Monday, June 4, 2012

The Burning (1981)

One of my very first horror-related memories is completely owned by The Burning.

In some of my earlier reviews, I talk very briefly about a small mom-and-pop video store that was located in Reedley, California in the early eighties. This place was very small, but housed a lot of the horror I would come to know and love in the future. It was one of the very few video rental places in the little city we lived in and my parents frequented it quite regularly so it was the very first exposure I had to the home video revolution that was just beginning. Writing that last sentence just made me homesick for the 1980’s, when large, bulky VCR’s (like my parent’s Quasar model) were the only things available and little independent shops lined with mahogany shelves filled with videocassettes in random order and smelling of popcorn started popping up slowly in every town.  The days of membership and rewind fees…they’re all gone. It makes me sad that all of that is just a distant memory now, what with the advent of DVD, and the death of the video rental stores altogether (Thank you, Redbox and Netflix). Let’s stop there, because I’ll get all soft. And I know if you read those last few sentences, you may be feeling the same way now.

 Since the last time I was active on this blog, I met a woman that lived in the apartment below me after just having moved into a new building in 2010. A good gal, she became interested in my horror film collection and one night while helping her cook dinner, we got into a deep conversation about how my fascination with said horror began and I started telling her about the little video shop that I still hold onto for dear life and as I went on and on, she stopped in her tracks. She turned around and said, “Are you talking about the video store that used to be downtown next to the old ice cream parlor?”  I froze. How did she know that? I’d mentioned it to so many people who had no clue to what I was talking about to the point to where I’d already convinced myself that I’d possibly dreamed (or at least semi-fabricated) its existence. About ten years ago, I even went as far as to contact the local chamber of commerce to see if any record of the video store was available for viewing so I could at least rest knowing that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination, with no answer from them, of course.

The hour that followed was life-changing. Not only did she know about the store and its name, but it turns out that her grandfather and father owned and ran it! My lifelong search was finally over! Ernie’s Video – as it was known – was opened at the beginning of the 80’s and closed sometime before 1989. I couldn’t even begin to tell her all the fond memories I had of that place and it turns out that I remembered more of the store than she did. Everything from the store’s layout, the color and style of the front door with the little bell that hung around the doorknob to the way the shelves were set up (and the exact direction in which the videocassettes were placed and how they faced). I went on and on about the clear casings that housed some of the more “forbidden titles” that were under the store’s countertops, and the five posters that hung in the store that forever stand out in my memory: Altered States hung in the front window facing the sidewalk. Maniac hung next to the interior door that led into the back area. The half-sized standee of Zombie that sat on the counter on the right side of the store. And the most memorable one of all, the full-sized one sheet of The Burning that was taped to a mirror that overlooked the entire store. That was the one I never forgot.

I was lucky enough to meet her father later on and reminisce with him about the store. What was strange was that I had more recollection of it than he did, which he found very amusing. Don’t get me wrong, he did remember its existence and was tickled pink to hear how much of it I still remembered. I asked him if he had any pictures of the store or anything that was saved from it, just to finally prove to myself that I didn’t concoct the entire thing in my head, because believe me, I was already convincing myself that I’d either made it all up or had dreamt it while I was a kid.  He was nice enough to give me an original Ernie’s Video baseball cap that had managed to survive all these years and a small roll of the silver decals that went on the sides of the VHS cassettes that had the original address, phone number and logo of the store. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t even express how happy I was that I could finally rest knowing that I wasn’t crazy! Right now the cap and decals are in storage so as soon as I can get them out, I will post pictures of them so you all can see. Hallelujah, I’m not sick after all! Oh, wait….

So the first “re-introducing” of this film came in the early 1990’s by means of the book Don’t Look In The Shower! that I picked up one afternoon at the local library – during the period that I was on the cusp of becoming the extreme die-hard that I am now. There was a short essay in which The Burning was named and quickly reviewed and I will never forget that once sentence that pretty much summed it up for me: [Cropsy] jumps out of an abandoned canoe and kills six of them at once. I don’t remember anything that came before or after those words but it stuck. With that permanently etched into my brain, I started my search for this one…with no luck. Most of the mom and pop video stores in the area were already starting to close their doors, losing out to the larger “discount” video houses that were part of and attached to major grocery store chains, so those more obscure horror titles were getting harder and harder to find. This one was one of them, to the point where I had to stop searching for it.

