For the crossover review of The Burning over at Kinemalogue, click here.
Director: Tony Maylan
Cast: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
1981 was the year of the slasher film.
No, it didn't have the most slashers released. 1982 beats it out with 43 of the godforsaken things, and the post-video boom years of '87 and '88 also clock in above the legal limit.
Nor did it have the most franchise involvement. That would be 1989, the grisly offerings of which included Friday the 13th VIII, Halloween 5, Silent Night, Deadly Night III, Sleepaway Camp III, and Nightmare 5.
But what it did have was a generous slate of what are pretty widely considered to be the absolute pinnacle films of the genre, including Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II, Just Before Dawn, Hell Night, Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, and The Prowler, and that's not even including the ones that I like that stray from the general consensus.
Our subject today is one of these films: The Burning, which is subject to wide-eyed adulation by many a Johnny Slasherfan. It's got it all. Summer camp shenanigans? Check. Cameos from a pre-fame Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter? Check. Gruesome gore effects provided by Tom Savini, the patron saint of bloody murder? Effects so nasty that Britain successfully persecuted and banned the film as a "video nasty"? Check and check.
So why don't I like it quite as much as all the hype has led me to suspect?
Well, I guess I'll have to tell you now that I've painted myself into this rhetorical corner.
Also, try not to be depressed that Jason Alexander starred on Seinfeld as the miserably bald George Costanza a mere nine years after this film was shot.
I'll explain my lukewarm affair with The Burning in due time, but let's take a whack at the plot first, shall we? The film opens in the mid-70's in Camp Blackfoot, where young Todd (Keith Mandell) and his friends are planning the prank of a lifetime. They sneak into the bunk of the evil groundskeeper Cropsy (Lou David) and place a worm-riddled skull candle next to his cot. Their innocent jest turns disastrous when Cropsy knocks the candle off the nightstand in fear, igniting a blaze that could toast an admirable number of marshmallows, but toasts the poor groundskeeper instead.
Five years later, a murderous Cropsy has been released upon the world, skin covered in third-degree burns. He hightails it to Camp Stonewater, which is located just down the lake from the now defunct Blackfoot site, which presumably burned down in the blaze that stole his face. The blaze also stole the plot of Friday the 13th Part 2, but that is neither here nor there. Regardless, producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein (I know, right?) claim that their script was written in 1979, before any of this Voorhees nonsense.
Insipid controversy aside (All slasher films are rip-offs of Halloween, which was itself a rip-off of the rip-offs of Psycho. It's a very incestuous gene pool, and it's not worth getting our knickers in a bunch), The Burning has a classic slasher set-up with a new twist. In addition to the nubile counselors and older campers, there's also a heapload of children on hand, making a mess of the mess hall and inciting the ire of the dangerous lurker in the woods.
When a group of campers goes on a weekend canoeing trip, their canoes drift away in the night, trapping them on a wooded island where Cropsy is waiting with his wickedly sharp garden shears. The campers are overwhelmingly numerous, but the ones we really need to keep track of are Todd (played as a teenager by Brian Matthews), the handsome and easygoing head counselor; Michelle (Leah Ayres), his counselor girlfriend who wishes he would be more stern with the camp troublemakers; Glazer (Larry Joshua), one of the aforementioned troublemakers, and a supposed hunk with an alarmingly lumpy musculature; Sally (Carrick Glenn of Girls Nite Out), Glazer's coy girlfriend; Karen (the excitingly-named Carolyn Houlihan), Sally's BFF who is such a virgin that it's hard to walk because her legs don't open all the way; Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), a horndog supernova whose latest target is Karen; and Alfred (Brian Backer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High), a weird loner who expects our sympathy because he's picked on, but is hard to love because he's a voyeuristic creep who watches girls in the shower and stalks couples who trundle off to bang in the woods. If he were that age today, he'd probably be writing My Little Pony fanfiction on his dad's computer while he's at work.
Now don't get any ideas, ya little creep.
So, why am I not as huge a fan of The Burning as I probably should be? Well, for one, the sheer mass of characters in the quivering blob of the film's cast is pretty overwhelming. Because the genre was still new and not completely, soul-witheringly desperate in 1981, the slashers didn't have the Weimar-esque hyperinflated body counts that would come into play later in the decade. Thus, The Burning couldn't compensate for the terrifying size of its ensemble, and far too many of the campers survive without being put into any sort of danger at all.
