The Burning 1981
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Starring: Brian Matthews, Brian Becker, Jason Alexander
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Tony Maylam’s The Burning is one of the most notorious non-franchise slashers of all time. Even before pre production had begun in the summer of 1980, the movie had an incredible buzz surrounding it. Enough so in fact that superstar horror FX maestro Tom Savini rejected the chance to return to the Friday the 13th series for Steve Miner’s classic sequel and instead took this project for a lesser salary.
Of all the peak period genre entries, none can boast the depth in terms of personnel that was put together here. Alongside the aforementioned magic of Savini, the cast included Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg and Oscar winners Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter. The grim and unique score came from former Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman and directorial duties went to Tony Maylam, who at the time had been predicted for big things after his work on rock band Genesis’ outstanding concert video from 1977.
There can be little doubt that the hype and quality in recruitment was down to an early example of the skills of production partnership Harvey and Bob Weinstein, whose company Miramax films would go on to become one of the most successful entertainment brands in Hollywood over the next three decades. This was the first feature length motion picture to be released under that brand and thereafter, they would go on to distribute over fifty films, including classics such as The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction and even Wes Craven’s Scream. If that wasn’t enough, then can you believe that the script was co-written by future Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey? Astonishing…
After a prank goes wrong, a sadistic camp caretaker returns to the site where the accident took place, looking for revenge. Armed with a shiny pair of shears, Cropsy begins to stalk a group of counsellors with mutilation on his mind…
In the UK, The Burning was one of the first entries to join the video nasty list and it received perhaps higher persecution for the fact that Thorn-EMI accidentally released the full uncut print instead of the censored copy that the BBFC had cleared. The tapes were impounded and destroyed, but bizarrely, Thorn-EMI were more fortunate than David Grant who was sent to prison for doing the exact same thing when he distributed a longer version of the film Blood Splash a year later. I paid an absolute fortune for an unedited version of this when I was a nipper and it was a mistake as the cassette had an infuriating line running through the middle, which made it almost as bad as just sticking to the 18 rated VHS. Watching it now though, on the BlueRay pre-screener that I was sent, is a glorious experience and the film looks as if it could have been a production from the last decade. The masters have obviously been well looked after and playing it on my Plasma allowed me to turn out the lights and almost feel like I was in the cinema in 1981.
Maylam attempts the John Carpenter methodology of slowly generating an undertone of dread that boils along in the background and then attacks like a shark in the places when the killer strikes. A great example of this is the infamous ‘Raft Massacre’ sequence, which boasts an almost perfect build up. Wakeman’s scoring warns us that something is about to happen, but the camera never reveals enough to let us be sure. When the loon finally strides on to the screen, the bloodletting is quick, brutal and graphic. To this day, you can count on one hand the amount of times in slasher cinema that an antagonist has taken out so many victims in one fell swoop. Tom Savini proves once again here why he was the go to guy for the most realistic special effects back in the overkill period of the slasher cycle.
What I like about the script is that it spends time developing its characters and their performances really add the necessary realism that makes what happens later seem all the more shocking. Jason Alexander steals every scene as a quick-witted camper, whilst Brian Matthews, Leah Ayers and Ned Eisenberg were solid and flawless in their roles. The dialogue and banter works not only to add fun to the parts where the horror takes a backseat, but also to develop a genuine level of believability in the set up and I found it easy to forget that I was watching a group of actors. The screenplay also separates itself from the multitude of its genre brethren by having a ‘final boy’ instead of the usual heroine left alone to face the marauding maniac. The thing is that despite the fact that Brian Becker does a good job with the role, the decision is a risk that just doesn’t pay off.
The Burning has become a true cult classic and has legions of admirers in not only slasher but also horror movie circles. Personally though, I think that it is slightly overrated and perhaps undeserving of so much notoriety. Despite its visible slickness, it lacks a real cutting edge in its moments of terror. Whilst the gore is great and almost like a snuff film in places, the murder sequences lack jump scares or suspense and there’s very little true tension. This is most evident in the conclusion, which I found to be really disappointing. Our hero heads up with an axe to take on the boogeyman and we’re expecting at least a fight. There’s a revelation that builds up a deserving target, at least in the eyes of our nut job caretaker, but Maylam’s attempts at prolonging the money shot are overwrought. In the end it’s more ‘was that it?’ than ‘oh yeah that’s it!’ if you get what I mean. Whilst the notorious ‘Raft Massacre’ is magnificent in terms of the excellence of the make-up FX and it’s an all round great postcard of slasher genre splatter, has anyone ever wondered how it might have looked had it not been SO rapidly edited?
As I highlighted earlier, the script doesn’t bother with a traditional female heroine and instead develops a male geeky type guy in her place. The thing is though we are not talking about a loveable mummy’s boy here. Instead, he is conveyed as an unlikeable pervert and it’s just too hard to bond with him or even want him to survive. It’s funny because before this, we watched The Prowler and Joseph Zito opted for a conventional lead character there and the difference is impossible not to notice. When Vicky Dawson was trying her darnedest to fend off the pitch folk clenching maniac, my partner shouted, “Go on girl!” But there was never any chance of the Mrs doing the same thing here. We ended up saying that Todd should leave Cropsy to get on with it and save himself instead of risking his life for the dweeby Alfred.
I have regular conversations with you guys and girls about these slasher films and I know that not all of you will agree with my view. That’s the beauty of the genre though; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Tom Savini delivers on the goo-o-rama, there are some nice performances, it’s beautifully produced and Rick Wakeman’s score is a masterpiece. If I could however take maybe 15% of its reputation and give it to Nightmare at Shadow Woods, I would feel a lot better about the whole thing. Tony Maylam’s biggest film after this was Split Second with Rutger Hauer. Maybe this picture would have been better if Steve Miner had also opted not to work on Friday the 13th Part 2 and followed his friend Tom over to Camp Blackfoot? Just a thought…