MAY 18, 2013
If you follow me on Twitter but do NOT follow my good friend AJ Bowen (@LenHamhock), you miss out on some amazing ball-busting, as while we share a love of Armageddon and a few other select films, we tend to DISAGREE quite often, especially on slasher movies. So when I tweeted that my attempt to enjoy The Burning more on a second viewing was not a successful one, he tossed out a mocking tweet (not @ me) in response, leading to a loving "fight" where he made his case for the flick. That happens at least once a week, so please follow him to ensure you don't miss out on Twitter-comedy gold (caveat: following him means you'll occasionally be told that the Fright Night remake is superior to the original, so proceed with caution).
I certainly get why AJ and many others dig the film, but I am also willing to bet that a vast majority of them saw it as a kid, maybe as one of their first slasher movies, and thus have a heaping dose of nostalgia aiding their good feelings toward it. And in a way I'm jealous, I really WANT to like this one, but I was too late to the game (I only saw it for the first time in the early days of HMAD), and just can't help but see it as a rather dull, largely personality-free slasher that doesn't do anything better than any of its peers. It's not BAD (though everything between the shower prank and that first on-site kill is pretty interminable), but by 2007 I had seen 75% of the other slashers released in that glory year of 1981, and I could make a case for why just about all of them were better. So it was akin to eating your 100th Big Mac when the bun was a bit too dry and they didn't put enough special sauce on it - it fell just short of hitting the "average" mark, and thus I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.
The biggest issue for me is, sadly, what should be its biggest asset - Cropsy. He's a shockingly underdeveloped slasher right from the start; a bunch of kids we don't know tell us that some guy is "a real jerk" and thus play a prank to "get back" at him, and we just have to take their word for it. Being a slasher movie, the prank goes wrong and Cropsy ends up horribly burned, landing in a hospital for years until breaking free one night. At this point he does what anyone would do - seeks out the nearest hooker and kills her, in a rather sleazy sequence that feels taken out of Don't Answer The Phone or Maniac and really doesn't fit the movie at all (I was not surprised to discover that this sequence was added at the insistence of the Weinsteins, who "demanded something happen every 10 minutes", according to director Tony Maylam*). Then he heads off to camp, where he proceeds to dick around doing nothing for 40 minutes, and hinges a good chunk of his plan on hiding in a loose canoe, hoping that the people he left stranded down river would build a raft and come across him.
Now I'll venture into spoiler territory for a 32 year old film. At the very end, we discover that our male hero was actually one of the kids who played a prank on him at the beginning. Since it's a different camp I'm not sure if this was just a coincidence for Cropsy or if he had supernatural tracking powers, but either way this leaves two big questions. One, why did he go after THIS guy, who wasn't even the one that put the candle in his shack that caused his disfigurement? And two, what about the others? Why single out one of them? Another odd thing, the kids pranking him at the beginning are all male, yet the bulk of Cropsy's victims in the movie are female (including not one but TWO scenes where a couple splits up and he goes after the female first). It's ostensibly a revenge slasher, but it's unforgivably random on that front - they would have been better off a. not trying to pull a "twist" that our hero was one of the kids, and/or b. giving him a real tragic opening sequence that would help make him a little more sympathetic (see: Terror Train).
And for whatever reason, we only really see him once, at the very end of the film, so it's a slasher without an actual slasher. Doing the POV thing is fine for a whodunit (a la Friday the 13th, which has its own issues), but with so few kills it's puzzling that he has such a poorly defined appearance. The legend goes that Tom Savini chose to work on this film instead of Friday Part 2 (which is a shaky story since they didn't shoot at the same time - seems he could have done both if he wanted), but even Friday 2, with its inferior makeup, gave Jason a presence. It's almost like they wrote it as a sort of whodunit ("Oh shit, it's the guy from the beginning! He survived!") but forgot to change the rest of the script when they added those hospital scenes that tell us who it is.
That said, it does get one thing right - the kids are pretty likable. I don't agree that the ones in Friday the 13th are the types you're "waiting" to be killed (someone says this on the bonus features, I can't remember who though - might have even been Savini), but apart from the asshole bully Glaser, they're all charming and get along, making it no surprise that this has the record for most appearances by future stars: Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and Fisher Stevens all made their debuts here, and even some of the others, while not huge stars, have enjoyed lengthy careers and are recognizable (such as Ned Eisenberg, who plays a long running recurring character on Special Victims Unit). Sure, they're probably too old to be playing the characters they're portraying (the one playing Alfred the nerd was like 24), but it's not as silly as My Bloody Valentine, with a bunch of 30 year olds being called "Kids" every other scene.
However, many agree they got a lot more than that right, and they should be more than satisfied with this new special edition (and first Blu-ray appearance) from Scream Factory. MGM put out a special edition a couple years ago, and all of those extras (commentary with Maylam moderated by Alan Jones, interview with Savini, and some behind the scenes video from the production) are carried over, and then some. Once again Shout has neglected to list all of the bonus features on the back, which is puzzling as anyone who already owns the MGM edition would see no need to upgrade beyond having the Blu-ray transfer (which is terrific, as is always the case with them). There's a new commentary by actresses Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, which can be a bit dull as neither of them was a huge part of the movie and the moderator (missed the name) just asks basic questions like "Did anything funny happen on set?" (in contrast, Jones is so entertaining as a moderator on his I almost wish he was solo). They also ditch the track with like 5 minutes left of the movie, which is a bit odd - perhaps they should have just done select scenes (i.e. the ones they're actually in?) or at least gotten a moderator that could add his own insight.
But the other new features are terrific; there's an interview with editor Jack Sholder that's pretty revealing, as he's not afraid to dish a little dirt, unlike Maylam (Maylam says the Weinsteins were tough but he enjoyed working with them; Sholder explains that they locked the director out of the editing room at one point), and also admits that the film isn't that great (he also explains why the "build up" to the raft scene is more like "needless padding" - the Weinsteins insisted on adding more back and forth shots between the raft and canoe). There's also a new interview with actress Leah Ayres, the would-be Final Girl who actually sits the climax out (one of the more peculiar things about the movie, especially considering the time it was released). Some of the anecdotes are repeated, but she looks back fondly on the film (and still looks great for anyone who may have crushed on her in their youth), which is nice to see/hear, especially after hearing the director point out that Hunter and the others have taken it off their resumes. And Cropsy himself, Lou David, also provides a new interview, which is somewhat sweet - he recalls how he had to go off to play him right after his son was born and how it bummed him out, and also admits he's not the one doing the killings (Savini or Maylam himself would play the hands in the kill scenes), making him more trustworthy than some of the guys who claim they played Jason when in reality they were only there for a few shots (as David was, basically). A very oddly formatted copy of the script (as a PDF) and some advertising material rounds things out, pretty standard there. And as always, if you don't like the new box art Shout has created for the release, the original is on the flipside for your convenience.
And that's the great thing about this line - even when I don't like the movie much, I'm still happy to have it in my collection, because they put a lot of effort into giving these junky movies the best possible presentation possible, putting the studio releases to shame. It's plain to see that they have the fans' best interests in mind by bringing over the old extras (take a note, Anchor Bay) and creating enough new ones to make swallowing that double-dip a lot easier. I almost wish they took a cue from Criterion and gave them all numbers - it'd make it that much harder to skip over one. Plus, maybe I'll give it a shot again in another 6 years. Everyone that yelled at me on Twitter (not just AJ) can't be wrong, right?
What say you?
*They missed the 20, 30, and 40 minute marks, unfortunately.