Burning, The (1981)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-05-19 21:35

Written by: Harvey Weinstein, Tony Maylam & Brad Grey (story), Bob Weinstein and Peter Lawrence (screenplay)
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Starring: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, and Brian Backer

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“They never found his body, but he survived. He lives on whatever he can catch. Eats them raw, alive. No longer human. Right now, he's out there. Watching, waiting. Don't look; he'll see you. Don't move; he'll hear you. Don't breathe; you're dead!"

I’ve often needled the slasher genre for descending into cliché tripe in a hurry (just look at how many pale imitators arrived in the wake of the already derivative Friday the 13th), but the fabled Class of 1981 arguably represented the height of the genre. With increasingly familiar faces like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees leading the charge, a horde of other slasher contenders entered also the fray to great, bloody effect. Perhaps surprisingly, the strongest of this bunch seems like it should one of the weaker efforts on paper. A direct retread of Friday the 13th, The Burning took audiences back to another ill-fated summer camp haunted by local lore, so it’s an easily dismissible endeavor at first glance.

As it turns out, though, The Burning is Friday the 13th done right—or, at the very least the idea of Sean Cunningham’s breakthrough done right. From the outset, it leans heavily on a more universal lore—the legend of Cropsy, a tale that’s been recounted around innumerous campfires over the years. In this version, Cropsy is an unpopular caretaker at Camp Blackfoot who becomes the target of a prank that goes horrifically wrong and leaves him covered with hideous burns from head to toe. After five years in a burn unit, he’s finally released to prowl the streets, where the film detours into one of those sleazy, early 80s NYC grime-fests when Cropsy acquires the services of a hooker and butchers her with a pair of scissors. He then sets his sights on returning to the upstate, as he makes Camp Stonewater the site of his bloody revenge.

And Camp Stonewater is just that: a fully functional summer camp, the likes of which Jason Voorhees wouldn’t see until Camp Forest Green was bustling with campers in Jason Lives. Doomed teenagers would take other blood-soaked camping trips in other films, but none actually managed to capture the feeling of a summer camp movie quite as well as The Burning. It’s a perfect fusion of Meatballs and Friday the 13th: in one corner, the film is full of good-natured camp hijinks, complete with the requisite shower-peeping, ball-busting pranks, and campfire tales. In the other corner, a slasher movie prowls around the edges through Cropsy’s blurred POV shots and Rick Wakeman’s pulsing, Carpenter-esque score. When the two finally collide, it results in a film that’s the best of both worlds: The Burning is among the better summer camp movies and slasher flicks, a somewhat backhanded distinction considering the dubious nature of both genres, but that’s an earnest compliment.

Admittedly, the camp stuff overpowers the film early on, so it takes a while to get going as a slasher (there’s a near thirty minute stretch where no one gets slaughtered). The camp shenanigans are easy to watch, though, thanks to a solid cast of familiar faces, including Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Larry Josuha, and Fisher Stevens. Holly Hunter pops up for a fleeting moment, and the cast can also boast Brian Backer, whose career featured some memorable turns (he’d appear in Fast Times just a year later) even if his resume isn’t exactly prolific. Oddly enough, The Burning is kind of a boy’s club, which is a bit of a rarity as far as slashers go; while there are plenty of girls around (Leah Ayres is a head counselor alongside Brian Matthews), the film focuses more on the guys and their typically horndog pursuits. Most camp movies feature someone that runs some sort of racket (sort of like a prisoner importing things from the outside world), and Alexander takes that role here as the guy who scores Playboy and rubbers for his fellow campers. Aside from Stevens (who plays Stonewater’s requisite bully/jerkass), it’s an affable group whose exploits don’t feel like a chore in lieu of a relentless body count.

That said, The Burning does hit another gear once a large group of campers take an overnight trip out into the wilderness, where Cropsy awaits. A killer campfire story kicks off the festivities; like its counterpart in Friday the 13th 2, it’s played for laughs but still feels ominous, and it captures the primal eeriness that drives such stories. I’ve always been a sucker for films that feature this device (see also: Madman, Sleepaway Camp II) since there’s something inherently creepy about characters discovering that their campfire yarns are true (that Cropsy is such a universal tale especially lends to this film’s effectiveness). If there’s one thing Friday the 13th figured out, it’s that the isolated wilderness makes for a fantastic setting in a slasher film, and The Burning does much of the same. Once it leaves the confines of Stonewater, it becomes an exercise in atmosphere that’s only matched by similarly woodsy efforts like Madman and Just Before Dawn.

