Tony Maylem’s “video nasty” The Burning was banned in the UK when first released but has since become a cult hit and one of the best examples of the slasher film from the 1980s.
It’s surprising that The Burning isn’t better remembered. Arriving at the height of the early 1980s slasher horror film craze, the film is basically a carbon copy of Friday the 13th but not half as bleak. It marked the emergence of Harvey Weinstein, who is the film’s writer and producer as Miramax Films made its debut, and featured a number of actors who would go on to bigger things. A young Jason Alexander is the most notable of the film’s cast, the actor whose claim to fame would include popular TV show Seinfeld and the slimy lawyer in Pretty Woman, plays prankster Dave here. Also, keep an eye out for Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter, who made their debuts here, while special-effects auteur Tom Savini, in one of his earliest films, is on gore duty.
In some respects, The Burning is more notable in the UK than it is in the US because of its notorious home video release. Its poor box office return in America was a surprise, particular for Weinstein whose ability to make films popular for young, hip audiences was a mark of his success under the Miramax Films, and later Dimension Films, banners. Indeed, The Burning plays on formula like there’s no other way to make a horror film. It’s a product that delivers on its promise.
But maybe it’s just too familiar to audiences still getting their breath back after Friday the 13th a year earlier. Alternatively, as pressure groups at the time feared, it was another piece of “dangerous” media violence fuelling the warped minds of people like Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon only a few months prior to the film’s theatrical release.
For UK audiences, experiencing it uncut for the first time after Thorn-EMI accidentally released it on VHS without the British Board of Film Classification’s approval, it meant there was some distance between Sean S. Cunningham’s stalk and slash horror and John Lennon’s death, and Weinstein’s attempt at exploitation. When the “video nasty” was subsequently banned, having it in your possession punishable in a similar way to being caught with illegal drugs in your pocket, The Burning took on a whole new life: it was suddenly that elusive fruit; it was that thing you weren’t allowed but compelled to seek out in much the same way as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist.
By today’s standards the fact The Burning was considered too violent for British audiences is almost laughable. The very agency that banned this film passed fit for consumption scenes of people sewn ass-to-mouth in The Human Centipede 30 years later. Perhaps the BBFC had a problem with the film’s depiction of premature ejaculation back in 1981, or that young teenage girls had the right to say “no” in the face of abusive young men with a single sexual thought on their brain.
Regardless, The Burning’s level of violence and depiction of sex is tame by the standards set by some of horror cinema’s more recent efforts. Yet, there’s enough of it on show to tickle the taste buds of the horror connoisseur. In fact, the low budget production’s grainy aesthetic, point of view photography straight out of the John Carpenter school of slasher filmmaking, and an abundance of lingering, exploitative close-ups of attractive young girls in varying degrees of undress gives the whole thing a b-movie energy you can’t help but be won over by.
Without ever taking itself seriously – the tough-guy bully finally getting the girl only to ejaculate in a matter of seconds is one of the film’s most amusing sequences – The Burning can gleefully wallow in slasher film tropes without being called trite, knowing audience favour is won by serving rather than subverting their expectations in this cinematic setting. Yes, there are red herrings, jump shocks, a seemingly unstoppable villain wielding a sharp metallic weapon (in this case garden shears), blood splatter and icy screams; there’s even copious examples of sex equalling death (horror’s answer to contraception), and, ironically, objectification of the female body with particular preference to those mounds of fatty flesh we more often call breasts. It amounts to one of the best stalk and slash films of the 1980s. The Burning has no ulterior motive, it simply sets out to quench the thirst of thrill-seekers and gore hounds. Thankfully, it achieves it.
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Written by: Bob Weinstein, Peter Lawrence
Starring: Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Brian Matthews
Released: 1981 / Genre: Horror
Country: USA / IMDB
The Burning was viewed courtesy of video-on-demand service Amazon Prime.