The Burning (1981)

About a month ago, I did a multi-film review for Halloween, and one of those titles was the 2009 reboot of ‘Friday The 13th’. While I was doing a little post-viewing, pre-reviewing research on it, an article on notable slasher flicks from the early 1980’s made mention of a 1981 film called ‘The Burning’; a film which many people saw as running parallel to, or flat-out copying, the original ‘Friday The 13th’, which was released the year before. The unexpected success of THAT film sparked a deluge of cheap ‘slash n splash’ flicks in which horny, immoral teenagers all fall victim to the homicidal whims of a sneaky and violent maniac. The interesting thing was that ‘The Burning’ was regarded as being one of the better copycats that hit the market. In that regard, I was intrigued. Slasher’s are not my preferred type of ‘horror’ (more of a supernatural fella, to be honest), but once in a while, I come across one that turns out to be better than it really has ANY right to be, given the sordid subject matter. So, on a lazy-ass Sunday afternoon, I decided it was time to give it a day in court. I hit PLAY.
‘The Burning’ opens at a Camp Blackfoot, somewhere in upstate New York. In a darkened cabin, we come across a group of older male campers as they quietly discuss the revenge they plan to take on the camp’s ornery grounds-keeper ‘Cropsy’ (Lou David), for basically being an asshole to everyone. The prank (involving a nasty-looking skull and candles) goes horribly awry and ‘Cropsy’ is quickly engulfed in flames, which are only extinguished when the agonized man tumbles into the nearby river. We then catch up with the charbroiled janitor in a New York hospital, where the horrifying state of his burns have made him something of a cautionary figure for new medical staff. 5 years later, ‘Cropsy’ is released. Almost immediately upon release, the horribly disfigured guy heads straight for Hooker Alley, where he finds himself an unsuspecting Lady of the Night. With no warning or preamble, ‘Cropsy’ then proceeds to eviscerate the whore with a large pair of inconveniently-placed scissors. We then arrive at a summer camp, where we’re introduced to the Usual Suspects, as far as stereotypes go. After getting to know something of the dynamic (who’s the shy kid? who’s the camp slut? who’s the sex-addicted meat-head? etc), it becomes apparent that ‘Cropsy’ is in the hood, and is keeping a close eye on the group of unruly teens and early twentysomethings acting as counselors. It seems that a group of the older campers are to be heading out for a 3 day canoe and camping trip upriver. After much playful banter, they stop for the night and get down to the standard ‘sex-crazed teen shit’ that is ‘part n parcel’ of a flick of this ilk. It’s then that ‘Cropsy’ announces himself by quickly cutting the throat of one of the best-looking gals in the group with a pair of garden shears. He follows this up with the theft of the group’s 5 canoes. The body count then begins to quickly mount.
As a potentially cheap-looking imitation of ‘Friday The 13th’, ‘The Burning’ actually has some surprisingly strong elements working in it’s favor. Most of the cast, which includes first onscreen roles for actors like Jason Alexander (‘Jacob’s Ladder’), Fisher Stevens (‘Short Circuit’) and Holly Hunter (‘Always’), come off as fairly believable. The rapport among the group, especially the girls, felt like fun-loving kids at a summer camp, exactly what we were supposed to ‘buy’ them as. It’s too bad that they chose to portray half the male characters as sexual predators, with blatant examples of voyeurism, molestation and attempted date rape standing out clearly. But the girls felt relatively realistic.
Another solid aspect was the camera work. Right from the first scene, It was apparent that some care had been put into the visual presentation. With a budget of about $1.5 million, they opted to not get too flamboyant or experimental with their compositions and instead kept the visuals ‘clean’ and effective. Camera movements were ‘to the point’ and showed us everything we needed to see, while also looking like there was more money at work than there actually was. For the most part, the camera work was solid from beginning to end.
Another aspect that was solid from beginning to end was the make-up effects, as created by legendary Hollywood make-up artist Tom Savini (‘From Dusk Till Dawn’). The kills were fast and brutal, especially an infamous scene taking place on a makeshift raft, and they carried a certain ‘yuck’ factor with them. It was a little hard to accept that this killer couldn’t come up with a less cumbersome weapon-of-choice, but what they had him pull off with the garden shears certainly did the trick. For the perverted gore-hounds out there, we get stabbings, slicings, a near scalping, fingers snipped off and at least one victim being essentially stapled to a tree; all with impressive amounts of splashed red.
As I mentioned earlier, at least 3 of the male characters are sex-crazed horn-dogs who can’t seem to take “No!” for an answer. However, given the expectedly exploitative manner with which a couple of the girls are shown (needless boobs-in-shower shots, stark-naked hottie slowly making her way through the woods in all her full-frontal glory, pervy close-ups of the female anatomy etc). it’s not all that surprising. I just found the lack of subtlety amusing. It was basically pounded into us that these guys have a one-track mind (wait…maybe WE do?!), and I thought it was too obvious in it’s approach.
Much of the music score was effective, especially since it never seemed to get too ‘in your face’, especially during the suspenseful stalking scenes. At times, the music reminded me of Ennio Morricone’s excellent score for ‘The Thing’, which would be released in theatres a year after this one.
If I had to nitpick, there are some sloppy edits (shots clearly from an earlier scene used as filler, an obvious freeze-frame used to convey an unnecessary idea, etc) and a couple really laughable mistakes (like the obvious cameraman and camera poised in the co-pilot seat of a helicopter, used to film a shot we see seconds earlier). Luckily, there’s not many goofs worth bitching about, but those ones did stand out to me.
All in all, ‘The Burning’ was one of the better ‘Friday The 13th’ imitators released in the early 80’s. Some of the characters felt surprisingly natural, the suspense scenes mostly worked, there’s a couple of legit surprises that pop up, and the gore effects are inventive and plentiful. If you’re a fan of slasher flicks or horror movies from the late 70’s / early 80’s, then this flick will definitely do it for you. It’s nothing you NEED to see…but if violent, sex-fueled and exploitative genre fare is your thing…you could sure do worse.

*It was trippy seeing really young versions of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter using this gory, ‘immoral-campers-as-victims’ flick as the springboard for their respective film careers.

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