The Burning (1981)
Colin McCracken continues the Video Nasties series with an examination of 1981’s The Burning, number 12 on the list.
The Burning is nothing short of a joyful surprise. Even by the end of the title sequence, hopes are high as some of the names involved went on to be big players in the movie industry. It was one of the first movies to be produced by Miramax, with the original story being accredited to Bob Weinstein and production duties falling upon his brother Harvey. The cinematic entrepreneurs were clearly intent on capitalising upon the rise of teen slasher movies which were prevalent at the time, going so far as to draft in Friday 13th makeup artist and special effects maestro Tom Savini.
The score was created by Rick Wakeman, who does a fantastic job of providing not just a wonderful accompaniment to the movie, but a superb standalone album as well. The Burning features the onscreen debuts of several actors who would come very well known, including Holly Hunter (The Piano), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and Fisher Stevens (Hackers / Short Circuit). The result of knowing these faces so well does create a minor distraction from time to time as you do find yourself pausing occasionally to make comments such as ‘Oh wow, look how young they were’.
The story itself is an age old one, but delivered with confidence and to great success. At a summer camp in 1976 a group of teens decide to play a prank on the sadistic and alcoholic Chopsey, one of the employees. The prank goes horribly wrong and Chopsey is engulfed in flame (with the stunt-man’s fire repellent suit being entirely visible). He is sent to a burns unit for the next five years where even the nurses are terrified of his grisly appearance. He is finally released and the first thing he does is to butcher a prostitute, before making his way to another summer camp to have his revenge.
The camp provides the filmmakers with all the excuses that they need for a variety of shower scenes, skinny dipping and various other acts of adolescent promiscuity. After a few red herrings the murders begin and the terror soon spreads throughout the previously idyllic woodland setting.
In terms of narrative, there is not a whole lot of originality on offer, but that doesn’t effect the overall impact which the movie has. Even though the teens are ousted one by one in an almost direct retelling of Friday 13th, there is still something which makes this movie worthy of recommendation. The goofy humour and the knowing daftness of the whole affair are almost regularly alluded to by the filmmakers. A fantastic multiple death frenzy involving some gardening shears and a succession of impalements and gashes seems to have been the main bone of contention for the DPP when this film was picked up.
Originally released by Thorn-EMI, it was cleared of obscenity and went on to be released in a slightly edited form afterwards. The final revelation of the victim does, unfortunately, cause more giggles than gasps. Savini reportedly only had a few days in which to construct the makeup for Chopsey which is why he looks slightly more mutated than burnt. It is Savini’s work which creates the anchor for the rest of the movie. With severed limbs and gallons of blood awash on the screen throughout.
The Burning, whilst not pushing the envelope in terms of originality, is definitely a worthwhile addition to any fan of the slasher genre as it certainly has something to offer. Not particularly evil, but delightfully gruesome.
(1:31:23) (released with 19s cut in 1992, re-released uncut in 2001)
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