Director: Tony Maylam
In a number of my previous reviews, I've spoken at length about a particular type of horror movie known as the slasher film. These tales of terror were all the rage back in the 1980s, many of them trying desperately to emulate the success of trailblazing movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th. Dozens upon dozens were released during the better part of the decade, the majority of them falling into one of two categories: they're either set during a holiday or some other special occasion, or it took place at a summer camp out in the woods. And although nearly all of these movies fell into relative obscurity, quite a few have developed their own devoted fan followings. One such movie is The Burning, an early slasher movie that has earned the affection of nearly every genre fan who has seen it. It helped launch the careers of a few well-known actors, got the ball rolling for Miramax Films, and further established Tom Savini as one of horror's premier makeup effects wizards. And folks, The Burning is one of the best slasher movies out there.
Our tale of terror centers around Cropsy (Lou David), the caretaker at a summer camp named Camp Blackwood. He isn't exactly the most popular person, mainly because he's a mean old drunk that treats everyone he encounters like crap. And due to his rather foul disposition, four campers conspire to put him in his place by scaring him with a rotting skull and some candles. The prank unfortunately goes awry, with Cropsy ending up engulfed in flames. He does survive, albeit with horrific burns covering the majority of his body.
Five years pass, but time has done absolutely nothing to heal Cropsy's physical or psychological wounds. Numerous skin grafts have been unsuccessful, and the hospital is ultimately forced to discharge him after deciding that they can do nothing else for him. But while his burns may have left him with hideous scars, they have also left him with revenge on his mind and hatred in his heart. Cropsy heads for Camp Stonewater, a summer camp not far from where the since-demolished Camp Blackfoot once stood. And armed with a set of gardening shears, Cropsy plans on butchering any poor soul who is unfortunate enough to cross his path.
When I first got hooked up to the Internet back in 1998, one of the first places I ended up was a message board centered around the Friday the 13th franchise and horror movies in general. And of all the Friday the 13th clones that would be discussed in that forum, one of the most frequently mentioned was The Burning. An oft-cited and until its official DVD release in 2007, oft-bootlegged entry into the slasher genre, The Burning was a movie that I kept hearing about over and over again for a good number of years. But while I consider myself a fan of slasher movies in general, it would be a decade from when I first heard about it before I actually saw this notorious cult classic. And if you ask me, I think it lived up to its reputation. The Burning is not only one of the better Friday the 13th clones out there, but one of the best underground films of the '80s.
First and foremost, let's tackle the direction by Tony Maylam. Slasher movies don't necessarily require any sort of flash or pizzazz when it comes to direction, outside of what is needed to build atmosphere. However, Maylam brings a certain stylistic flair to The Burning. With Harvey Harrison handling the cinematography, Maylam blends well-handled "killer's point-of-view" shots (a genre cliché if there ever was one) with slick camera angles, moody nighttime lighting, and other tricks that really help set The Burning apart from the other Friday the 13th clones released at the same time. It also helps that Maylam's direction is backed up by the electronica-based music composed by Rick Wakeman, keyboardest for British prog-rock band Yes. Though its sound is seemingly typical of horror movies in the late-'70s and early-'80s, Wakeman's score is intense, suspenseful, and supports the movie well. Well, all except the banjo music near the beginning of the movie. I thought it felt really awkward and out of place. Banjo music doesn't really scream out horror movies nor summer camps in western New York, does it? Not to me, it doesn't.
Next up is the screenplay, written by Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein from a story by Maylam, Brad Grey, and co-producer Harvey Weinstein. Yes, you read that right. Bob and Harvey Weinstein, founders of Miramax Films and Dimension Films, were the creative forces behind The Burning. I'm not a hundred percent sure of the facts, but I'm pretty sure that The Burning is one of Miramax's earliest movies. It's weird how things turn out. But anyway, about the script. Believe it or not, it's actually pretty decent. It's never going to win any sort of awards or anything like that, but when compared to a lot of other slasher movies from the '80s, The Burning's script holds up well. The characters are likeable, which is a nice plus. And another plus is that the script actually gives Cropsy sufficient motivation for his actions. Sure, he might be killing innocent people at a summer camp completely unrelated to where he had his accident, but you'd probably feel like stabbing people too if some punk kids set you on fire. But that's the weird thing: pretty much all of his victims are innocent of any wrongdoing. Most slasher movies feature a cast of characters who you just can't wait to see get mutilated. But among The Burning's characters, just about everyone is likeable. I'm sure everyone knows the golden rule of slasher movies: sex equals death. And to that end, only two characters are guilty of breaking that rule. Of course, they get it in the end, but everyone else? They did nothing to deserve Cropsy's wrath. And that lack of discrimination between the innocent and the guilty only serves to make him an even more frightening villain.
