It suddenly dawned on me that for someone claiming to be such a huge horror movie nerd, I hadn’t yet taken the time out to write up any, you know, actual horror movies. I did Death Wish 3, some martial arts, a car chase movie, but no horror. So here we go. I’ll be kicking it off proper with one of the unsung weirdos of the slasher scene. The Burning.
You can argue the origins of slashers until you’re blue in the face. Was it Halloween? Was it Black Christmas? How about Bava’s Bay of Blood? Or does it go even further back to Psycho? Halloween is the undisputed champ in this argument. It was massively successful but slashers didn’t really take off until 1980 with Friday the 13th. After that movie hit screens, the slasher movie became an unstoppable force right up until around 1989 when it slowly sputtered its way into the 90’s and took a breather. Even by the mid-80’s, the slasher was out of gas, but studios continued to play with the formula, squeezing as much blood out of that rock as they could.
The Burning was an early entry into the slasher theater and like many of its contemporaries, it lifted plot elements liberally from other slasher movies. However, despite its stupid plot and completely forgettable killer, it has a lot of very strange elements on its side.
It’s a wonder summer camp attendance in the 80’s didn’t suffer because of all the camp killer movies. The Burning takes on the same sort of campfire legend that Friday the 13th capitalized on. If you ever sat around a fire in the woods with a bunch of other kids your age, you were bound to hear some kind of variation on this story. A few years prior to the action in The Burning, a drunk, asshole caretaker, nicknamed Cropsy by the campers becomes the victim of a prank when some campers sneak a skull with a candle into his cabin. When he wakes up to see it, he’s gripped with fear and winds up kicking it, immediately igniting everything nearby, including himself while the kids who played the prank look on, horrified. He’s taken to a hospital where he barely makes a recovery and then disappears from the public consciousness altogether. Now, in 1981, he’s back in woods near the camp, watching and waiting for his perfect moment to strike with his razor sharp pair of gardening shears. We spend a lot of time getting to know our victims at this point. A counselor who was there to see Cropsy burn back in the day. His girlfriend. A bunch of nerdy, but well meaning kids and the camp asshole, a meathead who would later turn up as the alien assassin on The X-Files. Occasionally, we kick over to Cropsy’s point of view for some labored breathing and false starts as he narrowly passes up the opportunity to hack some kids up. Our victims-to-be wind up setting off on a canoe trip up river and their relative isolation now makes them the perfect targets for Cropsy who gets to work carving up kids. As you might expect, the victim pool gets whittled down to a handful of people and the counselor who was responsible for this mess in the 70’s has to face off with Cropsy until the climactic fight that is, of course, left wide open for a sequel that never happened.
As far as slashers go, you just don’t get much more generic than this. It seems like there were more than a few slasher movie set at summer camp but this one has a couple of aces up it’s sleeve to set it apart, at least a little bit. First of all, it was written by the Weinstein brothers, two massive movie moguls in today’s industry. Secondly, it had a soundtrack provided Rick Wakeman that is far more proggy than anything you’d expect from an American slash flick. It would have fit in well with an Italian giallo but here it’s startling. It also features a couple of actors you may be familiar with. Jason Alexander, who would go on to big things as George Costanza on Seinfeld as well as Holly Hunter in a very minor role. Finally, Tom Savini provides the effects and like most of the minor movies he was associated with, these are great gore effects that few people ever got around to seeing.
Of the slashers of the time, few of them actually went so far as to show you the vicious methods that the killers employed. You were usually treated to the lead up and then the aftermath. The Burning wants you to see what’s happening and you get an eyeful. The violence in this movie is off the charts. At least in Friday the 13th, you were often left to feel as though the victims were being weeded out of the gene pool for our benefit. The victims in this movie are kids and they look like kids. The Burning took an extra step to actually kill children! Granted, they’re not young children, but the counselor victims of Jason Voorhees always looked a lot older than they were supposed to be. Not here. The infamous raft slaughter scene at the middle of the movie is absolutely brutal. Nice, innocent kids are hacked to pieces right before your very eyes. You even feel a little bad for the meathead dick who has spent most of the movie intimidating the younger kids when he gets his.
Not everybody is likable, though. Brian Backer plays Alfred, a shy peeping tom who spends the entire movie spying on naked chicks and whining. I don’t know if we’re supposed to sympathize with him, cheer him on or what, but if there was one person in that movie who should have had his hands cut off, it was him. Somehow, he manages to survive and all but runs to the arms of Todd, our heroic counselor who takes on Cropsy in the film’s climax.
While time certainly has narrowed the field of slasher movies down to only a few champions, many that were worth seeing for one reason or another managed to fall through the cracks and disappear into obscurity. When The Burning came off of the UK’s Video Nasties list, it enjoyed a brief surge when an uncut DVD was released but it has ducked back down to the relative anonymity of completist collector shelves. I’ll freely admit that I love slasher flicks, though, and despite it’s theft of all of Friday the 13th’s best moves, it still stands out as one of the stranger entries into the game. It’s markedly more violent than most slashers and actually employs a few characters that you like and would rather not see reduced to pieces. It’s fatal flaw is that the killer, a key component of the slasher movie, has absolutely nothing to make you remember him. The shears were clearly supposed to be the gimmick but there’s nothing really intimidating about them or the killer.
Like other forgotten slashers such as The Prowler and My Bloody Valentine, it’s a sadly overlooked movie. It’s not the best you’ll see, but when the blood starts to flow, it’s more than you were expecting.