Brian Matthews - Todd
Leah Ayres - Michelle
Brian Bacher - Alfred
Larry Joshua - Glazer
Jason Alexander - Dave
Fisher Stevens - Woodstock
Year - 1981
Score - 3 Howls Outta 4
That all changed in the 80s, when slasher films became more associated with bloodshed and gore rather than mood and developed characters. This wave started with the mega-success of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980, which set a group of camp counselors in the woods while a deranged killer slaughtered most of them while cliches like sex and drugs = death became a standard rule in horror films. FRIDAY THE 13TH would help create horror sequelitis and imitators that would ride the coattails of the slasher sub-genre. In 1981, one of these imitators was released called THE BURNING. It wasn't much of a success on its released due to the fact that it came out a few weeks after FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. Also, many saw it as just a wannabe FRIDAY THE 13TH, which its use of summer camp, faceless villain, and sharp murder weapon. While most slasher films of the 80s weren't classics by any means, some of them were still very good. THE BURNING is one of them, as while it may be ripping off another film, at least it's doing it with style. And quite frankly, I think it's aged a lot better than some of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels.
At Camp Blackfoot, some of the teenagers there decide to pull a prank on a caretaker they call Cropsy (Lou David), due to his affinity for garden shears. But the prank goes horribly wrong as Cropsy is set on fire and almost burns to death. Five years after the burning and several unsuccessful skin graft surgeries later, Cropsy is released from the hospital with many thoughts running through his mind. Most of them mainly concern with murder. His target? Any of the campers near Camp Blackfoot. And he's bringing his garden shears along to help him extract revenge.
The first film venture by The Weinstein Brothers, who created Miramax, THE BURNING doesn't really offer anything fresh to the slasher table. The plot is basic, we get the POV of the killer like in most of these films, the gore is top-notch, and the characters are barely developed. But THE BURNING takes it up a level and really does things that make it shine above other slasher films.
One of these things is the cast. The actors are really good in this film. They're very charismatic and really elevate what could have been stereotypical bland characters into people we can actually relate to and care about. While the leads [Brian Matthews and Leah Ayres] are your standard good-looking hero and pretty girl heroine [and they do their jobs well - no complaints], the supporting cast get the best dialogue and scenes. For those who don't know, this film was the debuts for Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, Brian Backer, and Fisher Stevens. Holly Hunter's role is mainly in the background, so we don't know or really care about her character at all. But the others get a lot of screen-time and use it considerably well. Jason Alexander [pre-SEINFELD and male pattern baldness] is really funny as the comic relief. Even in 1981, you can tell the man had great comic delivery and was just downright likable. His one-liners were really well acted and had me smiling and laughing. Brian Backer [who would later act in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and win a Tony on Broadway] plays the perverted creepy guy that gets picked on. He doesn't really get a lot to do except warn people of Cropsy's return [even though they don't buy it], but he has this nerdish and vulnerable quality about him that makes him interesting to watch. He gave a natural performance and I bought it. And Fisher Stevens [who's best known for SHORT CIRCUIT] didn't get a lot to do, his screen-time is memorable as he gets his fingers cut off by Cropsy in the infamous "raft scene" that was uncut until now. I'll get to that scene later on. The other characters, mainly the girls, were just there to look pretty, take off your clothes, and scream and/or die. But that's to be expected in a film like this, so I can't and won't complain about it. They didn't annoy me, so I'm cool with it.
What I also found interesting was this question of who to root for: the campers or Cropsy? I mean, sure the campers were getting slaughtered by some burnt deranged bastard who had nothing to do with his disfigurement [well except one anyway]. But I couldn't help feel for poor ol' Cropsy! I mean, he was burnt by some cruel teenagers who actually wanted to give the man a heart attack because he wasn't liked. And since he was so severely burnt that he couldn't get helped appearance-wise, he had to live the rest of his life looking like a freak. Plus I'm sure his genitals weren't in working order anymore, which would piss off any dude of any age. I mean, not even a hooker wanted to have sex with him. And HE was paying for it! So yeah, I felt bad for Cropsy and could understand why he would want such vicious revenge on people he associated with his trauma. Was it all misdirected? Of course it was. But he wasn't really the bad guy, was he? Something to think about.
I also like Tom Savini's gore and make-up effects in the film. He had a choice to do the effects for FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, but chose this one instead [both were filming at the same time]. I don't think he made a bad decision. There's some really cool stuff in this film and if you're gonna rip-off another film, use the man who was a part of that. We get garden shears through multiple throats, fingers getting cut off, faces getting slashed, and people burning - Tom Savini does a great job making the film as bloody and gory as possible. Obviously, his best work in the film is the infamous raft scene where six people get slaughtered in a span of 45 beautiful seconds by one man. It's so violent that the uncut scene wasn't allowed to be shown until recently, and boy is it violently pretty to watch. I've never seen so many people get mauled like that in such a quick speed. Just a great example of why the slasher genre was so popular back in the day.
I don't think many of Tom Savini's murder sequences would have worked if director Tony Maylam wasn't game. He's nothing special when it comes to visuals but he gives the horror fans what they want. We get POV shots [which are always cool], saving what the killer looks like until the final moments of the film, good use of lighting and angles, and focusing on T & A whenever a girl exposed herself. Can't complain about that! I actually liked the direction here. It took a good story, even if it was paper-thin. But then again, you're not watching these kind of films for their award-winning screenplays, are you? A man got burned and now he wants revenge. Simple and to the point.
That's not to say the film is perfect. The scene with the prostitute after Cropsy is released from the hospital doesn't add anything to the film, making me wonder why it was even added in to begin with. I guess it was too imply that he was disfigured? I think the fact that his skin grafts didn't work tells me that. I liked the murder and how it was shot - just didn't understand what was the point, that's all.
Also, why do these killers seem to teleport from one location to another? Cropsy, who obviously wasn't superhuman, seemed to be everywhere at once. Things like that bother me. Maybe if it was explained somehow, I wouldn't even be mentioning it. Speaking of not explaining something, I never got a sense of who Cropsy was except that he wasn't nice and was accidentally burned for it. Like I said before, I felt bad for the guy. But it doesn't go any further than that. He's pretty much just a two-dimensional killer without much of a personality. It's a shame because he had a really cool look going with the black trench coat and hat that shadows his face. I also didn't get how he made it to the camp so quickly, especially since it wasn't the same camp he was burnt at. I know most slasher films have these plot shortcuts, but a little logic doesn't hurt. I think making Cropsy more than some campfire legend would have helped the film some.
And Cropsy's burnt face - it looks really fake and I almost laughed when I saw it after all these years. Thank God it wasn't shown for very long, because it's not scary at all. It just looks like he has a skin infection. Obviously Sam Raimi was influenced by Cropsy's look when he created DARKMAN years later for the character of Peyton Westlake. And much improved on it actually. But for a low-budget slasher, I guess it wasn't too bad. But it looks dated compared to the special effects done now.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE BURNING is a good 80s slasher that seems to have been forgotten except by horror fans who still appreciate the amount of crafty violence via garden shears that compensate for its basic plot. Sure, you've seen this film before in FRIDAY THE 13TH, but who cares? It's a good way to spend 90 minutes watching innocent campers get butchered in entertaining ways. What more can you really ask for from a slasher film?