Unique among the 39 Video Nasties for having an Oscar winning actress among the cast, The Burning from 1981 is also notable for being the first film produced by the fledgling Miramax, a little known independent studio working out of New York.
The story concerns a summer camp janitor nicknamed Cropsy who's accidentally set on fire by some kids after a prank goes badly wrong. Some five years later Cropsy, now horribly disfigured returns to the camp to seek revenge... So far so Friday the 13th, but The Burning is a rare instance of a film lifting whole chunks from an earlier film and actually improving upon the original. Rare also is a horror film where all the elements fall perfectly into place. British director Tony Maylam's direction is classy, even at times stylish - look out for a great Argento-like shot early on in the film where a jet of blood hits a mirror, momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightning. Maylam maintains a furious pace throughout - even the film's most infamous sequence where some teens are slaughtered on a raft is furiously cut together, the five kills done and dusted within 30 seconds, lending the sequence a powerful frisson similar to the first murder set piece in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tom Savini's make-up effects are riotously gory - Cropsy's weapon of choice, a garden shares (appropriate given his name) snips off fingers, and slices through throats. As was the MPAA policy towards the incoming tide of slasher films, the film was cut in the US to avoid an X rating. In the UK, the BBFC had much of the carnage removed but in a bizarre mix up The Burning's UK VHS distributor Thorn EMI inadvertently put out the uncut version and the film found it's way onto the DPP's list of obscene titles. Rick Wakeman who collaborated with Tony Maylam on an earlier film, the hard-to-see ski jumping documentary White Rock, returns for soundtrack duties and contributes a spellbinding synthesizer score, surely the best thing Wakeman ever composed.
The film is not without some blemishes of course, mostly to do with it's slavish adherence to the slasher movie formula - there are a few tiresome gags along the way, and the film sometimes adopts the none-too-subtle killer's point-of-view, whereby the camera lens looks smeared around the edges of the frame and Wakeman's score assumes a high-pitched drone. There's perhaps a little too much "C'mon you guys" dialogue but the cast of unknowns are actually quite likable and engaging for the most part. Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame makes an early appearance and provides some comedy, and among the young cast you might spot Holly Hunter who incidentally survived Cropsy's blades to go and make The Piano.
A definitive release of The Burning seemed a long time coming. In the UK, the first DVD edition had some cuts, and a European release though uncut featured a weak transfer. The 2007 US disc courtesy of MGM is the one to go for. The 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfer is simply gorgeous, with excellent detail and fine, vibrant colors. The night time scenes which looked so muddy on VHS now look especially clear. Audio is absolutely fine, and for extras, there's a very good audio commentary by director Tony Maylam and journo Alan Jones, plus a very good featurette entitled Blood 'N' Fire Memories in which Tom Savini reminisces about the film and shares some video footage he shot on the set.
Originally the film was to be known as The Cropsy Maniac but the title was switched at the 11th hour to The Burning. Meanwhile another film was in production under the working title The Burning and had to be released under the alternative title Don't Go In The House. Joseph Ellison's film actually did some jail time with The Burning when it appeared on an early draft of the DPP's list, but was subsequently removed.