AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD STEELBOOK: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 89 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
At Camp Blackfoot, the creepy and violent caretaker, “Cropsy” is the victim of a prank. A camper sneaks into his cabin and sets up a worm-riddled skull next to his bed with candles in the eye sockets. When Cropsy is awoken by the campers banging on his window, he’s so frightened by the skull that he knocks it onto his bed, where it ignites his sheets and clothes. Aflame, Cropsy leaps from his bed and knocks over a gas tank, causing flames to spread through the cabin, stumbles out and falls into a river. Five years later, Cropsy is released from the hospital, wearing a coat, sunglasses and a hat to hide his deformities. In a fit of rage, he murders a prostitute, then sets off to another summer camp, Camp Stonewater….
I guess that quite a few readers may shake their heads at the relatively good review and high score I’m giving The Burning, a film which, though I haven’t read any reviews of it in a while, probably isn’t too highly thought of by many, lumped as it is in with all those other slasher films that came out en masse in the early 1980’s, though the initial treatment for what feels just like a Friday The 13th film was actually written before Sean H. Cunningham’s hugely successful and trend setting first film in that lengthy franchise came out. The thing is, I believe that if a film succeeds within its genre, then it’s at least partially successful. The slasher film, despite being a very simple way to successfully manipulate the viewer, tends to be a disreputable genre that many don’t take seriously, but our own Ross Hughes loves it. I’m very partial to it myself though of course many dreadful examples have been made. The Burning does pretty well because it gives you most of what you want from a slasher, from reasonably well characterised teenagers and a couple of whom who just want to get slaughtered, to a genuinely creepy maniac, and it balances its aspects well, such as its murder scenes which are bloody and a little bit shocking but aren’t dwelt upon so that they become ridiculous or disgusting. I’m in no way holding it up as an unsung horror classic, but it gets the job it sets out to do very well.
One of the oddities about it is that it was initiated, and co-produced, by Harvey Weinstein. Yep, the Oscar chaser Harvey Weinstein, which I suppose kind of makes sense – he began his career making a slasher, then went on to slash other people’s films. Inspired by an actual story told at summer camps about a boogieman-like figure who killed kids, it was Harvey who thought up the idea of The Burning, and his brother Bob co-wrote the actual screenplay. A similar film, Madman, was also based on the Cropsey legend but had to be drastically rewritten. This was the second narrative picture of former documentary maker Tony Maylam [otherwise best known for Split Second], who was chosen because the Weinsteins knew him when they were rock promoters. He actually played Cropsy in much of the movie because he couldn’t get anyone else to hold the shears the way he wanted. The film was shot mostly in existing summer camps around Buffalo and North Tonawanda, New York. The ending was originally intended to be in a boat house, then relocated to some caves, but they found a load of bats living in the location so it was changed again to being in a mineshaft. Almost re-named Tales Around the Campire, The Burning was released amidst a glut of slashers and was a commercial failure, nixing plans for a sequel. The US cinema version lost 45 seconds of gore and violence, while the UK release lost only ten. The uncut version was accidently released on video and wound up being banned as a Video Nasty. A legal video release lost an extra nine seconds. It’s odd how the full version has been available since 2001 yet we’re still waiting to see many of the Friday The 13th films uncut.
The initial set-up is undeniably crass and might even garner complaints today on account of being insensitive to burn victims, but hey – it’s an 80’s movie, and an 80’s slasher movie at that – so if you want political correctness then you should give up on this film right now. When the prank on nasty caretaker Cropsy doesn’t quite go to plan and he ends up in flames, you can’t miss the fact that the stuntman is wearing a mask, something which shows Maylam’s inexperience as a filmmaker as it would have easy to cut around it. We relocate to a hospital, and one orderly drags another to see Cropsy, who is: “Burned so bad, he’s cooked. A f***ing Big Mac. Overdone”. Despite this, we’re obviously not meant to feel sorry for this “freak” and “monster” whatsoever. There’s a good jump scare involving Cropsy’s arm moving, after which, following the titles, we fast forward to five years later. Cropsy is released, and he heads straight for the local red light district in a sequence which was added to the script at a late stage and really belongs in something like Maniac [even the remake, considering the amount of killer POV shots] or Nightmares In A Damaged Brain than this more innocuous kind of slasher. It’s well shot though with good use of darkness [plus there’s thunder and lightning!] and Cropsy strikes quite a menacing figure clad in a black hat, gloves and coat just like the killer in many giallos. One dead prostitute, and Cropsy heads for a summer camp, just to kill some teenagers, though the first time he seems to be moving for the kill on someone – a girl who goes into the forest to find her ball – he changes his mind.
