Friday, August 13, 2010

DVD Review: The Burning (1981)

 “Gather Around the Campfire to DIE!”

RUN TIME: 91 Min.
DIRECTOR: Tony Maylam
CAST: Jason Patrick, Lou David, Brian Mathews, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua

ANECDOTAL: The Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York, it’s a wonderfully wooded area, ensconced in the simple pleasures of nature itself, it’s the place I called home for 20 years, and just down the road apiece was Babcock-Hovey Campground. Having been nurtured on the FRIDAY THE 13th films from an early age do not think for a second that I did not fear a masked and vengeful killer lurked there, waiting for some wayward teen to have sex or smoke some weed and take ’em out with a machete. Actually, I’m not really as much a pussy as all that, in fact, I loved camping and ventured into the woods quite frequently. My Huckleberry Finn-esque childhood was filled with forest expeditions, fishing, and a healthy amount of fort-building. While I enjoyed the woods, catching crawdads in the creek and whatnot, the idea that a masked or disfigured killer could be lurking smoldered in the back of my mind. THE BURNING (1982) was filmed in nearby Buffalo, NY while FRIDAY THE 13th (1980) was filmed in the neighboring New Jersey, and because of my familiarity with the terrain I found it easy to imagine these scenarios playing out in the woods surrounding the area.

SYNOPSIS: After a cruel joke goes awry, severely burning him and subjecting him to five years of intensive, unsuccessful skin graft treatments, Cropsy is back at camp… and ready to wreak havoc on those who scarred him.

THE FILM: The film opens with the kids of Camp Blackfoot devising an overly elaborate and ill conceived prank to fuck with the Cropsy, the camp janitor. Needless to say the prank goes awry as he knocks a flaming skull onto his bed sheets, setting himself aflame. He runs from the cabin engulfed in flame, through woods, leaping into the nearby river, he is severely burned over his entire body. He’s taken to the hospital, and while two orderlies are sneaking a peak at the disfigured Cropsy he grabs one by the arm, eliciting an over-the-top reaction, and it’s hilarious. Flash forward five years; Cropsy is being released from the hospital with disfiguring burns and a vengeful disposition. Upon his release he makes straight for 42nd St., picks up a whore and escorts her back to her place. After seeing his disfigured face she is horrified and panics, he proceeds to plunge a pair of sewing shears into her abdomen. It’s a gut churning scene; very grindhouse, brutal and chilling. From there we are taken to Camp Stonewater where summer camp is in full swing. Two of the counselors take the older teens for a rafting trip upstream for a bit of fun; things turn bad quickly thereafter, as Cropsy, armed with hedge clippers, has returned to the area, vengeance foremost in his mind.

THE BURNING features several notable debuts, including producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein (founders of MIRMAX films) as well as Jason Alexander (SEINFELD), Fisher Stevens (MY SCIENCE PROJECT), Holly Hunter (RASINING ARIZONA), and Larry Joshua (SPIDER-MAN). Of note is Jason Alexander (George Costanza from Seinfeld) whom even at this early stage displays a knack for comedic timing and has a luxurious full head of hair t’boot.
THE BURNING is directed by Tony Maylan, who’s done little else, but like Joseph Zito (THE PROWLER), I would’ve liked to see him do more in the genre. The film is edited by Jack Sholder whom would go on to direct a few genre classics of his own, including THE HIDDEN(1987), WISHMASTER 2 (1999), ALONE IN THE DARK (1982) and maligned though enjoyable A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE (1985). As mention before, the film has great cinematography, capturing the gorgeous wooded scenery and waterways; it has a real sense of thoughtful shot composition, more so than say F13.

The special FX are created by none other than horror maestro Tom Savini, who turned down FRIDAY THE 13th PT.2 (1981) to work on The Burning, though he would later return for Joseph Zito’s FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINALCHAPTER. The FX are amazing, a notable exception being the poorly rendered Cropsy mask that is used minimally and obscured by editing and shadow. The film ended up on the infamous UK Video Nasties list due to gore, and was unavailable in its uncut form here in the U.S. until 2007.

 The film gets a rather unfair lumping in with the plethora of FRIDAY THE 13th knock-offs, as it shares a number of clichés, horny teens, shower scenes, busty blondes, the nerd, the asshole, good-natured guy, wooded scenery, and the summer camp setting. THE BURNING, more-so than other slashers of the era, benefits from decent cinematography, a good script, likeable characters, and Tom Savini’s gory effects. The direction is keen, and the editing is well-done as evidenced during the infamous rafting scene, it is so well put together, complimenting Savini’s bloody effects work. The film does falter some in the final third, the final confrontation inside a mine feels slightly off and out of place. According to director Tony Maylan the last act was to have been filmed in a cave, when problems arose with the location the decision was made to utilize an abandoned mine in the area, and I think it suffers some for that decision.

DVD: The MGM DVD is 1.85:1, anamorphic widescreen with a mono audio track; it looks great, obviously from a good print. Special features include a commentary from director Tony Maylam and journalist Alan Jones, as well as a featurette: Blood ‘n’ Fire Memories’, in which special FX Master Tom Savini recollects his experiences on the film, good stuff. Of note, while the DVD is advertised as an R rating this is indeed the full, uncut film.

VERDICT: THE BURNING is a classic, though underappreciated slasher. If you enjoyed MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE PROWLER, FRIDAY THE 13th or HALLOWEEN I would be hard pressed to believe you would not love this film.
**** (4 out of 5 stars)