legend of terror
Box office success in New York in 1982 wasn't enough to make critic Janet Maslin to warm to THE BURNING. Courtesy of Bonnie Deroski

A BURNING question of censorship
Or: Infamy! Infamy! … They've all got it in for me!

The irony of the already mentioned one-upmanship by slasher filmmakers in terms of horror depicted on screen was that, what was once considered the main selling point was now perhaps its greatest hindrance.

Despite the graphic gore effects demonstrated in FRIDAY THE 13TH being the driving force behind its boffo box office, Sean Cunningham and Tom Savini had inadvertently soured the playing field for everyone else who greedily followed. The MPAA quite reasonably at the time let the level of violence slip as it was wrapped up in what was in reality highly enjoyable bubble-gum mayhem. However, the critical reception and the reaction of pressure groups really stung them; coupled with the murder of John Lennon and the growing debate about violence in the media, they vowed to not let lightning strike twice. Incidentally, in the UK the BBFC let FRIDAY THE 13TH through completely unscathed for its theatrical cinema release. Chief censor at the time, James Ferman, said it was “So far-fetched … that it was clearly unreal”. That was 1980. By 1981 things were very different indeed …

Tantalisingly there might be more than one version of THE BURNING, Michael Cohl told Variety that, “We almost shot the picture twice. Actually, we have two versions, more gory for Japan and less gory for places like Scandinavia. Harvey got advice from Frank Mancuso at Paramount.” This suggests that the makers of THE BURNING were savvy to the changing moral climate, and were prepared for censorship battles – as was Paramount with its emerging slasher franchise.

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 famously lost most of its most graphic elements due to an increasingly puritanical MPPA. THE BURNING was subsequently similarly emasculated. Whilst the FRIDAY name was enough to drive it forward to big box office (but still about half of the original), movie-goers sold on Tom Savini's name could only be disappointed by the truncated version of THE BURNING that was released with an R-rating in May 1981. Hence, perhaps, lies the answer to the film's underwhelming box office performance domestically – and its boffo box office in Japan.

Things had got frostier in the UK, too. The British cinema release of THE BURNING was severely cut as well by the BBFC (it was given an X-certificate on September 23 1981). 26 seconds may not sound like much, but it is a significant loss if it’s just the gore effects.

The intial Thorm-EMI video release of THE BURNING found unexpected infamy when it was prosecuted as a 'video nasty' in the UK

However, THE BURNING’s infamy was not set-in-stone until it was released on video in the UK by Thorn-EMI. A respectable company, they were mortified to find that they had accidentally released the full uncut master across Britain; to the delight of many video store owners and their clientele. They were even more horrified to discover that the tape was liable for seizure and prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Thorn-EMI had unwittingly released a ‘video nasty’! They tried to rectify matters by reissuing a BBFC approved version, but, as you can imagine, many video store owners hung onto their now prized treasures.

Even by 1992, the film was notorious enough to suffer even more cuts for a UK video release. Although it is finally now available uncut in Britain.

The video release in the US in 1982 was less controversial. Here is the text from the original advert promoting it (thanks to Bonnie Dreoski):


Campers around a fire tell the legend of a maniac wandering the woods, a man horribly disfigured in a burning. They are disturbed. Their campfire legend turns into a legend of terror.

This is "The Burning," a movie so horrifying when it blazes across the screen this summer it will ignite the screen with unimaginable terro.

THORN EMI VIDEO will keep "The Burning" burning. Immediately after its theatre release THORN EMI VIDEO will release "The Burning" on VHS and Beta videocassettes.

So you have a choice.

Take "The Burning" -- your local video store has both VHS and Beta videocassettes available. Or take the heat. From your family and friends, when they discover you haven't brought home the hottest, the most horrifying videocassette of the summer.

This summer's hottest videocassette.”

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