Retro Nightmare Fuel: Please Don’t Let That Creepy-Ass Chauffeur From ‘Burnt Offerings’ Get Me
With Retro Nightmare Fuel, I will occasionally revisit moments, characters, images and more from movies and TV (mostly in the horror genre, but sometimes others) that made frighteningly fun and lasting impressions when I first saw them as a kid in the ’70s and early ’80s.
“Revisit” might not be the best word, because these things have never really left my brain; they may now mostly be lurking in the darker corners as they became pushed down in my memory by the passage of time, but they can arise to the forefront at any time (sometime even at my request).
And I’m glad they didn’t go away, because as scary as they were at the time, and mostly still are, it is enjoyable to call up this nightmare fuel from time to time and share with others who may also remember them, and re-experience the thrilling rush those sights and sounds provided (before putting them back in the corners again before I get too freaked out).
When it comes to things that fueled my childhood nightmares, I can’t think of a better place to begin than with this dude:
In real life, the man flashing that sinister smile was character actor Anthony James, who by all accounts was a nice, thoughtful, gentle guy (he passed away in 2020 at age 77).
James was able to parlay his tall and lean physique, and especially his talent for enhancing his already naturally interesting facial structure, into a roughly quarter-century career of mostly acting against type, portraying villains, killers and assorted creeps. (He even published a memoir in 2014 called Acting My Face.) His first role was as the murderer in the 1967 Oscar-winning film In the Heat of the Night; his final role before retirement was in the 1992 Oscar winner Unforgiven.
My first experience with watching James, before I even knew anything about him, was sometime in the early ’80s, when I was about 10 or 11 and happened to catch him as the menacing chauffeur/hearse driver pictured above in the 1976 horror movie Burnt Offerings, when the film aired on a local TV channel late one Saturday night.
My sister and I were sleeping at our grandparents’ house, and as a night owl even then, I was up alone in the living room, flipping to different channels (getting up to turn the dial, since their TV did not have a remote).
The channel I turned to was one I knew would sometimes show scary movies late on Saturday nights (this was probably about 10pm, which was “late” for me then). On that channel I had previously seen things that I’m sure I’ll cover in future Retro Nightmare Fuel installments, like Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black, and reruns of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
I sometimes watched these against my better judgment, knowing that in some cases I would likely be scared during the night after seeing them (and knowing that I could not simply flip away if a scene became too frightening; I would have to get up and turn the dial).
I started feeling that vibe as Burnt Offerings began, since it seemed like it was going to be some sort of haunted house movie — the type of story that usually unsettled me the most — but I began to watch. I saw that the film, about a family renting a spooky old house for the summer, was another one starring Karen Black, alongside Oliver Reed, Bette Davis and Burgess Meredith.
I had official confirmation that this film would be one that would stick with me when the scene in the video below came on. It was the introduction to James’ chauffeur in a nightmare that Reed’s character, Ben, had of first encountering this ever-grinning creep as a child at his mother’s funeral:
Cowriter/director Dan Curtis, most famous for his gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, did a wonderful job in re-creating the feel of a nightmare here (with a great assist from composer Robert Cobert’s music), and that is part of what got to me, along with James’ performance, of course.
The chauffeur is not even smiling at first as he opens the car door for young Ben. But there is still something unnerving about him, something that makes Ben wary and trying to hold himself back even as he is pulled toward the car by a supposedly well-meaning relative. It’s reminiscent of those moments in nightmares when you are somehow drawn in, as if in a tractor beam, toward something you know is horrible and desperately don’t want to face.
The car door then slams behind Ben, and the chauffeur flashes that smile in the window, as if he’s in on some hellish joke that no one else is.
Maybe part of why this scene may resonate strongly with people who saw it for the first time as kids is the implied “stranger danger” thing of not getting into an unknown car. But this scene makes for frightening viewing at any age.
I did stick with Burnt Offerings a bit longer that night, despite how weirded out I was by this scene. There were other moments that I remember being struck by, like when Ben and his son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery) are rough-housing in the pool on the house’s grounds. Whatever evil forces are in the house briefly take possession of him, and he gets extremely rough with Davey, nearly drowning him before regaining his senses.
But it always comes back to James’ chauffeur/hearse driver.
When I’ve revisited the film over the years, he definitely is the standout. A lot of Burnt Offerings kind of feels like a TV movie, which makes sense given Curtis’ background (this was the only feature film he directed). But the scenes with the chauffeur, who eventually seems to spring from the dream into reality, or at least reality as Ben is perceiving it under the influence of the house, are really well done.
Like here, when poor Ben can’t even enjoy a nice cold can of Coor’s on a hot summer day without this weirdo slowly chugging up in his old-time hearse and giving that knowing grin (whatever it is that he knows that’s making him smile like that, I really don’t care to find out).
What makes this chauffeur/hearse driver character especially interesting — when you are thinking about him in the abstract, and not in the process of being terrorized by his appearances in the movie — is that he was created for the film by cowriter William F. Nolan, who, with Curtis, adapted Robert Marasco’s 1973 novel.
So if you’re wondering whether you might find the chauffeur’s backstory in the novel, not so much. And that adds to the terror; he is just kind of there. Maybe he was a real person who once frightened Ben as a kid, and his image is now being used by the house to further terrorize him. Maybe he exists only for the sole purpose of scaring to death any kids who happen to watch Burnt Offerings. Who knows?
Released three months before the original 'A Nightmare on Elm Street,' the more underrated and equally terrific 'Dreamscape' also has some memorably nightmarish scenes.
Another big part of what makes this character so memorably creepy, I think, is that we don’t see his eyes.
Horror movies from the silent era up to the recent movie Smile have often used weirdly shaped, or evil-looking, or out of place grins as sources of frights. Usually, these are accompanied by the smiler’s eyes revealing what he or she may be thinking, which is frequently something not too good.
But Burnt Offerings‘ chauffeur always has his shades on, so we don’t get that extra messaging from his eyes. That makes his smile stand out and become a bit more terrifying, to me.
He even channels rocker Corey Hart by wearing his sunglasses at night.
The chauffeur also doesn’t utter a sound in the film. He has no dialogue, and he never lets his smiles break out into full-on evil laughter, which frankly heightens the mystery and terror surrounding his presence.
I’ll say one thing for the guy: He clearly enjoys his work … which seems to primarily be giving people nightmares.
Plus, how many other demonic characters do you know who would bring you a coffin even as they are frightening you into having a fatal heart attack? Very thoughtful and convenient!
Well, I’d better stop now and put Anthony James’ chauffeur back into whatever old corner of my mind I conjured him from.
I would really prefer that I not see him in my dreams tonight, inviting me into his car and grinning widely as he drives me to a place I don’t even want to think about.