Appellate Judge Tom Becker came back from slasher camp with everything intact. It was very embarrassing.
Our review of The Burning (1981) (Blu-ray), published May 13th, 2013, is also available.
A legend of terror isn't a campfire story anymore.
There were certainly teen slasher flicks before Friday the 13th, but what made that one memorable was the sheer volume of bloodshed. While films like Halloween and Black Christmas offered a respectable body count, they also put some care into things like characters, plot, atmosphere, and appearances from the occasional adult. Friday the 13th dispensed with all that, put the kids in a place where there were few if any adults (Camp Crystal Lake) and they could be picked off one by one, allowed them a little farewell fornicating, and then let the games begin.
The Burning was released in 1981, a year after Friday the 13th and just one week after the first of its many sequels, the aptly titled Friday the 13th Part 2. With its similarities to that series (summer camp setting, faceless unspeaking villain, death by sharp object), it was dismissed by some as a rip-off. But The Burning is a decent little slasher in its own right and has actually aged better than the myriad 13th movies. The Burning was also the first film venture for a couple of guys who went on to do OK in the movie business: Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Long available only on VHS, The Burning now gets a nice DVD edition from MGM.
Facts of the Case
At Camp Blackfoot, the kids don't like the caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David, The Last Dragon). They decide to teach him a lesson, but a prank goes horribly wrong and Cropsy is severely burned. Five years and several unsuccessful skin grafts later, Cropsy is released from the hospital and he's got murder on his mind. His destination? Back to camp. His weapon of choice? Garden shears.
While the basic plot is nothing to write home about, there are elements of The Burning that make it a cut above the routine slasher.
The film is well-cast, and the actors help elevate the characters beyond cookie-cutter status. While the head counselor/nominal hero is played a typically good-looking yet bland actor, this was the film debut of Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit), Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and Holly Hunter (The Piano). Hunter has only a couple of lines and is mainly a background camper, but the guys here stand out, particularly Alexander, whose wisecracking persona foreshadows his more famous future role (only without the loser qualities). The script gives him some funny one-liners (for the genre), and Alexander delivers them like a pro.
Brian Backer plays a creepy, vulnerable kid who is picked on by some of the other campers, but who is not the typical outsider character (and early victim) so popular in these films. After playing Mark "Rat" Ratner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and giving a Tony-winning turn as a Woody Allen-inspired character in Allen's The Floating Light Bulb, Backer didn't do a whole lot else, which is too bad. There was an endearingly natural quality to his youthful nebbishiness, and it would have been nice to have seen him graduate to grown-up character roles as did one of his co-stars here, Ned Eisenberg (Million Dollar Baby).
The female characters do little besides scream, die, and parade around naked (though not in that order). This is more of a "buddy" slasher, and the dynamics are sometimes interestingly off-kilter. A climactic scene features the attempted rescue by one camper of a little brother character rather than a damsel in distress.
The film gives us a good while to set up the situation and get to know the characters. Fans of the genre will either find this refreshing or annoying, since other than the Cropsy-on-fire opening and a random killing about 10 minutes in, there's a long stretch without any bloodletting. However, the bodies pile up pretty quickly once Cropsy starts making with the shears.
While most of the killings fit the slasher mold of the time, there is one sequence that breaks it. It's an incredibly violent scene with a memorable moment involving Fisher Stevens's character. This scene, and one other, caused the MPAA to demand cuts in order for the film to receive its R rating. Both scenes are restored for this release.
Makeup effects wizard Tom Savini (Day of the Dead) gives us the gore here, and while this is not his career best, it's still gruesome. Savini had worked on the original Friday the 13th and turned down the chance to do the sequel, choosing to do The Burning, which was shooting at the same time. While the various stabbings, slicings, and cuttings are hackle-raising, the burned visage he created for Cropsy just doesn't look realistic. Fortunately, we only see it once in a very quick shot—Director Tony Maylam knew better than to hold on it too long.
The transfer is decent, given the age of the film and its low-budget origins. It's a bit grainy in low-light interior scenes but looks good otherwise. The audio is an uninspired mono track that doesn't really serve Rick Wakeman's appropriately sinister and portentous electronic score.
MGM gives us a couple of good extras. There is a commentary track with "International Film Journalist" Alan Jones talking to Maylam about the production. Maylam and Jones are both articulate and comfortable, and it's fun to hear Maylam's reactions to seeing the film again after 25 years. It's fun hearing Maylam's stories about working with the Weinsteins on the film that was, basically, the birth of Miramax. Maylam's a gentleman. He has nice things to say about virtually everyone connected with The Burning, though he does seem amused that future producer Brad Grey, a friend of Harvey Weinstein's at the time, receives as much credit as he does.
Tom Savini shares "Blood 'n' Fire Memories" in an 18-minute interview that includes behind-the-scenes footage he shot while working on The Burning. Savini is very entertaining and candid and makes mention of a few incidents that Maylam left unsaid.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The villain Cropsy is actually the weakest aspect of the film. We see things from his POV, but we really don't see him. He's not superhuman, like Jason Vorhees or Michael Meyers; he just kind of turns up, stalks around, and starts cutting. It's too bad, because his appearance—long black coat, black gloves, hat pulled down so you can't see his face—is creepy and could have been used to better advantage.
While we feel a generalized sympathy for anyone who suffers a catastrophic accident, we know nothing else about Cropsy except that he was a drunk and not nice. We don't get any back story on him, except to learn that he has somehow become a campfire legend. His first killing comes out of nowhere and is pretty much tacked on just to give them film a little carnage in its first 10 minutes. How he ends up at the camp, we don't know, since it's a different camp from the one where he was burned, and since (most) of his victims here had nothing to do with his burning, it's hard to understand what he's doing here.
These plot shortcuts are to be expected of a slasher film. It's just too bad this one didn't go the extra distance and give us more of a story.
The Burning is a good little entry from the early '80s splatter canon. This MGM release will be welcome by fans of the film (The Burning has a bit of a cult following) and the genre.
MGM, you are found not guilty of relegating this film to a barebones treatment. Walk out with your head high.
Tony Maylam, you have survived the Weinsteins and given some wonderful talent their first break. You are free to go.
Cropsy, we're going to keep you here for a while. First order of business? The hedges.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Tony Maylam and International Film Journalist Alan Jones
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