It's a little hard to be terrified for poor trembling Katie CounselBoob when you know that about 200 other kids are happily splashing in the water just down the riverbank without a care in the world. And, just like in every Ryan Murphy show, there's far too many cast members jostling for attention to really nail down the characterization of any of them.
And don't even get me started on the pacing of the film, which lurches to a halt after an arbitrary opening kill, contenting itself with Parent Trap-esque camp escapades for a good 40 bloodless minutes. The music is stomach-turningly bland, like eating a gallon of oatmeal, and the acting is needlessly showy. When the kills finally arrive, they do offer a shot in the arm of the film, but some of it comes too little too late, and it doesn't help that the effects haven't aged particularly well. It's still Tom Savini, so there's no doubt that it's a master class of latex and Karo syrup, but his work here is the least convincing that I've ever seen from him.
He's allowed a minor reprieve, though, considering that his work in the same year's The Prowler is far and away the most gruesome, effective kill work he's ever contributed to splatter cinema.
And Cropsy's weapon is too awe-strikingly rad to even quibble about some minor elasticity problems.
One more major complaint: When the ending finally comes around, instead of lining Michelle up as the obvious Final Girl, The Burning tosses her aside and shoves Todd and Alfred into the fray to split duties in a perfunctory sequence that has some decent effects work, but falls flat with a big pffffbt. By its closing moments, the movie has sputtered and spilled out over the sides like an overheated soufflé.
Now keep in mind that while these unfavorable moments are foregrounded, they still exist in a well-shot, well-edited (by Nightmare on Elm Street 2 director Jack Sholder, of all people), high-energy camp slasher that is still one of the best in the business. These issues drag it down somewhat in my esteem, but The Burning is still worth anybody's time as a camp slasher curio of the highest order.
There's sex, pot, hijinks, wacky dialogue about sex, pot, and hijinks, a blissfully generous helping of female and male nudity, and a cool weapon/killer. Cropsy being based on a real urban legend of the New England camping community, his presence adds an extra dimension of cyclical urban legend terror to the film, which is already pretty decently successful in its scare sequences, including [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT] the film's notorious raft massacre.
In a flurry of choppily-edited action that is reminiscent of the post-Hitchcock era of classic horror, Cropsy raises the average kill count of the movie tenfold, bursting out of a drifting canoe and mowing down a pack of campers right after the film's longest stretch of goreless paradise. It's shocking and visceral, liberal with its grue, and downright nasty in its brevity. It would be the best part of any slasher film it was placed in, but here it's the cherry on top of a pretty, well-made, if insubstantial classic work of slashcraft.
The shots AND the men are pretty, so there's really no losing here.
So, heed my warnings if you want to dive into The Burning anytime soon: Don't expect unparalleled greatness. But rest assured that you'll have a terrific summer at Camp Stonewater, whatever the downsides are.
Killer: Cropsy (Lou David)
Final Girl: Todd (Brian Matthews) and Alfred (Brian Backer) and very slightly Michelle (Leah Ayres)
Best Kill: THE RAFT SCENE (Skip to 2:30 - gore warning)
Sign of the Times: This is perhaps the only decade of film history where the men's swimsuits were at least three times as revealing as the ladies'.
Scariest Moment: THE DAMN RAFT SCENE
Weirdest Moment: A hospital orderly attempts to scare a new intern (who is middle aged and balding) by showing him Cropsy's burns, openly comparing him to a monster and an overcooked Big Mac while in the room with the notorious psycho.
Champion Dialogue: "Maybe it's because she likes you, you dumb bastard."
Body Count: 10
- Prostitute is stabbed in the gut with scissors.
- Karen has her throat slit with shears.
- Fish is sliced in the chest with shears.
- Barbara is stabbed in the stomach with shears.
- Woodstock has his fingers cut off and throat slit with shears.
- Eddy is stabbed in the throat with shears.
- Diane is sliced in the forehead with shears.
- Sally is killed offscreen.
- Glazer is impaled in the throat with shears.
- Cropsy is stabbed in the back, axed in the face, and burnt to death.
TL;DR: The Burning is probably the least exciting of the A-list slashers, but you can never go too wrong when Tom Savini is in the fray.
Word Count: 1713