Radioactive Screams: Burndown (1990)

Dave digs out a real oddity from South Africa that’s caught between monster flick and conspiracy thriller.

Did you hear the one about the two Academy Award-nominated actors and the Palme D’or winning director who went off to South Africa to film a nuclear-themed riff on Kolchak: The Night Stalker?

That might be an oversimplification, admittedly — but BURNDOWN has so many tonal shifts and strange quirks that that seems like the best way to describe it.

For clarity, director James Allen’s triumph at Cannes was at the turn of the ’70s for his short film, Memorial (1971); and after a handful of adventures in British television on the likes of The Professionals and Robin of Sherwood, this oddity before us represents his first — and last — feature. For the ride, Allen took with him Bradford-born actor Peter Firth who, after his own award-baiting turn in Equus (1977), spent the ‘80s appearing in an array of interesting films such as Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985) and Chris Bernard’s Letter to Brezhnev (1985).

Less prolific was co-star Cathy Moriarty. Despite rave reviews for her stunning performance in Raging Bull (1980), Moriarty’s subsequent on-screen partnership with Dan Aykroyd, Neighbors (1981), was a box office bomb. Helmed by John G. Avildsen, Neighbors was a critical disaster too (don’t believe a word of it: it’s a superb black comedy) — and chatting to the Lansing State Journal in 1991, the actress revealed that it led to the phone going eerily quiet.

“It seemed a sensible career move because I wanted to show some versatility. Vicki in Raging Bull was such a hard role. She was a very hard person. The gap after Neighbors had to do with several things in life. There were many roles that I desperately wanted to do but didn’t get and didn’t even have the opportunity to do. And now, I’m working and it’s great. I’ve never been happier in my whole life.” [1]

After six years away, Moriarty’s comeback was for Donald Cammell — a man she called the most determined director she’d ever worked with — on the criminally underrated White of the Eye (1987). Factoring in the two that went before it, the young Moriarty had notched up three fascinating films so far in her career, which makes the choice of Burndown at once peculiar yet weirdly inevitable.

Set in the Florida town of Thorpeville, a condemned nuclear power station has turned a once thriving habitat into a wasteland. When a series of women are raped and murdered, the investigation started by police chief Jake Stern (Firth) and his on/off journalist girlfriend, Patti Smart (Moriarty, “Smart by name, smart-ass by nature”), suggests that the abandoned facility could well be harbouring the perpetrator. Alas, plant boss James Manners (Hal Orlandini) wields a level of power that allows problems to go away, so if our crime-solving twosome are to make inroads with the case, they need to find a way to nullify his influence.

As mentioned, the bafflement surrounding Burndown is its relentless genre-hopping. The intention, presumably, seems to have been a thought-provoking, ecologically driven conspiracy thriller — but for the most part it feels like ‘monster of the week’ escapism. For example, each kill is perpetrated with the goo-dripping thrust of an anonymous arm to the throat, devoid of blood and accompanied by a score building to a crescendo that, in most cases, would signify a commercial break. I don’t have an issue with that per se, but from an objective point of view you can see why this kook-fest from Cape Town was met with head-scratching bewilderment over its identity.

Thankfully, amid the disarray there’s a lot to like. Even Firth’s dodgy southern drawl doesn’t detract too much from the boozy seafaring sheriff, and it’s obvious that he has great chemistry with his co-star. Speaking of whom, Moriarty is fabulous. The epitome of the ’50s bombshell with her whispering, breathy delivery, she’s magical to watch — and curse the producers who neglected her for nigh on a decade. Her reporting gig is the finest part of the film, as is her Carl Kolchak-style headbutts with the local newspaper’s Vincenzo-esque editor.

The exposition heavy climax comes across a little stagey and almost puts a dampener on proceedings — in particular, the pensive wait for the “and if it wasn’t for you pesky kids…” sign-off from the perp, which mercifully never arrives. But, on the whole, Burndown qualifies as a recommendable curiosity; an ambiguous imperfection deserving of at least some kind of cult status.

USA/South Africa ● 1990 ● Thriller ● 87mins

Peter Firth, Cathy Moriarty, Hal Orlandini, Michael McCabe ● Dir. James Allen ● Wri. Stuart Collins (as ‘Colin Stuart’), Anthony Barwick, from the novel Burndown by Stuart Collins

[1] On The Road Back: Raging Bull’s Moriarty Looking To Recapture Past Glory by Mike Cidoni, Lansing State Journal, 1st June 1991

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