The “Dead Teenager” subgenre is probably the biggest subset of the horror movie and though John Carpenter may have really kicked it into gear in the late 70s with Halloween it was in the 80s with the release of Friday the 13th that this particular subset exploded. This brings us to today’s topic The Burning which came out a year after Mrs. Voorhees took her displeasure out on a group of camp counsellors.
Based on the urban legend/campfire story of Cropsey, the burned caretaker who apparently stalked the woods of upstate New York, writer/producer Harvey Weinstein took the germ of that idea to make his big foray into movie making, and as this film is about a crazed killer seeking revenge against a group of teenagers at a summer camp it has most often been discarded as being a simple knock-off of Friday the 13th, and even though Weinstein claims to have written the story before the release of that film The Burning will always remain in its shadow.
If practical jokes in real life worked the same way they do in horror films most of us wouldn’t have survived to adulthood; in the case of The Burning, we open with a group of campers planning a prank against Cropsy (Lou David), the camp’s caretaker who all of them hate. It, of course, goes horribly wrong. The group of young boys sneak over to the cabin belonging to Cropsy and place a worm-riddled skull by his sleeping form, the poor sap is startled awake and knocks it over. Unfortunately, the skull just so happened to be lit from inside by a candle and Cropsy’s pant legs go up in flames in such a manner that one must assume he routinely washes them in gasoline, and then the fire spreads to a nearby can of gas (must be laundry day) which then explodes and he is completely engulfed in flames.
The film then takes a couple of unnecessary time jumps where we first find ourselves one week later at the local hospital where an asshole orderly and a new resident peek in on poor ole burnt Cropsy; this seems only there to give us a cheap jump scare when a horribly burnt hand reaches out and grabs the orderly. To be fair cheap jump scares is the bread and butter of this genre yet The Burning is particularly egregious in this area, in fact, I’d say three-quarters of the “scares” in this movie are false jump scares, which happen way too often. The film then jumps ahead five years to when Cropsy is finally being released from the hospital; where failed skin grafts have left him a horribly disfigured wretch of a man. So what does a horribly scarred man do with his freedom?
The failure here is that the film doesn’t apparently know what kind of killer they are trying to create; we are only told he was an asshole to the campers, and even if he was an asshole I’d say being burned like that is something no one deserves no matter how big of dick they were, but then once out of the hospital he stabs to death some poor prostitute who freaked out when she got a look at his scarred visage. I’m sure five years in a burn ward isn’t all that conducive to mental health but what kind of reaction did he expect from a five-dollar hooker? So his stabbing and tossing out of the window of this poor woman is the film’s way of showing us that Cropsy is now a murderous animal, but was that really necessary or was it just a way to pad the film’s ninety-minute run time?
In Friday the 13th the killer is an unknown adversary for the bulk of the film, we had no idea who the killer was or what their motivations were, but at the end when we finally learn that it is the mother of a child who was left to die by partying camp counsellors we may not side with her but at least we understand what drove her to do what she did. In The Burning, we know the killer is this burnt caretaker so we don’t we really need to see him kill some random woman to establish that he’s a potential killer of counsellors, in fact, it just establishes him as a murderous dick. That he wants revenge on the little shits that ruined his life makes sense while killing some random woman who freaked out at his appearance is completely unnecessary and muddies the character. His job is to kill teenage campers, not urban victims.
The film then brings us to Camp Stonewater where we are introduced to our cast of potential victims; these include the head counsellors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayres), who bicker over how to handle certain unruly elements among the campers, then we have resident goofball Dave (Jason Alexander) who is kind of the ringleader for the misfits, next is Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) as Dave’s chief sidekick, then there is Alfred (Brian Backer) whose response to being bullied is too stalk the bully’s girlfriend and watch her in the shower (not the most sensible tactic), the bully Glazer (Larry Joshua) is your standard lunkhead who is all brawn no brains, and finally, there is Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) who is basically a sexual predator in the making and whose girlfriend Karen (Carolyn Houlihan) just screams “slasher victim” the moment she opens her mouth. The Burning is most notable for beginning the careers of some unknowns who would later become big stars such as Holly Hunter who also appears in a small part as one of the young campers, but it was Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens who stood out as actors that you could tell were going to go onto bigger and better things.
The Burning has all the proper prerequisite elements to make it a proper slasher film; there is a gratuitous amount of nudity, we will get an inordinate amount of teenage hijinks, and special effects wizard Tom Savini (who turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 to make this film) will provide a solid amount of on-screen gore. In fact, there was so much gore that The Burning made its way onto United Kingdom’s “Video Nasty” list and found itself banned there. Sadly, the lack of originality in a genre that was just blooming is the major problem here and no amount of gore is going to give a film a lasting shelf life. The MPA even forced the filmmakers to heavily edit out some of that gore to avoid an “X” rating with the infamous “Raft Massacre” scene being the most affected.
If you like endless shots of people walking through the woods, seemingly hours of them paddling canoes down a never-ending river, a very thin plot being broken up by the odd date rape moment then this could be the film for you. The only thing that really surprised me was the sheer number of teenagers that survived Cropsy’s killing spree, which really on qualifies as a killing spurt in my opinion.
The film even tries to go in a different direction by not even having a “Final Girl” but instead it’s kind of a “Final Boy” by having Cropsy kidnap Alfred as some kind of bait to lure Todd into an old abandoned copper mine for the final showdown. We learn that Todd was the kid who led the original gang of campers that burnt Cropsy in the first place, one must assume all this murdering of Todd’s fellow campers was some kind of mind game to mentally weaken the camp counsellor for when they have their big confrontation, but when we do get to the final fight it’s really quite lame. After watching poor Alfred wandering endlessly through the ruins of the mine, and him getting captured and pinned to the wall by gardening sheers, we are then stuck watching Todd do even more wandering around looking for Alfred before finally encountering Cropsy. The two then face off in a flamethrower versus axe fight because that is completely logical.
What doesn’t make sense is how long this fight goes on; Cropsy has a friggin flamethrower for Pete’s sake! I may not be any kind of combat expert but I think that in the narrow confines of a mine a flamethrower would trump a dude with an axe. Cropsy does eventually gain the advantage but then Alfred frees himself and embeds Cropsy’s own sheers in the killer’s back. In your standard slasher film it would have been the Final Girl stepping up at the last minute to save her boyfriend so it’s kind of neat that this film has a final showdown with no girls at all, it sadly just took too long to get to this point. We, of course, get the “He’s actually not dead” moment with Cropsy getting back up for a final jump scare (a jump scare drinking game for this movie would be lethal) but before Cropsy can get his much-wanted revenge Todd buries the axe in his head. Then to add insult to injury Alfred picks up the flamethrower and torches the corpse.
As slasher films go The Burning isn’t so much a bad film as it is a forgettable one; the appearance of Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens in their early careers being the only notable element, and though the rest of the cast does fine work here there isn’t anything you wouldn’t find in other better examples of the genre. It’s Cropsy himself who is the film’s biggest misstep as a slasher film is only as good as its villain and to stand the test of time your killer has to be memorable, but in the case of Cropsy, it fails quite miserably. He isn’t as joyfully crazed as Mrs. Voorhees nor as imposing as her son Jason from Friday the 13th and their sequels, and he’s not as fun as Freddy Kruger from Nightmare on Elm Street or Chucky from Child’s Play, instead, he is just a generic as the original campfire tale he was based on.
The Burning (1981)
The Burning will most likely remain a minor footnote in the history of the slasher film for even though Tom Savini’s gore is top notch poor ole Cropsy’s ashes will forever have disappeared into the wind.