Another odd thing I noticed is the glaring lack of a defined "Final Girl." A long-standing tradition in the pantheon of slasher movies, Final Girls are that one chaste girl that finds herself thrust into mortal combat with the killer in the movie's climax, a tormented young woman who will be the last person standing when the credits roll. But there is no Final Girl in The Burning, not in the conventional sense. Instead, there is a Final Boy, played by Brian Backer. And truth be told, he's kind of a putz. He's weird, a little creepy, and kinda hard to buy as a Final Person. He doesn't have the same kind of presence as notable Final Girls like Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Jamie Lee Curtis's numerous Final Girls, or even the only truly memorable Final Boy, Corey Feldman in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. But then again, the character does have some sympathetic qualities that would have made it a real bummer if he died, so while he might not be a true Final Person, at least he's close.
Since we're talking about the characters, let's follow it up with the cast. Since this is a slasher movie, you can expect two things: hammy acting and actors in their twenties playing teenagers. Sure, some of the cast looks believably young, but there are a few instances where it's hard to tell the difference between the campers and the counselors. But no matter, there's still some good performances to be found here. One in particular is Jason Alexander, who would go on to greater fame as George Costanza on Seinfeld. Though this is his first movie, his comedic timing really shows. The levity he brings elevates the movie, and looking back, you can definitely see traces of what would become George Costanza in his performance here. Brian Matthews also brought forth a good performance as Camp Stonewater's head counselor. He plays the role with intensity, but in such a way that makes him charming. I also liked Ned Eisenberg and Larry Joshua as the resident sarcastic joker and skirt-chasing bully, respectively. The rest of the cast, though, aren't exactly memorable. It's not they're bad, but you're not really going to look back and remember anything about the performances by the plethora of nobodies that make up at least half of The Burning's cast.
The real star of the show, however, is Tom Savini's special makeup effects. Savini was already a big name in the horror industry by the time he signed on to do The Burning, but his work here is some of his most talked-about efforts. The movie was hacked to bits by the MPAA to secure an R rating, but in its unrated form, Savini's work shines in all its gory glory. Savini's effects make the kill scenes so violent that it's almost hard to watch them. And I would be remiss if I didn't speak of the raft scene. One of the most famous scenes in the history of slasher movies, it elevates Cropsy from your average everyday psycho killer to a near-equal of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. It is a slasher movie at its most ferocious, as Cropsy manages to take out five people in the span of about forty-five seconds. And he doesn't just kill them, he chops them up into little pieces. The enduring popularity of this scene among slasher movie fans is a testament to Savini's fantastic work.
Slasher movies from the '80s are notorious for giving many big-name actors their starts. Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Johnny Depp, and Patricia Arquette all appeared in slasher movies early in their careers. But I think The Burning may hold some kind of genre record for the most up-and-comers involved in a slasher movie. The cast features Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens from Short Circuit, Brian Backer from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Academy Award winner Holly Hunter, editor Jack Sholder would later direct A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, co-writers Bob and Harvey Weinstein are now huge names in the industry, and co-writer Brad Grey became a big-shot movie and television producer who (as of this writing) is the current CEO of Paramount Pictures. But back in 1981, they were all a bunch of nobodies who came together to create a horror movie that's evolved into a cult classic. The Burning isn't the most famous slasher movie, but as far as the multitude of Friday the 13th clones go, it's one of the most unique and one of the best. It's definitely a must-see for fans of slasher cinema, and I'll give it three and a half stars and a thumbs-up.
Final Rating: ***½