Before we get into the filthy specifics, let me first say that I'm thrilled to have THE BURNING on Blu-ray. As I've expressed before - many, many times I'm sure - while this was neither the earliest nor biggest grossing example of the early 1980s phenomenon that became known world wide as the "Slasher Movie", it might very well be one of the most perfect examples of what about them movie goers found so goddamn appealing in the first place. Released in the summer of 1981as the very first feature film to be published by the Weinstein Brothers' new company "Miramax", it's a totally shameless knock-off of the rampant success founded largely by Friday the 13th the previous year. The story of a deranged, disfigured madman picking off hapless summer campers - a trope so old the film itself even showcases one of the silly "campfire tales" that inspired it - was infused with the very real urban legends of a local killer in New Jersey at the period, which the locals nicknamed "Cropsey".
In a way, the fact that it sounds indistinguishable from any number of early 80s horror films is likely its secret weapon; it's difficult to name any especially great performances, despite being the first film to have a major role filled by either Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. British born directed Tony Maylam (who's other credits largely consists of documentaries and TV shows) never worked in genre film again, and while the film is shot and paced competently enough, the slow-burn act building and teasing towards Cropsey's bloody acts of misguided vengeance is - in retrospect, at the very least - quite by the numbers. The real draw of the film is the combination of brutality and misanthropy that stains each and every bloody set piece, in which both Tom Savini's extreme but not yet parody minded gore and Rick "Yes" Wakeman's pulsating electronic score combine to create a wholly unsettling and gruesome experience.
While the "Raft Murder" is unquestionably the film's pinnacle of excess, it's a much more subtle moment about 6 minutes in that sets the stage for why this film works in a way that so many other, similar Friday the 13th imitators do not; as Cropsey walks the desolate streets upon his release from the hospital, the words of the doctor who took care of him - "I'm so sorry the skin grafts didn't take." - run through his mind, a mantra that almost justifies his bitter, spite driven spree of senseless violence. Our young hero is also somewhat atypical for the genre: Not only is he a teenaged boy, totally ignoring the "Final Girl" trope that was already somewhat the norm in slasher films, but he's also a depressed, awkward creep who spies on girls in the shower and arguably deserves the ribbing his bunk-mates give him. Even the adult hero who barges in on Cropsey's dilapidated hideout has a sin of his own to shoulder, but there's no cleart moment of him accepting responsibility or asking forgiveness. It also - more than any other slasher film I can think of (with the possible exception of the generally headier Sleepaway Camp) - deals in the taboo of murdering children. Yes, fine, it's a little hard to swallow that Jason Alexander's furry gut would appear on a 16 year old, but the cast still combines older and younger actors with reckless abandon, and makes it very clear - explicitly, in the raft sequence - that the counselors are just as ripe for the picking as the campers themselves.
There is no identifiable moral compass in the world of The Burning, and it casts Cropsey's rampage in an unsteady light; Cropsey is no more a villain than he is the ultimate incarnation of his surroundings, dealing out a crimson torrent of spite, menace and violence back to a world that punished him, even though we never learn for sure if he deserved or not. In short, The Burning might not be the single most ambitious or technically polished of its ilk - I'd argue that later fare like Maniac, Sleepaway Camp and Stage Fright are better made and more interesting stories, even if they're slightly desonstructionist (and in some cases, campy) in tone, but The Burning still stands tall and proud beside its 1981 brothers My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, and yes, even Friday the 13th Part 2 as a take-no-prisoners exercise in shameless, wanton misanthropy.
MGM has had financial difficulties for years now, and even filed for restructure-bankruptcy in 2010. They wound up releasing a number of titles on Blu-ray as far back as 2007 through 20th Century Fox while the dust settled, focusing on tent-pole franchises like the Bond films and genre-friendly cult films like Robocop and Return of the Living Dead. The genre titles eventually slowed to a crawl, and after a trio of horror films last October including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Jeepers Creepers, the announcements for genre films from MGM basically dried up completely. Oh sure, their Euro branches occasionally drops a surprise announcement - you can pick up both Breakin' flicks and two out of three of the Sho Kosugi Ninja movies in Germany, for some reason - but MGM US was done with that shit. Thankfully it was only a few more months until Shout Factory's horror centric label Scream Factory announced a number of MGM licenses, including Night of the Comet, The Howling, The Fog, and of course today's sample..
THE BURNING is one of the "Scream Factory Collector's Edition" titles, and comes packaged as a DVD + Blu-ray combo in a cardboard slipcover featuring newly commissioned artwork, and a reversible cover on the actual case with the vintage one-sheet key art underneath. Packaging is usually the least important aspect of a Blu-ray, but I find myself really enjoying the slightly surreal imagery of Cropsey's maw flowing with blood. It's one of Scream Factory's best efforts yet, and Nathan Thomas Miller - a regular staple of Horror Hound magazine - was a great choice for this title. You can see more of his work HERE, if the mood strikes you.