Now we get to know our teenagers, and, though I initially thought as the film moved into its second act that I may have remembered it too fondly, they’re reasonably enjoyable to spend time with even they’re mostly archetypes, the males in particular tending to be either alpha males or nerdy wimps. It really helps that they’re quite well played too. There’s happy couple counsellors Todd and Michelle, Eddy who is putting off his girlfriend Karen by always coming on too strong, the even more aggressive Glazer who bullies loner Alfred, Glazer’s girlfriend Sally who also seems to be tiring of her boyfriend, and so forth. Sometimes the filler sections of a slasher can be painful to watch but they really are okay in this one, while we still get a minor scare quite often, be it Alfred briefly glimpsing Cropsy’s horribly deformed face in the window in a really effective little moment, or Sally being scared in the shower by someone who you really think could be Cropsy but who turns out be someone else. And then we get a great campfire scene, a feature of several slashers of the time but this one being almost as memorable as the one in The Fog, which should probably have been placed earlier on but never mind. Of course the kills eventually begin again, leading to a climax which isn’t the intense thrill sequence that the film seems to be building up to- in fact it’s a major disappointment [and where on earth does Cropsy he get that flamethrower from?] – though it’s nice to have a ‘final boy’ rather than a’ final girl’, and you do finally get to enjoy Tom Savini’s splendidly gruesome burnt face makeup, which was originally intended to be shown more in its glory, which he actually made in four days. The cast would play basketball with Mrs. Voorhees’s head in down time.
The highlight of the murder scenes is a simply brilliant bit where Cropsy rises out of a boat [in which he hides astoundingly well, but never mind] to slaughter five teens on a raft. The sudden appearance of the killer gave me a real jolt when I first saw the film and the quickly edited montage of savagery, replete with a queasy shot of two fingers being severed which was always missing from the cut versions of the film, is very well put together, though if you look at it two or three times in quick succession it’s easy to spot the fakery. Well constructed of a different kind is the scene of Sally is in the shower where the camera teases us for some time before finally showing her breasts. There’s a slight leering quality about parts of the film but an almost adolescent sense of voyeurism has often been a major part of older slashers like it or loath it, and it’s hard to take seriously and get wound up about. The most laughable thing about The Burning are several supposedly night time scenes in the forest in the final third which are obviously taking place during the day and which they haven’t even bothered to try to make look nocturnal with a filter or some other process. Overall Maylam’s direction just does the job and no more, with the only attempt at a stylistic aspect being some fades to red, though cinematographer Harvey Harrison photographs the wood location with some skill and effectiveness. Having vaseline rubbed on the camera lens to show Cropsy’s point of view also works well. Nowadays they’d use CGI, and we’ve really lost something when the latter is used for nearly everything.
Brian Backer and Leak Ayres are decent leads, but one of the most fun things about The Burning is seeing Holly Hunter [who doesn’t have it listed on her CV though she only has a minor role], Jason Alexander [most amusing as a lad who thinks he’s so cool, though he looks ridiculously old for the part], and Fisher Stevens in early roles. The synthesiser score is by Rick Wakeman and its appropriately cheesy. While it probably needs to be watched partly with tongue-in-cheek otherwise certain details will nag at you such as the bizarreness of Cropsy’s actions throughout, The Burning really holds up rather well, is to me really one of the best slashers of its period, and is what slashers are all about. If you’re a slasher fan then it really does belong in your collection, though if you dislike or despise this sub-genre of film then it’s certainly not going to change your opinion.
It almost feels wrong to be watching a film like The Burning in pristine quality, and Arrow’s typically great looking release does make a few effects shots not look as good as they used to due to the greater clarity of the picture. It does look fine though with considerable depth, and I love the way Arrow resist the temptation to sharpen up films like this; this one looks quit soft in many scenes, but that’s how it would have looked in cinemas. Overall Arrow have made The Burning look as good as they can while it still comes across as a cheap slasher from the 80’s. The special features are ported over from Shout Factory’s Region ‘A’ release and add a third commentary. The first talk track with Maylam and critic Alan Jones is pretty good, though understandably Maylam’s memory is hazy and Jones has to keep asking him questions to keep him talking, but Jones is good value to listen to as usual. The second one with cast members Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, plus a moderator, suffers a little from Bruce and Deroski only being in minor parts and they seem to run out of things to say but they do have some good recollections. The final, and new, commentary is by The Hysteria Continues, three guys who do a podcast on slasher movies. If you’re a slasher fan, then listening to other slasher fans talking about a slasher movie is about as good as it gets. They provide plenty of information and contextual insight and aren’t afraid to criticise too, which is good. I also watched the Tom Savini featurette showing how the effects were done, which is fabulous with Savini coming across as such a fun guy as usual. There are also some other interviews, rounding off what is another terrific package from Arrow.
*Limited Edition SteelBook packaging (4000 copies)
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
*Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio commentary with director Tony Maylam and critic Alan Jones
*Audio commentary with stars Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski
*Brand new audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues
*Blood ‘n’ Fire Memories – a detailed look at the creation of the film’s make-up effects with special effects artist Tom Savini
*Slash & Cut – an interview with editor Jack Sholder
*Cropsy Speaks – an interview with actor Lou David
*Summer Camp Nightmare – an interview with actress Leah Ayres
*Brand new interview with composer Rick Wakeman
*Make-Up Effects Still Gallery
*Poster & Still Gallery
*First pressing only: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Justin Kerswell
NOTE: A quick bit of investigation has revealed that the Dual Format Steelbook has sold out. However, Arrow are releasing a non-Steelbook edition of The Burning on December 19th which will most likely contain all the Steelbook’s extras.
Check out Matt Wavish’s older review of The Burning here: https://horrorcultfilms.co.uk/2011/09/the-burning-aka-cropsy-1981/