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STUDIO Shout! Factory
RUNNING TIME 91 minutes
• Two Audio Commentaries
• Blood ‘N’ Fire Memories with Tom Savini
• Slash & Cut with Jack Sholder
• Cropsy Speaks with Lou David
• Summer Camp Nightmare with Leah Ayres
• Behind-The-Scenes Footage
• Still and Poster Galleries
• Theatrical Trailer
• Behind-The-Scenes Footage
• PDF Copy of the Original Screenplay
The only summer camp slasher good enough to challenge Friday the 13th at its own game.
Brian Matthews, Lou David, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Leah Ayres, Holly Hunter
After a cruel joke goes awry, Cropsy is back at camp… and ready to wreak havoc on those who scarred him! With his hedge clippers in hand, he terrorizes the camp and systematically mutilates each victim. Can a few courageous campers save themselves and destroy this demented madman before he kills them all?
It may sound odd, but The Burning is kind of a charming little movie. Sure, it’s exploitative and overflowing with murder most foul, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t find it kinda heartwarming. It’s well shot, well cast, sexy, funny, and has some fantastic Savini gore gags. The Burning was also one of the first few Weinstein brothers films, and one of Miramax’s first productions. Teen slashers were hot stuff in the early eighties, so The Weinsteins saw an opportunity to strike while the iron was hot. Look, I can’t argue that The Burning isn’t a shameless riff on Friday the 13th. It’s highly derivative in its aesthetic and plot, something I usually dislike in horror films. Despite its all-too-familiar appearance, The Burning is my favorite summer camp slasher of the eighties.
The films stumbles in the first ten minutes with a slightly overlong prologue, and a scene that feels like a stolen reel from William Lustig’s Maniac. Cropsy, our killer, wanders the streets of a scummy, neon New York. He picks up a hooker, and murders her with a pair of scissors. The scene’s only purpose is to establish Cropsy as a madman, but I don’t know if the scene needs to be there. It feels disconnected from the rest of the film, but there’s a golden nugget: Cropsy’s primary weapon is a pair of hedge shears, so his early use of scissors is a nice bit of visual foreshadowing, almost establishing a motif.
The film really starts to shine once we meet our campers. The film does a great job of setting them up. Most of our main campers have identifiable faces and distinct character traits, and the dynamics between all of the characters are made very apparent. Some characters are archetypical, but the majority of them are surprisingly nuanced. It’s difficult to tell who will die and who won’t, a feat many slasher films still can’t pull off. A couple of notable campers include a young Jason Alexander, and a very scrawny Fisher Stevens. Alexander is fucking funny in the film, pumping out a magnetic New York charm.
The core female campers are all fantastic, too. Leah Ayres, Carolyn Houlihan, Holly Hunter, Sarah Chodoff, Carrick Glenn, and Shelley Bruce all provide memorable performances, making their characters unique. Non-interchangeable female characters in a slasher film? Believe it. The female characters never feel like accessories to the male characters, and the film almost passes the Bechdel test, which is pretty admirable for a film like this. While not every camper is a standout performer, the chemistry between them all is rock solid. You really care about these kids, and when they start getting hacked to pieces, it’s genuinely disconcerting.
The first camper doesn’t bite it until forty-nine minutes in — over halfway through the film. That’s how much time is devoted to establishing these campers and letting them have a bit of fun. The miraculous thing is that the flick never sags. Before we know it, a raft full of likable characters is dispatched in a Psycho-esque scene of quick, brutal, bloody deaths. Later, when the surviving campers finally see the aftermath, they don’t turn into screaming sissies. Instead, they sob and break down in each other’s arms. Tears make streaks on dirty faces. It’s pretty fucking grim.
Another successful aspect of the film is Tom Savini’s makeup. Savini turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 to work on The Burning, and goddamn, I’m glad he did. There are a few gags in this movie that are really inventive in their execution. There’s a particularly effective death when a character is impaled through the throat, hoisted upwards, and pinned to a tree. It’s impressive stuff, and half the magic is how it was shot. The only makeup that doesn’t really work in the film is Cropsy. Savini only had three days to design and sculpt Cropsy’s burned visage, and it shows. Luckily, they save the reveal for the climactic scene, and it’s only shown fleetingly.
The final showdown itself is another misfire, taking place in an abandoned mine. It’s not very well shot, and the geography of the location is never properly established. This detracts from the suspense, making for a somewhat dull stalking scene. Consider Jurassic Park‘s raptors in the kitchen sequence, in which the layout of the set is immediately clear, and the spatial relationship between predator and prey is always obvious (at least until a clever misdirect). In contrast, The Burning‘s mine scene sputters. Our killer abandons his favorite weapon, swapping it out for a flamethrower. The flamethrower makes thematic sense, since Cropsy seeks revenge for being burned, but it’s unsatisfying on a visceral level. Luckily, The Burning does have a definitive ending, and there is no fake-out just before the credits roll.
There are a few other minor bruises on The Burning, such as Rick Wakeman’s cheesy-but-fun score, but none of them really bring the film down. Director Tony Maylam was an excellent choice to helm the picture, bringing an English sensibility and simplicity to the pace and editing. His efforts, along with a fantastic cast of campers, a decent script, and some classic Savini gore make The Burning a shockingly good slasher.
Scream Factory’s presentation is admirable, as usual. This Collector’s Edition set also includes a DVD copy, complete with the same extras as the Blu-Ray. The transfer is up to Scream Factory’s high standard, so it’s crisp and vibrant, with a healthy amount of grain. It still contains frequent (but minor) dirt, scratches, and white specks, but at least they don’t degrade the transfer by applying digital noise reduction. Cleaning an old print of all its imperfections is costly, so it’s a process only reserved for Criterion discs or huge releases like Jaws or Star Wars. The included audio track is the film’s original mono mix, but it’s presented in near-perfect DTS Master-HD. The only audio that doesn’t really hold up is Rick Wakeman’s synth score. It occasionally warbles, but it’s hardly noticeable.
“If you watch a Friday the 13th movie past part one, you’re stupid,” says Tom Savini during “Blood ‘N’ Fire Memories”, a great featurette in which he talks about his experience working on the film. He expresses a lot of disappointment with the decision to resurrect Jason Voorhees as Friday the 13th‘s villainous juggernaut, citing it as his reason for working on The Burning. Savini has always been outspoken and honest about his experiences, so his interview stands out as the best feature on the disc.
A close second is the commentary with director Tony Maylam and critic Alan Jones. Maylam seems pretty distant from the material, but he speaks fondly of everyone without gushing, and has some great anecdotes. The other commentary, with actors Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, is moderated by fellow film nerd Edwin Samuelson. It’s a bit more fun and fluffy, but Samuelson keeps it on the rails. Other features include interviews with editor Jack Shoulder, actor Lou David, and actress Leah Ayres. The interviews are short, but they are well edited and enlightening. Also included in the package is Tom Savini’s personal behind-the-scenes footage and photos, which are great if you’re into SFX makeup.
If you’re a fan of The Burning, Scream Factory’s collector’s edition is a must-have. If you’re not a fan of The Burning, I encourage you to see it. It’s a rare breed of slasher that managed to warm my prickly black heart.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars