1981 was a cracking year for the slasher. The foundations started in forerunners Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980)— incidentally both films saw their first sequels issued in ‘81—started to catch light, resulting in an outpouring of sub genre fare in a relatively short time span. 1981 was a peak year in the original cycle; with films such as, Bloody Birthday, Evilspeak, Funhouse, Graduation Day, Happy Birthday to Me, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain flowing out of the US. Canadian classics My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler followed suit north of the border. While Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery and Jess Franco’s Bloody Moon represented the European contribution to the fold. Then there was The Burning: one of the strongest entries in the Golden Era Slasher cycle outside of the big franchise brands. To go back to my opening statement for just a second, it is important to point out that with such fierce competition that particular year, to be generally considered one of the best of is no mean feat at all. Under these terms, it is perhaps not surprising the film is considered such a cult classic; especially when you take into account the film’s status as a former banned video nasty too.
Part of the power of The Burning is the way in which it subverts genre rules, a challenge given the strict formula established for slashers, even that early on. One of the ways it does this is in the sheer audacity of some of its killings; with stunning effects provided by Tom Savini. Alongside The Prowler—another one of effects master Savini’s crowning achievements—it ups the ante when it comes to the display of murderous practical FX as an artform. Because of this, the film didn’t just attract controversy in the UK when it made it onto the DPP’s list of 72 banned films, but it also faced censorship on its release in some American states too. Yet, despite all this, The Burning offers much more than sheer style over substance. Of course, as dictated by its nature, the film thrives on violent spectacle, there’s no denying it, but this is made all the more potent by Director Tony Maylam’s slow and steady approach to building up characters, which allows for an emotional investment rarely seen in the realm of the slasher. This factor adds a lot of weight to the dramatic conclusion, when the main characters finally start to get killed off one by bloody one.
The Burning also trades on that very special kind of power found lurking in the dark corners of urban legend. However, Maylam wasn’t content to rely on the shadows of campfire tales—although he did pay homage to this setting in one pinnacle scene—instead presenting many of the kills in full daylight which goes against type; so each piece of shredded sinew, every stab, every drop of blood, can be relished in its full glory, illuminated under the rays of the sun. And what glorious killing it is too: fingers are cut off, teenagers get garden shears rammed into their throats, into their heads, their chests; as they gurgle and choke their on their last few breaths, fountains of blood pumps out in typical Savini tradition.
It all centres on the ominous figure of Cropsy; a camp caretaker who is accidentally set alight by some kids in a prank gone wrong. Amazingly he survives, but is hideously deformed as a result, and languishes for five years in hospital plotting revenge. On his release, after stabbing a prostitute in a particularly spectacular set piece that wouldn’t look out of place in an Italian Giallo (black hat, black gloved killer, sexualised violence), Cropsy returns to the camp to take out his anger on the kids holidaying there for the summer. It is here that Maylam spends an entire 45 minutes setting up the main players; kids goof about around the camp, playing tricks on each other, or succumb to their hormonal urges, shower in the buff, and skinny dip. All this while Cropsy lurks about in woodland waiting for a group to leave the main camp on a canoe trip out into the wilds. There is a nice contrast between the sleazier first kill—set on the dark city streets in a seedy apartment above a peep show theatre—and the carefree, idyllic lakeside resort where the main bulk of the action occurs. Without adding spoilers for those yet to see the film, when the storm arrives, it makes for one of the most iconic moments in slasher history.
Not only is The Burning a prime Golden Age slasher, it has an interesting foundation too. One of Miramax’s first films (it was part co-scripted by Harvey and Bob Weinstein), the production values are a notch above many of the lower budget offerings of the period. The Rick Wakeman score, for example, does much for the atmosphere. While the cast, although largely inexperienced, includes some impressive familiar faces. Fisher Stevens, who would later go on to find fame in the Short Circuit films, features in a fairly prominent role as the cheeky Woodstock. There is a blink and you almost miss her appearance from a then unknown Holly Hunter. Then there is Jason Alexander, with hair, known to many as George from Seinfeld, in an early role for the star; seen playing a wisecracking, but generally good natured camp clown, who smuggles porn mags in for his fellow bunk mates. The level of acting all round is of a decent standard. Leads Leah Ayres (as Michelle) and Brian Matthews (as Todd) put in good performances too, as do some of the supporting characters; such as Larry Joshua as hormonal jock Glazer, and Brian Backer as the creepy little peeping Tom turned underdog, Alfred.
