Monday, 20 June 2011

Video Nasty #9 - The Burning

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.

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Notes
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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.

8 comments:

  1. Great stuff Wes, It's nice to see a positive review for The Burning, all too often it gets slagged off. It has a special place for me, it was one of the first films I found to be available in a cut and uncut version.

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  2. Thanks Mart. Yeah, it really is a great movie, and the first Video Nasty I had seen before I knew such things existed. I think Friday the 13th Part 2 and The Burning are the best teenage holocaust films. That slow dolly on the girl in the shower is pure porno, but I absolutely loved her when I was a kid. She's still unbelievably cute. The Thorn EMI tape is long gone now, destroyed from too many plays, but I still have the cover somewhere...

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  3. THE BURNING!
    Class 'A' slasher fare, killer all round. Essential. How some people fail to give it merit is beyond me. Oh no, wait a minute, I get it now - it's because they're - damn, lost it again. So, I still don't get why this could be deemed anything other than a classic of the slasher genre.
    Wakeman's score is an incredible example of the limits of analogue synth ferocity in the kill scenes, and the scene at the start where Cropsy's burnt hand grabs the male nurse used to tie knots of dread in my stomach when I watched it as an early teen. Wes rocks!

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  4. Many thanks Jeremy. Yeah, that hospital scene is fantastic... in fact when I re-watched the film at the w/end, I wondered how anyone could work in those burn units. Those two pre-credit sequences, the burning of Cropsy and the hospital scene really kick the film off on a high...

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  5. What was the mix up at the BBFC that you mentioned, Wes? I remember in the pre-cert days, films were still cut to shreds in the cinema but released uncut on video and that was the selling point - STRONG UNCUT VERSION!!!

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  6. So, the BBFC had cut the film for theatrical screenings and this was the version Thorn EMI were supposed to issue on VHS, but the wrong master was used and the uncut version was mass produced and widely distributed. Thorn EMI later issued a cut version in line with the BBFC when the mistake was noticed, but by then there were a lot of copies of the uncut version out there in circulation - I was still seeing copies on video shelves in Ireland in the early 90's...

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  7. I like this movie a lot - saw it years after on VHS - and now on Blu-Ray in the video vault. I can't say it improves on Friday the 13th - that lengthy stalk among the rocks doesn't end up adding much to the movie, and they short shrift Cropsy's reveal until the end, and even then poorly. If you burn a guy to a crisp and get a great makeup effect - show the damn thing! It's a case of 3 1/2 stars to Friday's 4 for me.

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  8. I'm a Burning fan I must say, I like this one much more than the original Friday the 13th - and the ample amounts of naked flesh were a huge draw when I saw this in my teens - the slo-mo shot of the girl running at the baseball game with breasts in motion is one of slasherdom's sexiest moments...

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