Monday, October 1, 2007

The Burning (1981): I fell in love with a video nasty

Newly released on DVD, 1981's The Burning is a slasher flick in the Friday the 13th mold, with a campground serving as the killing fields for a vengeful psychopath and a bunch of teenagers impaled with garden implements. Don't let that turn you off. There's a little more here than your average '80s horror cheapie; while it's certainly not a great, or even very good movie by any standard, it does have a moment or two of nicely realized horror, and to my utter delight and shock, one of the coolest massacre sequences in any slasher movie of the era.

While the villain seems to be your standard psycho killer, well-known from stories told around the campfire, who's out for revenge (this one was the drunken camp caretaker who oh-so accidentally gets set afire in a practical joke gone horribly wrong. Oops, damn, my bad, dude!), it turns out that “Cropsey” is an actual campground legend from the 1970s in upstate New York. The special effects were done by the master himself, Tom Savini, who quite rightly states in one of the extras, “If you watch any of the Friday the 13ths after the first one, you’re stupid.” He turned down the first F13 sequel to work on The Burning, showing eminent good taste and judgment.

What I find rewarding about movies like this, movies forgotten, overshadowed by more popular, but inferior, pictures, is how they open and reveal unexpected little historical connections. While so many other horror movies of the era were made by a production team of unknowns and starred nobodies, then sank without a trace with no way back to relevance, The Burning actually has some pedigree. It was the first film produced by Miramax, the famous independent production company run by the legendary Weinstein brothers Harvey and Bob. You get a handful of soon-to-be stars like Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter (I wouldn’t exactly call Fisher Stevens a star, but he was married to Michelle Pfeiffer at one point) and that guy who played Ratner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

There’s character here—not characters mind you, but identifiable kids who are a bit more than just Cropsey fodder. There are the usual smirky teens and bullies, and the always-unpleasant specter of misogyny (although this is more because these films are the emotional equivalent of confused 13-year-old boys; I don't think it's misogyny so much as pure obliviousness) , and the requisite naked teenage girls. But several of the guys, like Alexander and Stevens, are a likable, dorky bunch with Alexander getting in some bad but charming one-liners and impressions. And a couple of the girls are quite cute in a nerdy, innocent way. In fact one or two are obviously pre-teens, and their hysterical reactions to the horror later on is more disturbing because they're children. Three of the girls who die engage in no sexual behavior at all, far from the norm for slasher movies. But kind of like real life, huh?

As for that one great murder scene I mentioned above, I'm dying to give it away, but I'm certainly not big on spoilers. Suffice it to say it was enough of a brutal bloodbath (at the time) to warrant the film becoming one of those infamous British "video nasties" that plagued the U.K. in the mid-1980s, which resulted in censors cutting out various bits of gore and bloodletting. The Damned even had a song about movies like this. That's gonna be all I say on that, but I don't think you'll be too disappointed in the scene. I hope.

As I've never been a slasher movie fan--I prefer my horror more Gothic, more elegant, more perverse, more, well, erotic--I still have to say that The Burning was satisfying for what it was, offering several well-staged scenes of suspense, nudity and mayhem; a cool '80s synth score by Rick Wakeman (I refuse to link to anyone who was in Yes); one absolutely awesome teen slaughter sequence; and George Costanza, avec hair.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Plus, dude on the far left was the lead in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. BONUS!