Film Review: THE BURNING (1981)

Film Review: THE BURNING (1981)

Nov 10, 2016

IMDb: The Burning (1981)
Director: Tony Maylam
Stars: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer

By now, we all know that “FRIDAY THE 13TH” was an extension of all those beloved hook-handed serial killer campfire stories, and most everything since riffs on some twisted variation of those basic staples. SLEEPAWAY CAMP. JUST BEFORE DAWN. RITUALS. WRONG TURN.

THE BURNING does the exact same thing, with gruesome effectiveness. Although a lot of fans accused it of ripping off Jason and Company, this is one sick little puppy of a serial killer classic that has its own nasty “groove.”

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Cropsy (Lou David), the nasty caretaker of a teen summer camp is constantly “snitching”, lurking about and giving the snot-nosed little bastards a hard time. So they decide to engage their chief tormentor in a little payback involving some lit candles and an appropriately horrific prop…which all goes predictably, horrifyingly wrong.

Cropsy is burned beyond even being recognized as human…and that’s no exaggeration. The first murder in the movie – NOT a teenager, mind you – establishes pretty much that his mood matches his new looks. His weapon of choice? The biggest, sharpest, nastiest looking pair of garden shears this side of the Home Depot from Hell. You almost feel sorry for the kids in this flick…Cropsy makes Jason Voorhees look compassionate by comparison.

The first movie produced by Miramax’s Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and one of the earliest solo flights by makeup marvel Tom Savini, THE BURNING fell victim to the “Video Nasties” controversy that raged in London during the Eighties, and as a result a lot of the horrifying set pieces here were neutered down to a late-night shock show edit. The one and only version I saw, released on EMI/THORN Home Video (on VHS!!! That’s how long it’s been!) had been restored somewhat, but the cuts made were so sloppy, you could tell all the way through that there was TONS of stuff missing, and hopefully not lost forever.

Having said that, there is one sequence in particular that gives this movie an original and truly gruesome flavor that even most of the FT13 sequels put together couldn’t match. Even severely edited, the scene still packs a pretty major gut-punch for audiences jaded by most of the poorly-made crap in this sub-genre, and I hope to see it in its jaw-dropping entirety one of these days.

Taking yet another cue from FT13, the cast is made up mostly of unknowns, though sharp- eyed buffs will note early appearances of both Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens. As the boxes advertised much later, yes Holly Hunter does appear here, but what she gets to do is look scared and cry a lot. I guess it won’t spoil anything to tell you that she doesn’t die, so there is something to be said for not having a “featured role” in a horror movie…if you want your part to last for a while, anyway.

Anyway, director Tony Maylam ups the ante when it comes to the viciousness of the death sequences, since Sean Cunningham did raise the bar with his ‘epic.’ And THE BURNING’S goosebump-raising electronic score comes from YES’s keyboard wiz Rick Wakeman, no less. Some people prefer the “ch-ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha-ha” familiarity of Harry Manfredini’s unforgettable themes, but Rick does hold his own here.

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