Review by David Carter
Posted on 14 September 2011
Source MGM DVD
On Saturday, September 17th at 8 PM, Not Coming to a Theater Near You will be hosting a screening of The Burning at 92YTribeca. For tickets and further information about the screening, please visit 92YTribeca’s website.
Young teens wearily paddle a makeshift raft toward their destination. Their quarry, a missing canoe, appears after a bend in the river, lazily floating as if intentionally placed so they would find it. It was. Once they pull within arm’s reach, Cropsy leaps toward them, shears in hand, and begins a vicious assault against all on board. Throats are punctured, necks are sliced, and, in a particularly difficult to watch moment, fingers are snipped neatly from a hand. Silence falls after the decimation—a single stream of blood trickles down a girl’s arm into the water as the scene fades to red.
The Burning’s most infamous moment lasts only forty seconds and yet it is one of the primary reasons why the film is remembered thirty years after its creation. At first glance, The Burning distinguishes itself little from the dozens of Friday the 13th clones that surfaced in 1981, or from the legion of other slasher films of the ensuing decades: teens at a summer camp are butchered by a disfigured madman as revenge for some long-forgotten misdeed. Its similarity to other films would not have gone unnoticed by 1981 audiences, likely a contributing factor to the film’s ill-received box office run. The Burning has grown in prominence significantly over the years, becoming one of the most revered in the canon by slasher fans—though for reasons external to the film itself.
The Burning refers to a prank shown in the first of two pre-credit sequences. A group of boys decide to play a joke on a cruel groundskeeper, Cropsy, by putting a flaming skull in his bedroom. Cropsy groggily wakes from his drunken stupor and, frightened, knocks the skull onto his bed and then into a gas can, engulfing himself in flames in the process. Next we see Cropsy serving as a rite of passage for burn ward doctors and ultimately being released in a still-disfigured state after treatment has failed. His attempt at a normal life ends shortly thereafter as he murders a prostitute who is repulsed by his appearance.
Meanwhile, the denizens of Camp Stonewater are busying themselves with typical teenage pursuits: pulling pranks on one another, lusting after the opposite sex, and forming social cliques. The older campers leave for a three-day excursion to the ominously named Devil’s Creek, unwittingly heading towards a vengeful Cropsy armed with his oversized hedge shears. He begins his assault at night, impaling a lost teen before releasing the group’s canoes – their only means of escape – downriver. He then ambushes the search party in the gore-drench scene described above, returning to camp later that night to attack another pair of teens. By morning, the campers are aware of what is happening and who is hunting them. Most of the group returns to the main camp for help but two are left to face Cropsy on their own.
The Burning satisfies the most common slasher tropes of setting and narrative, but still manages to break free of several other conventions. Gone is the dependence on the cover of night as many of Cropsy’s attacks occur during the day. This is most evident in the raft ambush scene, as the fact that the violence occurs unobstructed heightens the impact of the scene significantly. Our victim pool consists of actors in their teens rather than twenty-somethings playing younger, and they behave in kind rather than as stereotypes. When the raft filled with their friends’ dismembered limbs washes ashore, the teens weep and lie in fetal positions—no heroism or movie bravado is present, just a realistic, emotional reaction.
The Burning’s handling of its villain proves to its most unique feature. Cropsy is a wholly unsympathetic villain in an era where the monsters were increasingly becoming the stars of their respective films. The film makes it clear that he deserved the treatment seen in the opening and never makes references to him being “disturbed” or “insane”—simply just evil. Cropsy does not punish vice either. The relatively prudish campers of The Burning are murdered not for drug use or promiscuity, but simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lastly, The Burning contains a definitive ending when open-endedness and the possibility of a sequel were de rigueur in horror cinema.
Much of The Burning’s lasting appeal has come by virtue of those involved with its production. Made by a group of unknowns, The Burning is a star-studded affair in retrospect: the film was an early effort by the Weinsteins and fellow super-producer Brad Grey. Three future stars made their screen debuts in the film: Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. It would be wrong to infer that the presence of such respected character actors reflects well on the performances in the film: Hunter is merely in the background, Stevens is afforded a handful of lines, and Alexander is merely a stock “summer camp cinema” character. The Burning had a relatively large budget for the period – nearly triple that of the original Friday the 13th – and thus could afford the services of two bigger names: Rick Wakeman for the score and Tom Savini for the special effects. Wakeman’s score is exciting but unfortunately seldom heard, and Savini’s involvement has played no small part in securing the film’s legacy.
The biggest contributor to The Burning’s notoriety came courtesy of its placement on the BBFC’s “video nasties” list. Like a good number of the films on the 1984 list, The Burning’s “nastiness” was overestimated significantly by British censors. It was not particularly violent for the time period and is positively tame in retrospect. There is nothing particularly malicious about the murders either, and the impersonal and desexualized nature of the crimes was atypical of the period. Apart from the daylight violence of the raft ambush, The Burning offended the BBFC the most for its choice of weapon. For reasons not entirely clear, scissors and shears were considered especially egregious to the censors, who banned the scissor-less Don’t Look in the Basement simply because the VHS cover depicted a pair piercing the lens of eyeglasses. Thus The Burning didn’t stand a chance to make it passed the censors; a fact that the filmmakers would have been unable to know but the one that has helped the film remain a topic of interest more than any other.
It would be cynical – but easy – to assert that the attention The Burning has received over the years wasn’t justified. It is, after all, a blatant Friday the 13th clone that adds little to a genre that was already firmly established by the time of its release. The Burning confounds as many clichés as it indulges, however, making it an invaluable tool with which to analyze the slasher genre. The differences are small, but noticeable and memorable. When considering a genre where sameness is often considered the hallmark of quality, The Burning’s aberrations from the norm are sufficient to warrant the continued attention it has garnered.