Burndown

  • 1990
  • 1 HR 27 MIN
  • R
  • Horror

Before BURNDOWN self-destructs in its ludicrous finale, it's a potent action thriller that benefits from news-headline immediacy and biting cynicism about small-town corruption. In the opening sequence, a beautiful motorist is tricked into believing she's run over someone on a fog-shrouded roadway near Thorpeville. When she investigates the macadam, she's...read more

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Before BURNDOWN self-destructs in its ludicrous finale, it's a potent action thriller that benefits from news-headline immediacy and biting cynicism about small-town corruption. In the opening sequence, a beautiful motorist is tricked into believing she's run over someone on a

fog-shrouded roadway near Thorpeville. When she investigates the macadam, she's mauled to death by a taloned creature. While trying to solve this third case in a bizarre murder spree, sheriff Jake Stern (Peter Firth) is informed that all of the dead women have been sexually assaulted. By accident,

Jake and Doc Roberts (Michael McCabe), a pathologist, also discover that the most recent victim's corpse is radioactive. Significantly, her body was discovered near a shuttered nuclear power plant that had transformed Thorpeville into a boomtown before small-scale accidents forced the plant's

closing. Why does the plant's designer, James Manners (Hal Orlandini), continue to guard the defunct reactor, and why is he so defensive when Jake questions him? Soon Manners even sends Freddie (Graham Weir), a troubled Vietnam vet with a history of mental problems, to spy on Jake. Taken in again

by savvy reporter Patti Smart (Cathy Moriarty), who has betrayed Jake before for a story, the sheriff confides details of the radioactive sex crimes to her. When the story appears in print, Manners throws an even thicker smokescreen around the sinister mysteries at the plant. After Doc Roberts

informs Jake that the killer is a radioactive mutant, Manners, who has friends in high places, makes it difficult for the sheriff to discover the source of the contamination. When Jake is ordered away on vacation, another woman is raped and killed, but this time Patti's editor nixes her latest

scoop. Manners engineers a successful coverup by cremating one of the corpses and stealing Roberts' paperwork; at this point Patti and Jake decide to put an end to the murder spree no matter what it takes. When still more victims are found (a young couple at a drive-in), Manners has Jake

reassigned to the case, figuring that a country bumpkin sheriff is easier to manipulate than state or federal law officers. So determined are the plant's guardians to keep Jake from continuing his investigation that they present him with a fall guy, Freddie. When the cops pursue Freddie, the bad

guys arrange to eliminate him in a way that will look like an accident. What Manners doesn't know is that Freddie couldn't possibly be the mutated rapist-killer because his testicles were shot away in Vietnam. After exhaustive prying, Patti locates a witness who has kept quiet about the plant

accidents for many years--Freddie's uncle, George Blake (Hugh Rouse). Furious that his pathetic nephew has been sacrificed for nothing, George spills the beans: one day, when he wasn't at work, the plant was rocked by a major meltdown. Although George leads Patti and Jake into the plant's

top-secret area, Manners has no intention of letting any of them out alive to spread damaging news of the danger of nuclear power. Near the reactor's core, Patti and Jake encounter a small group of employees who have been living underground for over a decade because exposure to the outside world

would kill them. The mad rapist (one of these meltdown survivors) has now almost completely deteriorated because of his forays into the outside world. When Patti and Jake attempt to escape, the crazed survivors, who have nothing left to lose, blow up the plant, visiting nuclear destruction upon

the entire state of Florida.

For much of its running time, this is a moderately involving anti-nuke thriller. Playing on our worst fears about nuclear energy mishaps, it presents a fanciful but frightening picture of the aftermath of a sort of down-south Three Mile Island accident. Since nuclear disaster is a relatively fresh

subject for a horror flick, BURNDOWN gets points for the novelty of its premise. It is also greatly enhanced by the easygoing professionalism of the supporting cast, who convey small-town types effortlessly. In the leading roles, Firth (a Briton employing a flawless American accent) and Moriarty

(ten times sexier than Kathleen Turner) exhibit an obvious chemistry, compelling us to care about their mission. Wrapped up in their relationship, we don't question the plot's lapses in logic as scrupulously as we might have.

Although BURNDOWN doesn't simmer with suspense from start to finish, it does create an atmosphere of uneasiness and dread that gives viewers a queasy feeling. In some ways, it even takes shape more as a whodunit than as a conventional horror film. Unfortunately, after devoting much attention to

the grotesque array of rape/murders, the film falls apart during its climactic confrontation in the plant. The radioactive waste-scarred victims aren't a very scary lot, and they're forced to deliver pages of exposition about the plant's burndown and the subsequent fallout. While BURNDOWN's plot

may end with a bang, the film goes out with a whimper. Couldn't the filmmakers have concocted a better pay-off than the explosion? Although this note of despair may suit the film's cynicism, it's not a satisfying end for the mystery, and the big nuclear ka-boom seems too contrived--too

overwhelming a conclusion for what begins as a fun B movie about a loony mutant. (Nudity, violence, profanity, sexual situations, adult situations.)

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