Don’t look; he’ll see you. Don’t breathe; he’ll hear you. Don’t move; you’re dead!
That immortal line is the only real way to start this review of classic 1981 stalk and slasher The Burning. On announcement that Arrow were releasing this uncut in a limited edition Blu-Ray / DVD steelbook I wasn’t alone in putting in a pre-order straight away and indeed it sold out prior to release date. Of all the horror sub-genres the slasher is the one that seems less relevant and more childish as you grow older. I mean horny teenagers getting formulaically killed is something that should excite those looking for a coming of age cheap thrill but when you are middle aged seems all too immature to be taken with anything more than a pinch of salt. Following on from John Carpenter’s Halloween 1978 and Sean S Cunningham’s Friday the 13th in 1980 the floodgates opened and you could pick a multitude of these films off the video shop shelves and indeed they all blended in to one another. A few stood the test of time and are treasured memories and for me along with Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1980), The Burning is very much one of them. The film directed by Tony Maylam who went on to make Split Second another cult favourite in 1992 is as formulaic as they come but there is something about it that has endeared it to horror film fans hearts and made it stand up to the tests of time. No doubt the malevolence of its deranged killer Cropsy, the near urban legend of its storyline and lashings of gore are some of these reasons. Speaking of gore the film has had its fair share of censorship problems despite the fact it was produced by the mighty Weinsteins and released by respectable studio Thorn–EMI. At first it was cut by the censors (literally of finger shearing scenes and others) but accidentally released by the label in its full form. Embroiled in the video nasty furore of the time this uncut version found itself on the hit list and liable for prosecution via the Obscene Publication Act. Through the years and with subsequent releases on DVD via companies such as the notorious VIPCO it didn’t fare much better leaving me and no doubt others relying on an uncut region 1 US release via MGM. Now it’s great to get it in all its glory in a high-def format. It’s definitely what fans have been waiting for.
The setting like Friday the 13th is the old American summer camp, a place where kids and teenagers are sent as a rite of passage to come of age and get up to all sorts of mischief in the process. I actually thought that this scenario was very much a thing of the time until the recent Dead Of Summer resurrected things with very hit and miss results. The story is as simple as they come. A group of pranksters want to put the shits up camp janitor Cropsy by placing a flaming skull crawling with maggots next to him as he sleeps. Waking he panics and sets himself on fire surviving just with hideous disfigurements. 5 Years later on release from hospital he kills a prostitute who is horrified at his rather impressive make up job (done expertly by Tom Savini) and returns to where it all began to exact his bloody revenge. From here the film kind of goes into the realms of the US t&a high school film such as Porky’s and Meatballs also very popular in the era. It’s surprising in fact to realise that the first campsite death doesn’t come until 49 minutes into the film; rest assured after it does Maylam creates Mayhem! The principle cast proponents are all acted out, the muscly meathead bully victimises the weirdo camp loner whilst trying to get his way with the camp cutie. Campfire tales are told about the legend of Cropsy to scare the hell out of the impressionable and as the elders take off on a canoe trip the killer armed with what is to become his trademark sheers pops up and starts hacking and slashing the cast to pieces.
The acting is all perfectly fine and like Friday the 13th the film provided early roles for some big stars of the future such as Holly Hunter, Ned Eisenberg and Jason Alexander. Maylam does a very clever job of not showing us Cropsy’s (Lou David) impressive facial deformities until late in the film making them all the more startling. Combine this appearance with a strident synthesized score from Rick Wakeman, which has perfectly built up the tension throughout the film and it caused quite a few bums to jump off seats on original release. Watching this again for the first time in a few years, yes it has aged somewhat but it still effectively delivers and is without doubt one of the best films of the sub-genre ever made. It’s probably due to everything aligning so well within the films production that it does succeed so well, debatably if it was without components such as Savini’s FX and Wakeman’s score it possibly would have been one of many very average entries to the genre but there’s something about The Burning making it a film that once seen is never quite forgotten. Naturally I was interested to move onto the extras to see what they could unveil about it all.
For those that have time at their disposal (I don’t unfortunately) there are no less than 3 separate commentary tracks and I’m sure they are very interesting. The 1st is with Tony Maylam and film journalist Alan Jones, the 2nd with stars Shelly Bruce and Bonnie Deroski and the 3rd by popular slasher podcast by The Hysteria Continues. Feature wise we have ‘Blood n’ Fire’ memories were fx artist Tom Savini discusses his part in the creation of the gore effects and Cropsy make-up. At the time with films such as Friday 13th, Maniac and The Prowler, killing was his business and business was good. Turning down Fri part 2 thinking the whole idea of Jason a bit silly he worked on The Burning written apparently before Cunningham’s opus and had to rely a lot on new innovations to make the bloody gags work. Naturally not everything went to plan such as some of the fire stunts at the beginning but at least nobody was injured for real. Complete with archive footage and stills the as ever genial host gives us a really good insight into things. Editor Jack Sholder is next to revisit the scene of nefarious slaughter. Not a genre fan himself there was a fair bit of on the job learning here too. Luckily the original too short raft scene after advice from the producers and directors was built upon to provide the necessary tension, which is a major part in the lead up to the butchery. Sounds like the Weinstein’s and Maylam didn’t see particularly eye to eye by the end of things, something both Savini and Sholder touch upon. It’s cool that Lou David who played Cropsy has been unearthed as he has hardly been prolific an actor after this with just a couple of appearances to his name. He ended up on the set just the day after his son was born and apart from missing him obviously enjoyed his time being set alight and killing teenagers (it’s unveiled that neither of these things actually involved the actor). There’s a brief chat with Leah Ayres who plays one of the camp councillors Michelle. It was an early job for the non-horror fan too but paved the way for much more wholesome fare like The Brady Bunch in the future. Final segment is about that excellent synth score from Wakeman. It kind of seems like a bit of an unwholesome film for his involvement as he is a committed Christian and has actually regularly performed at a local church to me. Hand-picked by the director he turned up just as “everyone was hating each other” and discovered he was facing a greatly reduced budget. The synth route was suggested and as far as a lot of fans are concerned things probably worked out for the best as it is certainly a memorable soundtrack, even as Wakeman tells us things were far from plain raft sailing.
Complete with trailers, behind scenes footage and booklet this is your ultimate Burning experience, one that looks so good you can almost smell the flames cooking poor old Cropsy’s bonce. If you missed the Steelbook and are not prepared to pay through the nose from one of those auction site bandits rest assured a normal version is on the way soon.