Shear Inconsistency… THE BURNING Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow. 18.

Though billed as “The most frightening of the maniac films”, Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981) is an identikit example of the “teen body count” sub-genre spawned by the respective successes of Halloween (1978) then Friday The 13th (1980)… a sub-genre on account of which I spent what felt like half of the early ’80s in darkened rooms, surrounded by enthusiastically squealing females (a feat which, sadly, I’ve never since managed to replicate.) Indeed, The Burning is so similar to the early Friday The 13th films that it could be considered the Never Say Never Again of that interminable franchise, where it not for the fact that Miramax founders the Weinstein brothers maintain they had the property in development even before Sean Cunningham’s original F13 (they must have been watching Mario Bava’s Twitch of The Death Nerve, too!)

Tom Savini, who masterminded the gory splatter FX in Cunningham’s film, took on the Burning gig in preference to working on Steve Miner’s Friday The 13th Part 2 because, he says, the latter film’s out-of-wack storyline and continuity put him off : “Especially the idea that Jason was alive in some lake for all that time.” Other jobs whose standards of kitchen sink realism Tom has deemed stringent enough for him to work on range from Dawn Of The Dead (1978) to the promised / threatened Nightmare City remake we’re all waiting for (with varying degrees of unenthusiasm.) On one of the bonuses materials for this release he goes so far as to call anyone who watches a Friday The 13th instalment from Part 2 onwards “stupid”, though what his participation in 1984’s F13: The Final Chapter (ha ha) says about his own IQ is a moot point. Suffice to say, I suspect that the paycheck he was offered for The Burning significantly exceeded that attached to F12 Part 2… which is fair enough.

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Back in the dark old days of “video nasty” bashing, though, the DPP also seems to have discerned some significant non-monetary differences between The Burning and Jason’s summer camp slaughterfests, Parts 1 and 2 of which only made his “Section 3” list (of titles considered fit for confiscation but with no confidence that they could be guaranteed an obscenity conviction in court) while The Burning earned the unwelcome accolade of fully fledged “nasty”. The BBFC had cut it for cinema release but for their video edition Thorn-EMI inadvertently restored several excised seconds, including the shots of finger-snippin’ goodness for which The Burning is best remembered. Caught red-handed, they recalled as many copies as possible and get out their own shears, re-stating the BBFC version but – horror of horrors – then managed to return many of the offending copies to shops by accident, obliging them to issue yet another recall notice. In the aftermath of all this. Thorn-EMI got serious jitters and started censoring their product left, right and centre, including Suspiria, a particularly brutal carve-up of Halloween 3: Season Of The Witch… and even Emmanuelle 2!

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The film’s remedial plot is best summarised with one of its early advertising shout lines:”A brutal horrific act made him kill and kill and kill!” Indeed. In the mandatory pre-titles sequence the waggish campers of Camp Blackfoot set out to scare obnoxious caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) with a worm-ridden skull containing a candle (readily available at all good stores). Unfortunately the gag results in Cropsy’s bed catching fire and he becomes a human torch, leaping hot-foot into Lake Blackfoot (where presumably he met Jason and picked up some tips on coming back to life and jumping out of lakes when everyone thinks the picture is over). Cropsy winds up in hospital, described by a sensitive orderly as “a fucking Big Mac, overdone.”

To no-one’s great surprise, “five years later” Cropsy is discharged with some sound advice: “I know you resent those kids, but try not to blame anyone”. After five years cooped up in intensive care a young Cropy monster’s thoughts turn to what you’d expect them to turn to, so he nips off to the local red light area for a quickie. Even a blowzy old whore gets a headache when she checks out Cropsy’s charred visage, and when he presses his suit she succumbs to a fit of bad acting, is stabbed with scissors by the enraged Cropsy and pushed out of her window. Realising his true murderous vocation, our boy relocates to the nearest Summer Camp, Camp Stonewater.

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There’s a veritable shoal of red herrings as we are introduced to the stereotypical campers… the girls agonise over the state of their relationships while porno mags and condoms are delivered to the boy’s hut; buttocks are peppered with buck-shot, and amid much masturbation wit the girls are referred to as “prime meat” (how true, how true); then there’s the camp wimp Alfred (Brian Backer), spying on girls in the shower, which is possibly intended as a Hitchcock hommage. Next up is the campfire sequence you’ll know off by heart if you ever saw Friday The 13th Part 2. Todd, the hunky camp counsellor (Brian Mathews) scares the new kids with the story of Cropsy, stalking the woods with a pair of shears (turns out to be a good guess!) “He’s out there watching… waiting. So don’t look… he’ll see you. Don’t breathe… he’ll hear you. Don’t move … YOU’RE DEAD!”