Perhaps ironically, the film’s most iconic sequence doesn’t take place under the cover of moonlight in the thick forest; instead, the vaunted raft massacre is a sudden, almost inexplicable fit of violence that doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense (Cropsy is an incredibly patient and prescient slasher who has no problems hiding in a canoe in the hopes that victims might finally float his way). However, the payoff is a glorious gore showcase, full of flying, severed limbs and guttural impalements, and Jack Sholder’s frenetic editing brings Tom Savini’s bloodstained opus to life, its staccato rhythms resembling some sort of slashery jazz routine. Understandably, the other murder sequences aren’t quite as memorable, but the violence is thoroughly savage and visceral—if Friday the 13th represented Savini setting the bar, The Burning finds him soaring over it with a real nasty streak (perhaps because Cropsy’s vengeance feels somewhat tragic—he didn’t exactly ask to be nearly torched to death, so his rage is palpable). The violence also has a disturbing aftermath that’s sometimes lost on many slashers, as the throng of panicked, terrified campers (many of them young children) is legitimately unsettling.

The climax also features a trio of gags that does its best to outdo Friday’s famous decapitation. At the center is Savini’s ghoulish makeup for Cropsy; even though this film isn’t a whodunit in the least, it still shrouds its slasher with shadows and POV shots in an effort to play up the eventual reveal (later Friday the 13th entries would of course do the same with Jason, so there’s a little tit for tat going on here). Savini has been defensive of the Cropsy make-up in the past because he only had three days to sculpt it; as he’s noted in the past, the final product doesn’t exactly resemble an actual burn victim, but the gooey, charred meatball look makes for a perfect movie monster, and, again, there’s a build-up to it: the opening prologue features a sequence where a couple of doctors spy on and discuss Cropsy’s mangled flesh, while the soon-to-be-dead hooker is aghast when she sees his face. The only problem is that audiences never saw it again; for whatever reason, Cropsy and his fellow ’81 classmates were all one and done. I’m not sure how exactly Cropsy would have returned, but if Friday the 13th could keep reviving a dead ten year old boy, The Burning could have found a way to endure, especially given the ghostly, mythical nature of the Cropsy legend.

Instead, Cropsy went out pretty much on top—of all the non-franchise 80s slashers, The Burning is right up there. It’s proof that the genre doesn’t need a ton of ingenuity (though there’s some interesting stuff going on when a twist gives us a Final Boy instead of a Final Girl) to thrive—it just needs serviceable characters, a dash of atmosphere, and heaps of gore (it helps that the film’s unrated cut has survived—like its contemporaries, it found itself on the wrong end of the MPAA’s hatchet upon release). It rightfully became a cult classic over the years, but it somehow took forever to come to DVD, as it was among that last gasp of great horror releases back in ’07, when MGM and Fox delivered an uncut special edition. Six years later, Scream Factory has given Cropsy an HD upgrade with another collector’s edition that ports over the original extras and adds some newly produced supplements.

The two carry-overs include a commentary with director Tony Maylam and journalist Alan Jones and “Blood and Fire Memories,” a 20 minute retrospective with Savini, who recounts the film’s various effects sequences and discusses his choice to do this film in favor of Friday 2 (basically, he thought it was stupid to revive Jason). Scream’s assortment of new stuff features an all-new commentary with actresses Shelly Bruce and Bonnie Deroski (an odd choice since they’re pretty much bit players), and some new interviews with the cast and crew. Cult favorite Jack Sholder discusses his editing duties, among other things, such as how The Burning gave him an appreciation for horror films (he’d previously been a more studio guy who was more into classic literature and films). He also gives a shout out to Bob Shaye, who gave him his first gig as a trailer cutter with New Line and reveals the somewhat strained relationships between the Weinsteins (who wrote and produced the film) and Maylam (the latter ended up being shut out from the editing room).

Ayres appears for a similar interview, where she looks back on her experience fondly, while Cropsy actor Lou David does the same; both are heavily anecdotal and provide some interesting tidbits (for example, David’s screams during filming were so convincing that some locals actual called the police to investigate). Some behind-the-scenes footage, a stills gallery, the film’s script, and the original theatrical trailer round out the disc, which also features a remarkable restoration—The Burning has certainly never looked or sounded any better on home video. A DVD is also included in the package, so everyone can get in on the new features, while nostalgia hounds can even flip the newly commissioned cover art in favor of the original poster (both are certainly an improvement over the original DVD’s relentlessly generic offering). Like any good firelight tale, The Burning is worth repeating—it’s one of those upper echelon slashers that’s just as good the fourth or fifth time around as it was when it first held you under its spell on a worn-out VHS tape. Prepare to gather around the campfire to die one more time. Buy it!

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