The Burning (1981) (Video Nasty review #9)

The Burning posterDirector: Tony Maylam

Starring: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Jason Alexander

“They never found his body, but he survived. He lives on whatever he can catch. Eats them raw, alive. No longer human. Right now, he’s out there. Watching, waiting. Don’t look: he’ll see you. Don’t move: he’ll hear you. Don’t breathe: you’re dead!” (Todd, The Burning)

Although there were a number of slasher films before Friday The 13th (most notably Halloween and Black Christmas), it was that film’s success which led to the birth of a sub-genre that was by far the most oft-imitated during the ’80s: the camp slasher.

(Obviously, by that I mean slasher films set in a summer camp, as opposed to films where a killer prances around going “oo-er missus” before stabbing someone.)

One of the earliest imitations – and one of the best, actually – was The Burning, a film written and produced by the then-indie Weinstein brothers and their small studio Miramax.

Calm down mate, this is long before Miramax started making Scary Movie films
Calm down mate, this is long before Miramax started making Scary Movie films

The story’s straightforward enough. Ten years ago, a bunch of kids at a summer camp decide they hate one of their counsellors, Cropsy, so much that they want to play a trick on him.

One kid sneaks into Cropsy’s cabin while he sleeps and places a rotting human skull next to his bedside, with a lit candle inside it. Christ knows where he got that skull from, mind.

Unfortunately the trick doesn’t go quite as planned and Cropsy, understandably getting a bit of a fright when he wakes up, kicks out and knocks the skull over.

This sets his bedsheets on fire, which in turn ignites a conveniently placed bottle of gasoline on his floor, causing the entire cabin to go up in flames.

The skull took it personally and has undergone counselling ever since
The skull took it personally and has undergone counselling ever since

Burnt worse than a narcoleptic’s dinner during one of their bad turns, Cropsy runs screaming out of his cabin, all ablaze, and dunks himself in the nearest river while the young pranksters run like fuck, escaping the crime scene pronto.

Luckily for Cropsy, he isn’t dead: he just has a melted face that resembles a strawberry yoghurt with jam mixed through it. Unluckily for a different bunch of kids at a nearby summer camp ten years later, he’s still a wee bit annoyed at being cooked.

Checking himself out of hospital, Cropsy heads back to the camp where he was burned alive, stopping to quickly murder a prostitute in New York along the way (just to have a kill in the first half-hour, you see).

Unlike Friday The 13th, which took place at a camp that was still days from opening, the camp in The Burning is already thriving and full of children of all ages.

In the blue and white shirt - Jason "George from Seinfeld" Alexander. In the blue shirt - Holly "Holly Hunter" Hunter
In the green and white shirt – Jason “George from Seinfeld” Alexander. In the blue shirt – Holly “Holly Hunter” Hunter

The potential controversy of Cropsy causing some sort of child genocide is helpfully averted when it’s decided that a bunch of the older teenage kids are to go on a canoeing trip down a river to a different part of the woods.

It’s here where Cropsy is lying in wait, thereby turning The Burning into your typical ‘serial killer stalks and kills teens’ film instead of something that could have been far bleaker.

There are three things that make The Burning stand out from the countless other Friday The 13th clones that would eventually saturate drive-ins, grindhouse cinemas and video shelves. The first is its odd soundtrack.

Rather than the typical heart-pounding soundtrack you’d expect from a slasher film, The Burning instead opts for a score composed by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The result is an odd mix of progressive synth music and surprisingly jaunty music which, somehow, actually works.

Don't look at me like that missus, I'm telling you it bloody works
Don’t look at me like that missus, I’m telling you it bloody works

The second is the acting. Without exception, The Burning‘s cast delivers spot-on performances, providing us with characters that we love, hate, laugh at and care about for all the right reasons.

Whether it’s charismatic smart-ass Dave (played by Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander), or Todd, the responsible counsellor with a shady past, each actor plays off their fellow characters well and there’s a general feeling that they were genuine friends off the set.

Or, as my wife put it, “this is a cute movie so far”. Presumably she was only referring to the group dynamic at the campsite and conveniently ignoring the fact that Cropsey had already been set on fire and subsequently plunged a knife into a hooker’s stomach by that point.

Speaking of which, that’s the other notable aspect of The Burning: its special effects. When Friday The 13th Part 2 went into production Paramount asked effects guru Tom Savini (who had worked on the first film) to return. Savini, however, turned Paramount down and instead signed up to work on The Burning, and it shows.

It was the worst tomato juice Bob had ever tried
It was the worst tomato juice Bob had ever tried

While there are a decent amount of gory shots to be seen, by far the best example is the infamous raft scene, in which a batch of teens is quickly killed in a number of gruesome ways within a brief 20-second period.

Fingers are cut off, someone has garden shears planted in their neck… it’s all grisly stuff and while it clearly looks fake these days, it must have had a hell of an impact back in ’81.

As you can probably gather by the headline of this review, that’s why the home video version of The Burning was banned in the UK, becoming one of the infamous Video Nasties (of which I eventually intend to review all 72).

Benefit Street had a more adverse effect on some viewers than others
Benefit Street had a more adverse effect on some viewers than others

Looking at it now though, there’s no way it deserved to share the same notoriety as the likes of Faces Of Death or Cannibal Holocaust. Indeed, its gory scenes pale in comparison to today’s offerings, with the likes of Saw and even the Friday The 13th remake eclipsing it in terms of gore.

Its unwarranted Video Nasty status aside, then, The Burning is worth a watch as one of the better examples of camp slasher cinema. Its brilliant performances are uncharacteristic for the genre, and it’s got enough blood to satisfy most gorehounds without being too over-the-top.

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The Burning‘s rating earns it a place in the hallowed That Was A Bit Mental Hall Of Fame. Click here to see what else made the grade.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?
Tragically, The Burning has been out of print for a while in the UK, meaning the best chance Brits will have of getting a copy is buying this old DVD from Amazon’s new/used section or on eBay. Americans have by far the better deal with this stunning Blu-ray/DVD combo version, which is sadly region locked.

However, there’s hope for Brits yet, as The Burning is currently available for streaming on Amazon Instant Video (formerly LoveFilm) as part of your subscription.

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