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… at which point some eejit jumps out of the bushes wearing a fright mask in a feeble attempt to scare the living daylights out of everybody. It’s not till the kids go on a canoe trip though that the brown stuff really starts hitting the fan. Cropsy interprets the “Have-sex-and-die” rule somewhat broadly, for the first victim backs out of sex in the creek before undergoing a DIY tracheotomy as she searches for her knickers, blood gurgling out over her breasts. The kids wake next morning to find that all the canoes are missing, so they improvise a raft and set off back to camp. One of the missing canoes drifts into view, but when they paddle over to it, up jumps Cropsy, brandishing shears. With a dazzling display of dexterous hand-speed he stabs heads, slashes throats, pierces breasts and (aptly enough) crops the fingers off a guy who raises his hands in a protective gesture. Yes, the bit that caused all the fuss… (see the charming little gif at the head of this review.)

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Back at Camp Stonewater the discovery of the wrecked raft – not to mention a floating arm and fingerless corpses popping up in people’s faces – leads to another outburst of hysterical over-acting and before you can say “Viva Vorhees”, copulating teens are slaughtered in their sleeping-bags and pinned to trees with shears through their throats. Surprising Cropsy in mid-slash, wimpy Alfred is pursued in P.O.V. Cropsy-vision through the woods to the hut where the socko-boffo climax will unfold. Todd charges to the rescue and is revealed via flashback to be one of the merry pranksters who set off this whole unlikely chain of events in the first place… well slap my face! Cropsy decides a spot of poetic justice is in order and goes after Todd with an oxy-acetylene burner, leaving the viewer to ponder certain questions, e.g, while in hospital, how had Cropsy kept tabs on Todd’s movements? Even more perplexing, how did Todd get a job as a camp counsellor when a mere five years earlier he had been responsible for broiling a camp caretaker? Stonewater’s HR policies could clearly do with a bit of tightening up…

Things are looking bad for Todd, but Alfred proves himself a man at the crucial moment, burying the shears in Cropsy’s back. He falls so readily that you lose several credibility points if you don’t guess that, as Alfred and Todd leave arm-in-arm, Cropsy will gamely rise for another go. An axe in the face makes his comeback a short one, and the boys set fire to him again for good measure. The film closes with a reprise of the fireside Jackanory scene… well clean my pants!

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One significant way in which The Burning does differ from the ongoing Friday The 13th saga is that it never spawned a Burning 2, 3, 4, 5, etc ad nauseum. I have no idea why this is, especially in view of the film’s blockbusting box office success in Japan. Maybe the Weinsteins just had bigger fish to fry…

When I first reviewed this film for my Seduction Of The Gullible tome I mentioned that two of its alumni went on to greater things, editor-turned-director Jack Sholder and actress Holly Hunter. Subsequently, having gotten hooked on Seinfeld, I would have added the wonderful Jason Alexander, who had a fine head of hair when he appeared as “Dave” in The Burning (he has one now, too, but it’s an obvious toupee.)

Because I’ve only received the DVD disc so far, I’m in no position to tell you how good The Burning will look on Blu-ray when Arrow’s combi release hits the shelves on December 19th, just in time to adorn your loved one’s Xmas stockings (and assuming you’re not a total Scrooge, why not shell out for the steelbox edition?) I haven’t seen the accompanying booklet, either, but the DVD obviously looks way better than that Thorn-EMI video and is crammed with extras. Amid the expected trailers and galleries there are interviews with Savini and Sholder, who concur that the producers pretty much froze Maylam out of the editing of his picture. Savini observes that The Burning endured censorship travails in the US, too and Sholder reveals that it was while working on this picture that he discovered the joy of eating Buffalo Wings. Lou David relives his finest thespian hour. There are no less than three commentary tracks (which I’ve yet to start wading through), with a) Maylam and Alan Jones, b) cast members Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski and c) The Hysteria Continues (your guess is as good as mine…)

Rick Wakeman is also interviewed about composing the film’s OST. He had already scored Maylam’s White Rock documentary (1977) and Maylam himself had previous Prog form, directing The Genesis Concert Movie in the same year (wonder what that was about?) If you’re into this kind of music and haven’t already done so, I would urge you to check out our sister blog at http://www.theozymandiasprogject.wordpress.com where a superannuated hippy named Ozzy Mandias will be found ruminating incessantly over The Music Of The Gods. It’s guaranteed to be more fun that having your fingers chopped off…

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