover after a string of murders includes his police partner.

But these aren't mob hits, but vampire meals, with night stalker Marie (Parillaud) ethically picking victims who are murderous criminals. Mistaking Joe for a member of the mob, she only spares him because he's cute. One of her rules being "don't play with the food". But her rules misfire when the mob starts turning vampire. If they all get superhuman, nothing will stop them taking over the city...

The story has its own rules about vampirism, their powers, and how they die. This mythos might annoy purists, but hey, Landis was brought up on the Universal and Hammer horrors, and they changed the rules every movie. We're also in Pittsburgh - there's a clue.

The scenes of vampire mealtimes pull no punches, Landis using his accomplished scare tactics that triggered so many near heart attacks during American Werewolf. Visually there's less emphasis on fangs and more on the blood smeared all over their faces after 'dining'. Their eyes also glow in the dark, a startling effect using highly reflective contact lenses (and a beam-splitter, FX fans). Steve Johnson (Ghostbusters, The Abyss, Freaked) also provides spectacular prosthetic effects in the film.

This is definitely a pre-CGI movie, the camerawork is noticeably limited from what it really wants to do - there's a wobbly attempt to do a point-of-view flying shot, cheekily stolen from Dario Argento's Opera. It's interesting but more trouble than its worth. In portraying vampire powers, the wirework isn't as clever as the editing, and as usual the contact lenses never quite line up with each other. If it starred Karen Black, this might have been excusable.

There's also a wealth of in-jokes for horror fans. The movies playing on TVs (everywhere) seem too obvious a reference, but the movie directors used in bit parts are a real treat. Just brilliant fun. I'm guessing there was a horror convention in town. First to watch out for is Tom Savini...

American Werewolf had plenty of plot-driven male nudity, Innocent Blood has gratuitous female nudity. While tight bodies and talking about sex pervade horror movies aimed at teenagers, this is more adult. Like lingering, full-frontal nudity, prolonged sexual situations and two large placements for safe sex. While smoking has endured in movies, safe sex has barely been mentioned, even after the darkest years of the 1980s. Innocent Blood is a rare exception and reminds us how little safe sex has been suggested in any movie, in any genre, in the last three decades.

From nearly the first scene, Robert Loggia starts to dominate the film, his two-faced kingpin goes from human monster to inhuman, in a great horror performance. While I'm sure he was offered a lot of genre work after this, he's remained with characters that are psychologically and physically terrifying, rooted in reality. His Mr Eddy in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) is another example of extremely powerful performances, again as a psychotic mobster.

As Loggia's lawyer is an actor close to Landis' heart, Don Rickles. Currently known as the voice of Toy Story's Mr Potato Head, Rickles is better known as a comedian, one of America's maestros of stand-up. Landis first worked with him way back on Kelly's Heroes (1970) when he was a young production assistant. In 2007, Landis even made a documentary about Rickles, Mr Warmth, centring around the first ever filming of his renowned Vegas act.

Besides the cameos, Anthony LaPaglia is an agreeable lead (recently seen in TV's Without A Trace). There's notable support from Chazz Palminteri looking comfortable, and Angela Bassett (before she met the Vampire In Brooklyn) looking uncomfortable as a standard angry police chief.

It's a fresh premise, though it runs out of steam by the end. But night-time Pittsburgh looks fantastic, the cast are mostly on top of their game, Landis continues to treat traffic like a toyset, and above all does his best to keep horror fans happy.

The only widescreen transfer that I know is this laserdisc release. Even the more recent DVD is full-frame, well overdue for remastering.

July 05, 2011

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) - if THE SHINING was a TV movie

(1976, USA)

Hard to say whether this chiller will work for you, but it sent chills up and down my spine when I first saw it. Particularly when Oliver Reed's past comes back to haunt him...

I dusted the DVD off to remind myself of Robert Cobert's soundtrack, which has just debuted on CD (buy it here, from Screen Archives). The composer worked on many other of producer/director Dan Curtis' projects, including The Night Stalker and The Norliss Tapes TV movies. Curtis managed scary miracles on TV budgets, but I think this is his best work.

A family rent a house and grounds for the summer. It looks like it'll cost more than they can afford, but the owners offer it to them cheap on a single condition, that they look after an old relative in the attic. Sounds simple enough. What could possibly go wrong?

The father (Oliver Reed) is once again troubled by nightmares from his childhood. His young son gets scared by his father's behaviour. Grandma starts wasting away and mother can't stay away from the old lady upstairs. Living there affects each of the occupants in different ways...

After Burgess Meredith and Dub Taylor have left the stage with their comic overacting, the story settles down to some serious, unsettling scares. A simple day by the swimming pool becomes a living nightmare. Another nightmare seems to take reality... 

But is it a haunting, is it the house itself, or something living inside? It's impossible to watch without thinking of The Shining. There's confusion between past and present, a thematic preoccupation with photographs and an almost identical premise.

The Shining (1980) is of course in a different league as a film. But as a story, Stephen King hasn't looked very far back for inspiration. Robert Marasco's book was published in 1973. King's book was published in 1977, a year after Burnt Offerings was out in US cinemas. There's even a tantalising shot of Oliver Reed unable to face his typewriter and a sheaf of blank paper. Ahem.

It can't hope to compete with Jack Nicholson's performance and Stanley Kubrick's visuals or his budget. It makes Burnt Offerings look more like a TV movie, even though it wasn't. Many other lower budget movies of the 1970s were almost indistiguishable from the TV 'look'. But Oliver Reed didn't do TV (except disastrous chat shows), and you didn't get this amount of blood on the TV...

This scary house film also predates The Amityville Horror (1979) and for my money, was and is far scarier. I also recently watched Let's Scare Jessica To Death recently, expecting scares. But while it had an eerie visual quality that Burnt Offerings lacks, I didn't find it nearly as creepy as many reviews had suggested.

Oliver Reed is suitably restrained here, great at being scared and effortless at being threatening. Karen Black is director Dan Curtis' lucky charm here, after appearing in three different roles in the memorable Trilogy of Terror, back when TV horror movies could terrify. Black more recently appeared in the less restrained House of 1,000 Corpses

Lee Montgomery, as the son, is that rare talent, an unannoying child actor, also the lynchpin of rat horror epic Ben (1972). Bette Davis (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Nanny, The Anniversary) is shockingly good in a transformation from sprightly to unsightly - allowing herself to gradually be shown wearing less and less make-up. Extremely brave considering what she finally looks like...

The house and grounds used for filming can be visited just south of San Francisco as The Dunsmuir House in Oakland. The same site used as the mortuary in the Phantasm movies. Again, Burnt Offerings got there first.

Having enjoyed this in the cinema and on TV, I was disappointed by the region 1 DVD released by MGM in 2003. It's 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, but the framing is too tight and the compression really poor, distractingly laggy in the darker scenes, the transfer darker than the NTSC VHS. The DVD does however offer a commentary track with Dan Curtis, co-writer William F. Nolan (Logan's Run), and Karen Black.
After all these years, I've no idea why it's called Burnt Offerings, it might as well be called House...

And avoid any trailers - they'll ruin it completely...