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8/1/08

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During June, IFC was running Grindhouse nights, featuring old horror and exploitation flicks. Most of the films I had seen, or already own on DVD. But they showed three films from the late 70's and early 80's that I had never seen, or in the case of The Howling, hadn't seen in so long that I didn't really remember it.


Even more amazing was the slasher flick, The Burning, how this film escaped my attention for so long, I'll never know. Released one year after the original Friday the 13th, this film is so much better than most of the other slasher films of the decade, that I can't understand why it doesn't have a better reputation. The plot is nowhere near original, a dim-witted summer camp custodian is accidentally burned alive, when a practical joke by some campers goes awry. Years later he returns to take his revenge on some unsuspecting teenagers. Typical stuff.


But there are a couple of things that sets this film apart from the deluge of other films of this genre. The film-making is very well done for a low-budget, early 80's, slasher flick. They're able to build tension, through some deft editing and good cinematography. This was actually the very first film made by Miramax, long before it became a powerhouse on the independent filmmaking scene, and a young Harvey Weinstein was one of the originators of the film. Special effects legend Tom Savini, created the gruesome murders, which are much gorier and more believable than most of the films from this era, definitely a high point of the film.


What truly sets this film apart, is that you actually care about these young campers. I've seen every Friday the 13th film multiple times, and I don't think the entire series created as many likable characters as The Burning did in one film. They had some extremely fortunate casting, with appearances by four notable actors. A very young, skinny and full-head-of-haired Jason Alexander, shows his comedic chops as Dave, the camp's clown. Fisher Stevens, who's been a reliable sidekick for three decades, plays his friend Woodstock. Brian Backer, who went onto great success a year later in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, plays the third friend Alfred. You actually care about these guys, the screenplays helps to build some of that, by creating an obstacle in the form of a camp bully. Most everyone in this film comes across as real, even the councilors, more than just their stock nerd, jock, hottie, etc. stereotypes; so when they die, it actually hurts a bit. You'll also see Holly Hunter, show up in a brief role.


After seeing this, I immediately moved it to near the top of my 80's slasher flicks list. I'd place it below Halloween and Sleepaway Camp, but above the original Friday the 13th, and way above most of the other copycats. I'm extremely surprised that this film didn't find more success in its original release, or on video in the years since. I've never heard it mention as part of this genre, let alone as one of the best. Where's the love for The Burning? If you're a fan of horror films, do yourself a favor and see it. - Grade: B+ (Seen on 6/21/08)




I'm beginning to think that my all-time-favorite horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was a fluke. Director Tobe Hooper, who's directed pretty much nothing but horror films or TV shows in the three decades since, hasn't come close to creating anything near the quality of his first film. His name is on as the director of Poltergeist, which is a pretty great film, but from everything I've read and how the film feels, it seems that producer Steven Spielberg was a much bigger influence on how the film came together. (I wrote a little more about this in my review of his terrible film The Toolbox Murders.) I thought that his film following TCM might be a little closer in quality, it's better than most of his films from the last twenty years, but it's nowhere near that classic.


The film moves along very slowly for an exploitation flick, featuring a homicidal hotel owner, a man-eating-croc and very young Robert Englund visiting a brothel. There is no tension built, each murder is telegraphed minutes in advance. Instead of suggesting the violence, like in he did in TCM, they try to make the film gory. But it's so fake looking, thick, syrupy, way-too-red blood, that you can't take it seriously. And this is a film that wants to be taken seriously. It doesn't have much humor too it; except for some of the lines that hotel owner Judd throws out. There's an extended chase scene through the woods, featuring TCM actress Marylin Burns, that feels way too familiar. Almost half the film takes place on the front porch of the hotel, where there's a neon-red sign, so most the film is bathed in a red glow, which grows tiresome.


The film's not a total waste. Robert Englund, in one of his very first roles, plays a red-neck who really enjoys the company of young women, it's fun to see him stretch those early actor muscles. The man-eating crocodile is fun for a couple scenes, they do the smart thing, and keep it mostly hidden under the water, only suggesting at it's ferocity. But ultimately there's too much of Judd, wandering around his hotel, muttering to himself, every so often lashing out at his guests with a sickle. There's a fairly lame subplot about a father and daughter looking for sister, who got killed in the first scene, the two characters are boring and drag down every scene they're in. If you're into ultra-low-budget 70's horror films, you could do worse, otherwise don't bother. - Grade: C- (Seen on 6/15/08)


Two scenes of the man-eating-croc that I cut together:




I watched Howling II not too long ago, but I don't think I've seen the original Howling since I was a kid, and it didn't leave much of an impact on me. My favorite werewolf film has always been An American Werewolf in London. But I'm surprised that I didn't remember The Howling more fondly. It turned out to be the 2nd best werewolf film I've ever seen. Which isn't saying a whole lot, since Hollywood has a hard-on for vampires instead, and we're lucky if we see a werewolf movie every 10 years.

The film has a great pedigree; it's directed by Joe Dante, who's made some great B-movies in his time, Gremlins, being the best of them. The screenplay was written by John Sayles, who is a very well respected filmmaker in his own right. The great Dee Wallace, who seemed to pop up as the innocent woman in half of the 80's horror flicks. And it's chalk full of great character actors, including Slim Pickens, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine and Robert Picardo, among others. So all the right ingredients are there to make a great film. They manage to cook it up just about right, and create a pretty great horror film, with just the right amount of humor, to make this ridiculous idea go down a bit smoother.


At the beginning of the film, Karen White (Dee Wallace) an investigative reporter, has a run in with a killer at an old-school Times Square sex shop. Afterwards, she can't remember exactly what happened, but is having horrible dreams, and is struggling to get through every day life. A well respected psychologist, sends her and her husband out to one of his remote retreats, to get away from it all, where she can focus more on herself. Unknown to her, is that she's being sent to werewolf haven, and soon her husband is bitten on the arm, and before you know it he's mating with another werewolf and howling at the moon. Soon she's running for her life, as the whole camp is overrun by werewolves.


The changes these werewolves go through are the most impressive I've seen this side of American Werewolf, and it's no surprise, as the creator of those effects, Rick Baker, along with Rob Bottin, had a hand in these as well. In the clip I posted below, you'll see possibly the longest and most detailed transformation ever created. It gives a true depth to these monster. That, along with the strong acting, direction and screenplay, The Howling makes you believe that werewolves can exist. There are a couple cheesy moments, and the film drags slightly at times, but overall it is top-of-the-line when it comes to 80's horror films. They really don't put this much care into making them anymore. - Grade: B (Seen on 6/6/08)





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1 Response to The Burning, Eaten Alive & The Howling:

  1. I agree completely with your assessment of all three movies! Funnily enough my own little review of The Burning mentioned the same points--it is quite overlooked & the characters matter. I don't think I'd even heard of it until it was released on DVD last year. The canoe murder sequence is perhaps the best "kill scene" in any '80s slasher. And I think that yes, Hooper was a one-hit wonder--but that one hit is probably the greatest horror movie ever.

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