The Burning [DVD]
Director : Tony Maylam
Screenplay : Peter Lawrence and Harvey Weinstein (story by Harvey Weinstein, Tony Maylam, & Brad Grey)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1981
Stars : Brian Matthews (Todd), Leah Ayres (Michelle), Brian Backer (Alfred), Larry Joshua (Glazer), Jason Alexander (Dave), Ned Eisenberg (Eddy), Carrick Glenn (Sally), Carolyn Houlihan (Karen), Fisher Stevens (Woodstock), Lou David (Cropsy), Shelley Bruce (Tiger), Sarah Chodoff (Barbara), Bonnie Deroski (Marnie), Holly Hunter (Sophie)
Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the independent producer/distributors who founded Miramax Pictures and helped reignite the fire of American independent cinema in the early 1990s, it was a cheap Friday the 13th-knockoff called The Burning. Produced the year after Sean S. Cunningham's summer camp slasher hit box office gold, The Burning was the Weinstein brothers' entry point into the film business after spending years as rock concert promoters. Of course, they were hardly the first cinematic titans to get their start in the down-and-dirty world of cheap exploitation filmmaking, lest we forget that future Oscar winners Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme first cut their teeth with the horror cheapie Dementia 13 (1963) and the women-in-prison flick Caged Heat (1974), respectively.
By just about any measure, The Burning is not a particularly good film. As part of the deluge of slasher movies that followed in Friday the 13th's wake, there is little that causes it to stand out beyond the inclusion of future Seinfeld star Jason Alexander in a fairly prominent role as a teenage prankster (it's amazing just how Costanza-like his mannerisms were even in 1981) and future Oscar winner Holly Hunter in a minor role. If the film has survived in anyone's memory, it is largely due to make-up maestro Tom Savini's gore effects, most of which involve teenagers being chopped, sliced, or impaled with enormous garden shears, the weapon of choice for the film's vengeful killer. Savini was nearing the height of his notoriety at this point: in 1981 alone he was responsible for the gory effects in The Prowler, Nightmare, and Eyes of a Stranger, in addition to The Burning, which followed his groundbreaking work on Friday the 13th (1980) and George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978).
The story is a riff on those silly campfire stories told at summer camps that invariably involve someone who once went to or worked at said summer camp, was somehow horribly maimed, and the body was never found, thus establishing the possibility that he is still lurking in the woods (my own personal experience at a summer camp as both a camper and a counselor involved a story called “The Slab,” which followed that outline pretty closely, with a deranged lunatic haunting a slab of concrete that used to be the foundation for his house in the woods). The film opens with a group of campers playing a trick on their summer camp's despised caretaker, a piggish alcoholic named Cropsy (Lou David). The trick goes terribly wrong, Cropsy is burned into an unrecognizable monstrosity, and five years later he returns to slaughter a new generation of campers.
The screenplay by Peter Lawrence and Harvey Weinstein (from a story concocted by Weinstein, director Tony Maylam, and Brad Grey, who now has a closetful of Emmys from producing The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos) cobbles together a string of scenes to support the film's thin premise (which Weinstein swears up and down was concocted prior to Friday the 13th). Strangely, the writers minimize a great deal of potential by showing Cropsy leaving the hospital, after which he brutally kills a prostitute for no other reason than to throw in an extra scene of gory violence. The film then studiously hides him until the climax, which gives the illusion that they're trying to establish some sense of mystery, when in fact they're just delaying the revelation of his horribly burned face. It seems that the film would have worked better if it hadn't been made clear whether or not he survived, which would align it more closely with its campfire story inspirations.
Propelled forward by Rick Wakeman's bombastic synthesizer score, The Burning is certainly a brutally violent film, even by today's gory standards (not surprisingly, it had some trouble with the MPAA ratings system and wound up on the British police's “video nasty” list). Perhaps because there wasn't much else to do in the film, director Tony Maylam, who at the time was known primarily as a director of rock concert films, stages each murder for maximum effect, especially the through-the-neck garroting of the camp bully and the simultaneous wholesale slaughter of half a dozen teens on a raft, a rarity in the slasher genre, which tends to favor one killing at a time. The raft sequence, with the killer emerging from the bottom of a canoe in silhouette against the sky before unleashing his fury, is the film's one true moment of frenzied inspiration. The rest of The Burning, however, is stale and uninspired, clearly the product of enterprising filmmakers looking to make a quick buck off a then-hot trend.
|The Burning DVD|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 11, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|For a film that was low budget to begin with, is more than a quarter-century old, and has been out of print for years, The Burning looks surprisingly good on DVD. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer isn't going to knock your socks off, but it's appropriately clean with good color reproduction and decent detail. You can clearly tell that the film was shot on relatively cheap, grainy film stock, but credit the transfer with not trying to smooth it out unnaturally. From what I have read, this appears to be an uncut version of the film (despite the presence of an R-rating on the back cover), restoring roughly 45 seconds of footage that was removed during the film's original theatrical run to avoid an X rating. The original monaural soundtrack is a little thin, but not bad.|
|In the screen-specific audio commentary, British film journalist Alan Jones, who has authored books on horror film, Dario Argento, and the disco craze, talks with director Tony Maylam. Jones is very enthusiastic about The Burning, while Maylam, despite being a good sport, clearly has some reservations about the film and his involvement in it (he refers frequently to its datedness and how it works well enough for the genre). Nevertheless, it's a good audio track with plenty of background detail about the Weinstein brothers and working with Tom Savini, who is the main attraction in the 18-minute retrospective featurette “Blood 'n' Fire Memories.” Savini, who is always an entertaining interview subject, happily discusses his innovative FX work and offers a decent defense of the film itself in comparison to other slasher movies of the era. Savini's interview is interspersed with production photos and some great behind-the-scenes video. Also on the disc is an original theatrical trailer and a photo gallery of close to 30 production stills.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment