MGM’s terrific HD transfer of the 1980s slasher favorite THE BURNING gets the Blu-ray treatment (along with a DVD edition featuring identical supplements in this reversible cover combo pack) from Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” banner, which is quickly becoming the Criterion Collection for retro horror movie lovers.
When Harvey Weinstein decided to make the move from rock concert promoter to movie mogul in the early 1980s, it was a wise decision to start in the horror genre. Horror pictures are after all notoriously cheap and often see a return in their initial investment. The "stalk and slash” genre was a particularly smart investment for the then fledgling Miramax company, as several producers where already gearing up similar features after the success of Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH. Love them or hate them, Harvey and his brother Bob were not only able to continue in the movie business, but they have thrived. No stranger to controversy, they have garnered several Oscar nominations and wins, and have since moved on to form a new distribution group, The Weinstein Company, all from a little low budget, formulaic slasher film.
Five years after a late night prank went horribly awry, Camp Blackfoot’s grounds keeper, Cropsy (Lou David), finds himself hideously scarred and disfigured. When repeated skin graft treatments fail to take, the hospital decides that it's best to let him back out into the world and hope that he can make the most with the hand dealt him. After leaving the hospital, Cropsy picks up a prostitute, only to moments later kill her when her reaction to his deformed face repulses her so. Unbeknownst to the teenagers at Camp Stonewater, Cropsy returns to his old stomping grounds to stalk the young visitors he used to clean up after. As the summer is about to come to an end, a small group of campers, lead by counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) decide to head down river by canoe for a three-day field trip. After a full day of canoeing and other hi-jinks, the group docks and makes camp, just as the sun begins to set. That night they gather around the campfire to listen to Todd spin a yarn about the old camp just across the river. All that remain are ruins, as the camp burned to the ground several years ago with the campground’s bastard of a caretaker trapped inside. All the while, the group is unaware that said custodian is lurking in the trees, just out of sight, waiting to enact his revenge on the young group.
THE BURNING has gained notoriety more so for its public battle with the censors, both in America and in the Untied Kingdom, than for its actual content. In the U.S., several scenes of blood and gore had to be trimmed in order for the MPAA to label it with an R rating. These alterations left most of make-up wizard Tom Savini’s best work on the cutting room floor, taking away the full brutal impact of most of the film's kills, including a raft sequence in which five campers are slaughtered in a matter of minutes. In the U.K., the film was to undergo several cuts before the BBFC would allow distributor Thorn EMI to release it. However, a mix up would lead to the uncut print being inadvertently mass produced and distributed. This would result in a raid of the Thorn EMI offices, where both the master tapes and all copies were confiscated, pushing the title into the news and to the forefront of the ongoing “Video Nasty” list. A year later, the company would be cleared of obscenity charges and recalled the uncut tapes, offering to replace them with the shorter certified version. It would take two decades before the British censors would agree to release the uncut version.
Perhaps the only difference between THE BURNING and every other slasher film of the early 1980s, such as FRIDAY THE 13TH or THE PROWLER (all three of which featured make-up effects by Tom Savini), is that from the very beginning of the film, you know who the killer is. There is no waiting until the end for the big reveal of the maniac’s identity; you know from the onset. Otherwise it’s a virtual paint-by-numbers of slasher film clichés (disfigured loner returns to the scene of his embarrassing and tragic mutilation to systematically kill teenagers). The killer, whose point of view is shot handheld with an ample amount of Vaseline smeared around the edges of the camera lens, stalks his victims just out of sight and waits for them to isolate themselves from the group. Which in this case is a three-day raft trip to Devil’s Creek (sounds safe). I have never fully understood the logic behind leaving the comfort of your base or central location to venture out to a destination with such foreboding names as Devil’s Creek, Suicide Hill or Blood Lake. All I’m saying is that I’ve never heard of a group of hitch-hikers being brutally stabbed to death while on a three-mile trek up Mt. Puppy Breath.
The Weinstein brothers were not the only ones who would use THE BURNING as a jumping off point into the entertainment industry. A number of the film's young actors would move on to find successful film and television careers. A year after its release, Brian Backer, who plays the camps “peeping tom” Alfred, was cast as Mark in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, probably the actor's most noteworthy screen role. A very young and very skinny Fisher Stevens (SHORT CIRCUIT, MY SCIENCE PROJECT), plays marksman Woodstock, whose fingers are snipped off by Cropsy in the film's infamous raft sequence, which would become a focal point of the censors. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of THE BURNING, even overshadowing the impressive and bloody effects work, is seeing Jason Alexander with a full head of hair! The comedian plays camp cut-up Dave with the same comedic timing and thick sarcasm that are synonymous with his “Seinfeld” character, George Costanza. Holly Hunter (RAISING ARIZONA) would also mark her debut with THE BURNING, but as quick as you can say “Hey, that looks like Holly Hunter,” her screen time is up. British rock synth wizard Rick Wakeman provides the memorable electronic score.
Along with its various censorship problems, THE BURNING has had a sorted home video history. Previous to MGM’s 2007 DVD release, the only way to watch THE BURING on DVD in the U.S. was to own a region free player. Vipco released the film uncut in the U.K., as did Dragon (although full screen) in Germany, both of which are now out of print. An uncut print was also briefly available on VHS from Amazon.com, and then MGM finally released it on DVD in 2007. Scream Factory’s new MGM-licensed Blu-ray has made all other presentations obsolete by a landslide. THE BURNING is of course presented fully uncut here, in a beautiful 1080p High Definition transfer (anamorphic widescreen in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio). The picture quality is suburb from start to finish, with extremely sharp detail and far less grain than what was found on the previous MGM DVD. Colors are bright and lucid, with the lush greens of the camps surrounding forest coming through duly, and so good is the quality that many of the images of flowing/choppy water is like glaring at real thing. The English mono DTS-HD Master Audio is very clear with no noticeable distortion. Optional English SDH Subtitles are provided. The standard DVD portion of the set contains the same HD transfer of the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital mono audio.
For this Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, Scream Factory has picked up the two main extras from the old MGM DVD, while furnishing a number of their own. The first commentary track (originally recorded for the 2007 MGM disc) is with British director Tony Maylam, moderated by film journalist Alan Jones. It touches on a number of interesting tales regarding the film's battle with the censors and points out a number of occasions when he picked up the bloody shears himself to play Cropsy. Most notably, during the film's most iconic image, that of Cropsy holding the shears above his head ready to plunge the blades into the occupants of the handmade raft. There’s a new second commentary track with actresses Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski (both played young campers) moderated by Edwin Samuelson. Both actresses remember a lot about shooting the film on location in upstate New York, giving fans an enjoyable account of what it was like on the set, as well as the camaraderie between the ensemble cast. Samuelson does a great job of throwing out questions on a number of different subjects, so the commentary never gets quiet and mainly focuses on behind-the-scenes tidbits (a great anecdote revolves around Savini’s friendliness and his willingness to let the kids use Betsy Palmer’s prop head from FRIDAY THE 13TH for recreational purposes!). You’ll also learn why Alexander wore the number “96” on his jersey!
Originally found on the 2007 MGM DVD, Red Shirt Pictures’ featurette “Blood ‘n’ Fire Memories” is a highly enjoyable interview with special make-up and effects artist, Tom Savini. Savini’s memory of the shoot is still clear after all these years and he is open and candor throughout the featurette's running time. Tom relives one of the busiest periods of his career, as in 1981 alone, he worked on THE PROWLER (aka ROSEMARYS KILLER), NIGHTMARE, and he actually turned down the opportunity to work on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 for THE BURNING. Red Shirt Pictures and Shout! Factory have furnished three new featurettes for this release. “Slash and Cut with Jack Shoulder” (12:04) has the film’s editor discussing his first feature film and the great learning experience it was, and he describes the raft sequence as the most challenging scene to edit. He also relates some anecdotes, including the fact that the producers wanted director Maylam to stay out of the editing room, despite him wanting his input. “Cropsy Speaks with Lou David” (11:19) has the actor talking about wanting to get into the profession when seeing Spencer Tracy up on the big screen at the age of ten, and years later, going off to play the killer in THE BURNING the day after his son was born. David reveals that most of the onscreen killing on the film was done by Savini or another stand-in, and he wished that the character (one he seems to have relished playing) had more of a back story. “Summer Camp Nightmare with Leah Ayres” (6:45) is an interview with the female lead of the film, as she re-affirms the cast and crew camaraderie stated by Bruce and Deroski in the second commentary. She describes director Maylam as a terrific guy, and seems to have had a grand experience in her first feature, even if it was a low budget horror film (a genre she doesn’t much care for). A segment of “Behind the Scenes Footage” (7:56) is on-set stuff shot on archaic videotape from Tom Savini’s personal archives (hints of it were previously seen in the “Blood ‘n’ “Fire” featurette). Here, we see Savini stunt-doubling for Cropsy as his legs are set on fire, creating the gore effects on several of the victims for the infamous raft sequence, and applying the grisly “after” make-up on Fisher Stevens as he sits patiently and listens to tranquil music. Rounding out the extras are two different still galleries (one for make-up and effects shots and the other, a poster and still gallery) and the film’s original theatrical trailer. (Jason McElreath and George R. Reis)
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