“THE BURNING” (Blu-ray/DVD Review)
THE BURNING is one of those movies that, for years, was as noted for what it wasn’t as much as for what it was. Which is to say, it was one of the most celebrated casualties of the MPAA’s scissors from the slasher-happy early 1980s, in no small part because the carnage that was cut was created by gore FX master Tom Savini. The loss of these money shots helped build up a bit of a mystique about THE BURNING, before it was finally restored for DVD several years back; it’s now out on a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Shout! Factory.
What’s equally notable about the film, as much now as ever, is that it served as an early showcase for an unusually large number of behind- and before-the-camera talent that went on to bigger things. Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter are among the cast, along with Brian Backer (who would go on to win a Tony Award and awkwardly romance Jennifer Jason Leigh in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH) and Shelley Bruce (soon to be Broadway’s Annie, which occasioned her being top-billed in the publicity material when THE BURNING opened in New York). It was also the very first movie produced under the Miramax banner by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who co-wrote the project as well; additionally billed as a production consultant and story contributor is veteran movie and TV honcho Brad Grey (THE SOPRANOS, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, many more)—though on a commentary ported over from the previous disc, director Tony Maylam states that his input largely amounted to representing an actor who plays a minor role.
Yet putting aside the skeleton-in-the-closet-spotting, and the joy of seeing the fruit of Savini’s efforts fully reinstated (and general nostalgia for vintage stalker fare), THE BURNING is a rather unremarkable piece of work, as formulized as anything that came out of the Weinsteins’ Dimension Films years later. “There’s nothing particularly innovative about this film,” the commentating Maylam says, and he’s right; despite having five credited writers (also including Maylam and Peter Lawrence, whom the director says did most of the work), it slavishly adheres to the teen-slayer formula without much surprise or suspense. Inspired by a fireside tale popular among summer camps in suburban New York state (where it was filmed), THE BURNING begins with the titular incident, as a prank pulled on a mean caretaker named Cropsy (Lou David) results in the man being accidentally set ablaze. Several years later, following skin grafts that don’t take and an incongruous, giallo-esque interlude in which he kills an urban hooker, Cropsy heads back to the woods, aiming to introduce a series of counselors and campers to his very large pair of garden shears.
You can pretty much fill in the blanks from this point: A character or two will briefly spot the lurking, disfigured maniac, but no one will believe them; there will be false alarms and blurry point-of-view shots; and any couple who departs the rest of the group for some hanky-panky in the trees is doomed to die. Elevating THE BURNING slightly above the norm is an awkwardly set up but undeniably startling mass murder of several youths on a raft, and the performance of Alexander, who makes his de rigueur jokester funny and ingratiating, adding Borscht Belt cadences entirely appropriate to the upstate New York setting. The cast in general is rather more likable than the slasher-film norm, though leads Brian Matthews and Leah Ayres are given little to do, and the murders feel too inevitable to be genuinely upsetting.
No one will feel burned by Shout!’s presentation; the 1.85:1 picture is excellent, sporting fine detail and superb colors, and no fluctuation in quality when it comes to the reinstated gore footage. (If anything, a few overly bright day-for-night shots seem too well-transferred!) Only mono sound is offered (in DTS-HD 2.0 on the Blu-ray), but it’s a good and crisp track—much like Maylam’s commentary, very well-moderated by author Alan Jones. The director has sharp memories of the project, and while he refers to THE BURNING as a “commercial enterprise” and a “formula horror film,” he doesn’t condescend to it, generally professes to have happy memories of the production and gives praise to his cast and other collaborators. Jones prods repeatedly to get the director to dish dirt on the Weinsteins, but Maylam doesn’t go for it—though we do learn that even back then, the brother moguls were “driven,” very hands-on and relied on test screenings to shape their cinematic products.
A second, new commentary has actresses Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, moderated by Edwin Samuelson, very happily recalling the BURNING shoot. While both have smaller roles, and were never on set with Cropsy—even, Bruce reveals, for a scene in which she’s stalked by the maniac—they keep up their chat for almost the entire running time, sharing fun anecdotes about their co-stars and Savini (they recall playing basketball with Mrs. Voorhees’ severed head from FRIDAY THE 13TH!). To hear them tell it, making the movie was kind of like going to summer camp without a shears-wielding lunatic in the neighborhood.
A little more forthcoming about the Maylam-Weinsteins relationship in a ported-over “Blood ’n’ Fire Memories” featurette, Savini reveals that it “soured” by the end of the shoot (though he himself declined when the producers asked him to take over helming the movie’s ending), and that they got him to do the film’s publicity tour for free. Mostly, though, this is a terrific exploration of THE BURNING’s makeup FX and stuntwork, combining Savini’s on-camera comments with rare on-set video footage. Highlights here include the artist standing in for Cropsy for the early part of the fire stunt (“Anytime, man…” he says to an assistant holding an extinguisher) and applying Stevens’ death makeup to the tune of classic music.
Also fresh in this package are interviews with editor Jack Sholder and actors David and Ayres. Sholder, who got his start cutting for New Line (whose topper Robert Shaye, he recalls, was as scissor-happy as the Weinsteins), sheds a little postproduction light on the behind-the-scenes issues and explores how the experience prepared him for his directorial debut on the superior slasher ALONE IN THE DARK. David and Ayres each have a few good stories to tell, and help make this supplemental package a complete chronicle of the BURNING experience. The discs are rounded out with behind-the-scenes footage and stills (much of which can also be seen in “Blood ’n’ Fire Memories”), a small assortment of international posters and an original trailer that now plays as unintentionally humorous, since the narration contains the multiple “Don’t”s employed so hilariously in Edgar Wright’s GRINDHOUSE coming attraction.