All in all this is a wonderful set from Arrow. Upgraded to BD, it is surprising how the effects stand up, even under the scrutiny of high definition. A highlight in the package of extras is a blow by blow account from Savini who gives a walkthrough on how the effects were achieved; as well as handing out some insight into the making of the film (where he also talks about the highs and the lows—including claiming to have taken over the direction from Maylam, at the request of the Weinsteins). The full specs are as follows:
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations
Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Audio commentary with director Tony Maylam and critic Alan Jones
Audio commentary with stars Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski
Brand new audio commentary with The Hysteria Continues
Blood ‘n’ Fire Memories – a look at the creation of the film’s make-up effects with FX artist Tom Savini
Slash & Cut – an interview with editor Jack Sholder
Cropsy Speaks – an interview with actor Lou David
Summer Camp Nightmare – an interview with actress Leah Ayres
Synthly the Best – a brand new interview with composer Rick Wakeman
Reversible sleeve featuring original and new artwork by Justin Erickson
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Justin Kerswell
Just a few years later the slasher cycle was starting to tread water so filmmakers started to inject new formula into the mix. Wes Craven’s fairytale for adults, A Nightmare on Elm Street came out this year, while Charles Sellier Jr caused uproar with Silent Night, Deadly Night when he introduced rapey Santas and topless women being impaled on antlers all in the name of holiday spirit. Then there is Larry Stewart’s The Initiation (1984); a film that can be considered one of the high points of an interesting transition period for the slasher, although it has been undeservedly overshadowed by its more prominent genre cousins to some extent. Hopefully this new upgraded release from Arrow will play some part in changing that.
The film took its lead from 1983’s The House of Sorority Row, but it strays from being too derivative by using the off campus setting of a shopping centre as the main hub for its stalk, hack and slash climactic scenes. The story capitalising on the main angle of a group of girls pledging to enter the Delta Ro Kai sorority. Amongst them is Kelly (Daphne Zuniga—The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1982), daughter of the obscenely wealthy Dwight (Clu Gulager) and Francis Fairchild (Vera Miles); a girl haunted by a reoccurring dream where she sees herself as a child stabbing a strange man in her parent’s bedroom, before watching him set alight, and writhing and screaming in a ball of flames. Kelly has no clue what the dream means. She has suffered amnesia since her childhood, so she consults college professor Peter (James Read), who just so happens to be undertaking a study into dreams. In the meantime, the sorority decide that in order for Kelly and her friends to enter, they must break into the Fairchild mall at night and steal the security guard’s uniform to pledge their allegiance. What the girls don’t know is by the time they reach the mall, poor old Mr Fairchild has been hacked up by an unseen killer, and that same shadowy figure has snuck into the deserted shopping centre with them, and now sets about prowling the halls, picking off the girls in a variety of highly entertaining ways.
Even though the clues are there from the start, and the ending is fairly obvious, The Initiation is a lot of fun. Part of the appeal of this kind of film is not the destination, but the journey itself, and the director here succeeds in building up a steady sense of mystery and atmosphere throughout, before hitting his violent notes in all the right places. Just like The Burning, there are some pretty impressive kills on offer. Especially during an offbeat scene that contains a number of escaped lunatics who prey on a Nurse Ratchett type figure (Patti Heider as Nurse Higgins) as she tries to flee in her vehicle. Just for a moment it becomes highly reminscent of George Romero, before returning back to the main plot. Of course, once the narrative gets back on track, and potential victims find themselves inside the mall, there are plenty of weapons just lying around in the empty stores to be employed for the task of killing: the piase de resistance being a crossbow, which is used to full effect. In earlier scenes a garden fork is utilised quite viciously on a couple of occasions; with one such moment also involving a glorious decapitation. Charles Pratt Jnr’s script provides the odd joke in with the twists and turns, as well as some more absurd elements that make the story all the more entertaining when it enters ludicrous territory.
This is the worldwide BD debut for The Initiation. The full specs are as follows.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
Brand new restoration from original film elements
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
Original Uncompressed Mono PCM audio
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Brand new audio commentary by The Hysteria Continues
Brand new interview with actor Christopher Bradley
Brand new interview with actress Joy Jones
Original Theatrical Trailer
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic James Oliver