The Burning (1981)

The Burning first published by VODzilla.co 

The co-eds who inhabit horror’s slasher subgenre tend to live fast and die young. For in the space of a feature’s brief running time (and these films rarely pass 95 minutes), teen characters typically undergo their first sexual experience and other rites of passage, before falling victim to a killer as implacable and inevitable as death itself, so that mortality is presented as a necessary corollary of budding youth. Tony Maylam’s The Burning conforms to this pattern, as the young flesh of some summer campers is first exposed to the screen (and to several leering male – and female – gazes), before being slashed and sliced by an older, silent figure whose skin “is burned so bad, he’s roasted”, and who brandishes his shears like the scythe of a reaper.

Reconfiguring New York’s urban ‘Cropsey’ myth as a campfire tale, The Burning begins with five young men at Camp Blackfoot playing a vindictive prank on the hated caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) – a prank that accidentally ends with Cropsy in flames. Five years later, Cropsy is seething with a murderous Darkman-like rage, and out for revenge against estivating adolescents. Within minutes of being released from hospital, he murders a Times Square prostitute – in a sequence which, with the killer’s black gloves and obscured face, the lurid colours of the woman’s apartment, and Rick Wakeman’s prog synth score, could not be more giallo-esque (there are also shades of William Lustig’s New York slasher Maniac). From there on in, though, it will be a good three quarters of an hour or so before Cropsy kills again, as we are introduced to the summer residents of Camp Stonewater, who divide their time between fumbling sexual advances, silly pranks and squabbling petty aggressions – often filmed in POV shots that belong sometimes to Cropsy, and sometimes to voyeuristic weirdo Alfred (Brian Backer).

The Burning came out in the wake of Sean S. Cunningham’s highly influential – if mediocre – lakeside camp slasher Friday the 13th (1980), and although Maylam’s film was in fact conceived before Cunningham’s, it is clear that it was subsequently reformulated to exploit Cunningham’s success, with one particular scene, in which Cropsy leaps up to massacre a whole raftload of teens, seemingly designed to evoke and outdo the shock ending of Friday the 13th. The Burning emerged at a time when the subgenre was undergoing a boom, and the market was saturated – and the truth is that despite, unusually, featuring a final boy (or two), The Burning does little to distinguish itself from the spate of other slashers with which it was vying for screen space.

“What do you think’s really happening?”, a girl asks at one point. It might be tempting, momentarily, to entertain the notion that there is a hidden psychological subtext to the film’s events  – that Cropsy, far from being the murderer, is a convenient scapegoat conjured by the likes of Alfred and camp counsellor Todd (Jason Matthews) for their own aberrant impulses and transgressive actions. Yet if this reading was at some point central to the filmmakers’ intentions, it has been almost entirely effaced in a story that repeatedly and insistently objectifies the monstrous Cropsy as an actual presence, rather than as a bogeyman of the imagination. Cropsy’s lumbering reality makes The Burning a whole lot less interesting than it might have been – as does the oh-so-drawn-out pacing of the film’s final cat-and-mouse sequence. The climax takes place in an abandoned mineshaft – a setting that has no obvious connection to the film’s plot or location, but that does allude to George Mihalka’s miner slasher My Bloody Valentine (1981), released a few months earlier.

Yet if The Burning bloodily kills off its young characters in their prime (with Tom Savini dependably providing the gore effects), it also engendered several future careers. Jason Alexander (George Costanza from TV’s Seinfeld), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit, Lost, The Night Of) and Holly Hunter (O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Piano) all had their big-screen debuts in the film. Its producer Harvey Weinstein and his writer brother Bob used The Burning to launch production house Miramax Films – which would see them become two of Hollywood’s biggest players – while Harvey’s friend Brad Grey, whose contribution to the film’s original story gave him his first on-screen credit, has gone on to become both a major producer (The Departed, The Sopranos) and the CEO of Paramount Pictures. Evidently these survivors of The Burning have lived long and prospered – apart from Harvey Weinstein, who, as a serial abuser of women, has now himself become the bogeyman. 

Summary: Derivative slasher that launched many a filmmaking career.

© Anton Bitel