You want Friday the 13th. You’ll settle for Sleepaway Camp. What you get instead is this enjoyable little romp which marked the inauspicious debut of Miramax Films and soon to be indie icons Bob and Harvey Weinstein. While they will argue that they had the idea long before Momma Voorhees went ballistic on a bunch of oversexed counselors, The Burning remains an afterthought in the world of splatter, a slasher film destined to remains solidly second tier. Of course, it’s not the worst company to be considered in, standing alongside My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train, Prom Night, and any number of Carpenter/Cunnigham knock-offs. While originality has never been the genre’s strong suit, The Burning gets by on some interesting character dynamics, a sleeping bag full of sleaziness, nasty F/X, and a blatant brutality that few of its fellow scarefests could begin to imagine.
The story begins with that horror film standard – a prank gone horribly awry. The cruel Cropsy, resident handyman of Camp Blackfoot, is apparently the boogeyman with a booze problem. For their tired teen revenge, some kids give him a literal trial by fire, and he ends up a semi-comatose mess in the local hospital burn unit. Fast forward five years, and the camp across the lake from the now-burnt out ruins is having its own issues. Counselors are scoring off each other left and right, some whiny, creepy kid keeps peeping on the more “pert” members of the crew, and Jason Alexander is everyone’s asexual comic relief. When numerous skin grafts fail to cure what ails Cropsy’s carcass, the incredibly semi-melted man goes bonkers. He kills a hooker, and then heads on over to his former stomping grounds. There, he intends to fold, spindle, and/or mutilate everyone who gets in his way – including one individual who may hold a key to what happened that fateful, bonfire-tinged night.
So the plot isn’t going to win points for abject novelty, and Harvey Weinstein’s wordsmithing (along with scribe help from Brad Grey and Peter Lawrence) can best be described as cookie cutter politically indirect, yet something about The Burning manages to resonate beyond such artistic limits. To call the characters crude would be doing a disservice to rapists, thugs, and borderline psychotics everywhere. This is the kind of movie that believes pressuring girls into sex is seduction, that voyeurism is ‘boys being boys’, and actual fornication conforms to the five second rule. The mangy melodramatics that play out between the cast creates the perfect abattoir atmosphere – after 45 minutes or so, we want to see each and every one of them hacked up like head cheese. Even better, we find ourselves rooting for Cropsy, hoping his silvery blades find their mark again and again.
Of course, fright fans may balk when they learn how backloaded the gore really is. After the initial fire fight (which is thrilling, if less than bloody) and the prostitution piercing, half of the movie plays out without a significant slaying. In the meantime, we have to wade through gratuitous sequences of actors playing perv and afterschool special heart to hearts. Unlike Friday the 13th or Sleepaway Camp, where a clear kid/counselor dynamic is established, there’s no solid line of age demarcation. On the one hand, you’ve got someone named Tiger who looks like a 12 year old laughing stock puffing away on her cigarettes. Equally unsettling is Larry Joshua’s Glazer, who has cornered the market on machismo meatballing. Sucking in his obvious gut and strutting around like a greasespot in need of some Shout, his big ham on campus stature belies his supposed young adult standing.
Thanks to the arrival of Tom Savini’s skin ripping specialties, however, none of this really matters. Unlike the work of fellow fright masters, this ex-Army photographer who served time snapping casualties in Vietnam knows a thing or two about realistic grue. Throughout the course of The Burning’s last half, we witness numerous human atrocities. Throats are slashed, necks are garroted, heads are hacked open, and fingers snipped off. While the logistics of taking out an entire raft of victims (from the standing position inside a canoe, no less) can be questionable, the sequence itself is sensational, a jump cut collection of clips and collected blood. The finale is also very effective, an axe into a head as impressive as Dawn of the Dead’s machete to zombie faceplate. One could argue that Savini saves this film, his skill in sluice leaving more of an impression than anything anyone else does here, but that would be selling The Burning short.
No, the most striking element one takes from this film is its no holds barred brutality. It’s rare, even in post-modern horror, to see killing portrayed with such cold, calculated aggression. While it may seem strange to say it, the Friday the 13th style slasher film was not out to bludgeon its audience with viciousness. Instead, it used mass murder as a kind of cinematic joyride, a rollercoaster combination of goofball highs and vivisectional lows. But once it gets going, The Burning is relentless. It’s like a car engine that takes forever turning over before racing down the road at 100 mph. Maylam makes the most of what he’s got, limited budget resulting in fascinating found locations, and there’s a disconnecting lack of mise-en-scene that keeps the suspense taut and the dread palpable. On the recent DVD release of the film, the director discussed his approach, sharing insights with film scholar Alan Jones. Savini himself even shows up, behind the scenes footage in hand, to discuss why he dumped Friday the 13th Part 2 to make this movie instead.
While it will never work it’s way into the upper echelon of fright flicks, The Burning remains a solid sample of ‘80s horror showboating. To call it generic would be too tame of an assessment, while archetypal awards it merits it fails to legitimately earn. No, if one was looking for a dictionary definition of the slasher genre, from its accident atrocity backstory to death for sexual congress, this film satisfies most of said motion picture facets. While Cropsy’s man in black motif may be an unsung iconic image, his story is sadly familiar. Thankfully, elements both within and outside the macabre manage to save the slaying day.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.