Everything would change the summer of 2001 – the time when my collecting hobby had just gotten its start - when one night I was browsing through what was on cable and I came across a commercial on HBO announcing that they would be showing this on a night I’d be working. Really? HBO was going to actually broadcast this?  I didn’t hesitate and I immediately set both my cable box and my VCR to record this and could not be more excited that I was finally going to get to see this in its entirety (along with The Stendhal Syndrome, which was to come out right after). A few nights later, I finally had the time to grab the popcorn, turn off my telephone and put this in the player. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

So finally (after all the banter above), I’ll get to the film itself: At first viewing, I have to be honest when I say that I was wasn’t at all impressed with the film and immediately dismissed it as being just another run-of-the-mill Friday the 13th doppelg√§nger. Sure, it had Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens and Jason Alexander…but for me, there was nothing more to it than another backwoods I’ve-seen-it-all-before slasher.  And the scene where Cropsy does six of them at once? That one scene I’d been waiting to finally lay eyes on? All I could hear in my mind was the voice of Edina Monsoon: What, this?  I took the tape out of the VCR, placed it alongside the other cassettes in my collection at the time, and proceeded to forget that I’d even seen it.  Don’t gasp too hard yet, though. Allow me to present my defense: Before I pushed play on the VCR that night, I have to admit, I had no clue that not only was this a Weinstein production and that Mr. Tom Savini had worked on this film (and that he’d passed on Friday the 13th – part 2 to do so), I was ignorant of the fact that I was watching a censored (cut) version. Yes, one of the rare times that Linus didn’t do his homework! Sacre bleu! So with the internet being somewhat available to me during my overnight work house, I started to do my research on this, albeit slowly.

I finally was able to get my hands on the U.S. Thorn/EMI white clamshell case version of this – the one I remember seeing at Ernie’s Video when I was a kid – about a year and half later on eBay while living in the Kansas City, Missouri area. By this time, I had learned everything I needed to know about this film: that it was loosely based on a New England urban legend of a murderer known as “The Cropsy Killer”, that the version I owned that had been released in the U.S. was incomplete, the whole “video nasty” scandal overseas, how Britain’s Thorn/EMI had accidentally released the uncensored cut of the film resulting in a slap on the hand by the BBFC only to make the same mistake twice (there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?), and thanks to a website known as Hysteria Lives!, I finally was able to behold the beauty of the infamous “raft scene” (the one where Cropsy kills six kids in less than two minutes?) in its complete, uncensored bitchin’ glory.  So at second viewing, I got much more out of it, aside from the “raft scene” having been mutilated and left for dead, of course. I was able to enjoy it in its follow-up run and was able to sit back and be able to actually see it as the above-than-average slasher that it is, contrary to what I’d first thought. The cast was well put together (I loved that Leah Ayres, who was in Bloodsport, was in this), some of the photography is excellent, and both the opening and closing scenes are classic scenes of classic camp slasher.

When it was first made known that it was finally going to be released on DVD, I can recall reading on countless forums about it – whether or not we were going to see an uncut print, curiosity if the original poster art was going to be used? When it was released in 2007, die-hard fans were given the long-awaited treat of the film being released complete and uncensored – regardless of the fact that MGM released it with an “R” rating on the sleeve (I want to say that they did so because they don’t release movies unrated? I could be wrong – I may be thinking of Paramount. I think they did it intentionally to give us what they knew we wanted, which if that is true, was a great move on their part). I’m not sure if a complete print had been ever available in the U.S. (aside from an Amazon-only exclusive VHS) so I wonder to myself if there was a fan of film (or an executive, maybe?) “on the inside” that pushed in some way to have an uncut version released to us (or at least knew where to obtain one). Believe me when I say that for that, we are very thankful – or at least I am, regardless if the DVD sleeve was missing the original poster art. MGM were also nice enough to not only give us the original trailer, but a must-see on-camera interview with Tom Savini. Just this one bonus feature is well worth the price of the disc as he goes into a very loving retrospect of his time working on the film and even goes into the behind-the-scenes of how he did the “raft-scene”, which has to be, hands down, one of the most amazing scenes in slasher history. Nothing can beat the shot of Cropsy shearing off Fisher Stevens’ fingers and how he holds them up as blood squirts out of them! If any of you all were here with me, I’d do the chest bump of triumph with you.

Though this film isn’t honestly relevant to slasher history here in the U.S. (Halloween and Friday the 13th hold those top spots here), because of the reputation The Burning has gained over the years due to what it went through overseas and its problems with the BBFC – and just for the complete “raft scene”! – it is imperative that this find its way into your collection, especially now that it is readily available – and very inexpensive – to own.   Essential viewing? Yes. But you’re reading this, so I know you already have.