The transfer looks like the same uncut, 1.85:1 master the MGM DVD from 2007 was sourced from. This is, thankfully, more an observation rather than a complaint. Color is bright and vibrant on the sun baked summer camp scenes that dominate the first act, inky black but seemingly not crushed on the numerous night time shots, and while there is some minor judder and an almost regular minute "sparkle" of both black and white dust specs and subtle color flicker, there's really nothing to complain about; The Burning looks undeniably like organic celluloid, warts and all, and having seen the frustrating and inconsistent results a half-assed digital clean-up session can grant, we should be thrilled for it. Grain is beautifully resolved on top of the film's naturally soft focus, and the original mono soundtrack has never sounded better than it does here. Having seen a vintage, beautiful 35mm UK print back in October, I can confirm that this is not only exactly how The Burning is supposed to look - murky day-for-night scenes included - but that it's simply never looked better. Fans familiar with this nasty little exploitation film should be overjoyed, and newcomers alike have nothing to hold out for.
Audio is similarly presented as it always was, in a crisp, hiss free mono track presented as lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0. The fidelity couldn't be better for what it is, and while Wakeman's throbbing, bass heavy score might well have benefited from a remix more than many of the film's American contemporaries, I'll never be anything but thankful when I get the original audio mix, front and center.
To be fair, it's obviously not quite on par with the 4K restoration MGM showed on Rosemary's Baby last year in tandem with Criterion Collection, and the fact that it was pulled from an IP means it lacks a certain level of fidelity you'd find going back to the negative. The Burning could look marginally better if someone was willing to drop the massive expense on doing even a 2K scan of the negative, but I don't honestly expect this to happen, and the results we have now are certainly good enough that I'm not going to spend much more time wondering what could have been. In an alternate dimension where a film like this would sell 30,000 copies, then yes, maybe The Burning could have been a little nicer. In the real world, where a natural, unmolested transfer of a catalog transfer is about the best you can hope for, we got exactly what we were due. With this in mind the disc isn't quite up to the bar set by OCN transfers like Something Weird's Blood Feast, Arrow Video's Zombie Flesh Eaters, Midnight Legacy's Alien 2 and the "R-Rated" footage on Lionsgate's release of My Bloody Valentine, but the results are still far above average, and anyone with realistic expectations should be more than pleased.
The old MGM DVD's biggest blessing was inarguably the fact that it was the North American premier of the uncut version of the film (originally trimmed of its most famous sequence to avoid an "X" rating), but they did the film right enough by including the original trailer, just shy of 8 minutes of Tom Savini's personal behind-the-scenes home movies, and a feature commentary with director Tony Maylam plus a selection of production stills. All of these materials are ported over for the new Blu-ray release, as are the following brand new features:
CAST COMMENTARY - Shelly Bruce and Bonnie Deroski share memories of shooting the film.
HD PHOTO GALLERIES - Special Effects (2:25), Promotional Photos (3:05)
BLOOD 'N' FIRE MEMORIES (18:02) - Gore God Tom Savini talks about the special effects.
SLASH & CUT (12:05) - Editor Jack Shoulder talks about the raft scene, among others things.
CROPSEY SPEAKS (11:20) - Actor Lou David talks about his role as the film's memorable killer.
SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE (06:46) - Actress Leah Ayres speaks, 'cause why not?
With nothing in the way of extended workprints, canned sequels or bitter producer-director battles to argue over, the bonus content is limited to the nuts 'n' bolts making-of of the film, and I personally have no complaints. The stand-out here is, of course, Savini talking at length about how they made the still impressive practical gore effects, his dissatisfaction with Cropsey's (in my eyes, amazing!) head appliance, and jokes the whole way through about what a bright idea it was to bail on the Friday the 13th sequel because he thought making Jason Vorhees the "real" killer in the follow up was a terrible idea. Notably missing is any material from Elastigirl and George Castanza, but christ, anyone who expected them to give an interview about their non-central roles in a thirty-plus year old horror film that probably cost less than a million dollars was kidding themselves anyway. Amusingly enough, the trailer appears to have been carefully re-cut from the HD master, meaning the unique title shot and credits slate at the end is upscaled from SD. Savini's old behind-the-scenes footage have been upscaled to 1080i as well, though nobody with a working pair of eyes would ever mistake it for anything but consumer grade VHS.
Overall, Scream Factory's presentation of THE BURNING is great stuff, and I'm quite satisfied with my pre-order. Fans of vintage splatter who might be unfamiliar with this exceptional little flick should pick it up immediately, and anyone with a kinship to the film is only torturing themselves by not owning it.