The Burning (1981)
There’s nothing quite like it. That rush you feel when you see a famous actor in a tiny, nothing part early in their career. Clint Eastwood in Revenge of the Creature. Elizabeth Taylor in Jaye Eyre. Ryan Gosling on Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Scarlett Johannsson in North. Samuel L. Jackson in Sea of Love. It’s like trying to spot Hitchcock in his movies. Usually, these roles don’t make much of an impression and don’t indicate how famous this particular performer will become, but not always. In one of the very first Miramax productions (BOOOOOO!!!!), there’s a handful of future megastars as well as some fabulously specific B-movie familiars. Bloodsport’s Leah Ayres! Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Brian Backer! Unforgiven’s Larry Joshua! The Exterminator’s Ned Eisenberg! You’ve got Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, fresh off the bus and still with that Southern twang, not that you’d hear it considering how little she speaks. Fisher Stevens, now an Oscar-winning producer whose latently racist portrayal of an Indian man in Short Circuit is deeply problematic nowadays but was beloved back in the 80’s. Then there’s Seinfeld’s own lovable curmudgeon George Costanza, i.e. Jason Alexander. An absolute scene-stealer if there ever was one, Alexander plays one of the many “teen” campers at the Friday the 13th inspired/ripped-off Camp Stonewater who’re in for a summer they’ll never forget. While there’s always an attempt at humor in your average teen slasher flick, The Weinstein’s (BOOOOOO!!!) production of The Burning (1981) has a much stronger comedic voice than most of its fellow gore-tastic brethren, even those made during the Slasher Golden Age (1978-1984). You look at the swaggering, attention-grabbing, hilarious work being done by Alexander and you say, “That guy’s a fucking star!” He was only a year away from appearing in Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim-Prince disaster which ended their once fruitful Broadway collaboration.
Shot in the summer of 1980 (though conceived in 1979), just about a month before Sean S. Cunningham’s seminal, game-changing slasher would be released, the cast and crew of British rock documentary director Tony Maylam’s second narrative feature wiled away their nights in Buffalo and North Tonawanda, New York at the local skating rink while shooting what would come to be regarded as one of the stronger entries in the teen slasher subgenre by day. Loosely based around the ever-interchangeable Cropsey legend, which could alternately concern an escaped mental patient, a man with a hook hand, or just simply a homicidal maniac, most of the cast had never heard of this fireside tale despite it being a fairly New York-based yarn. Most described the shoot as carefree and delightful. Of course, the Weinsteins, even in this ultra-early stage of their illustrious and very successful career, were nothing if not brilliant salesmen. Harvey Weinstein’s (BOOOOOO!!!) press release attributed bullshit quotes to Ayres and described a set where even after the cameras stopped rolling, everyone nervously looked around, creeped out and worried that ol’ Cropsey would rear his ugly, disfigured head. Not only is this typical for the men who literally changed the way Oscar campaigns are mounted, but it proves a very clear point. Nine out of ten Hollywood big shots started out in horror.
The Burning can boast of having a relatively impressive cast of soon-to-be stars as well as future Hollywood impresarios (not only the Weinsteins, but Paramount CEO Brad Grey). It even happens to be an early credit for editor-turned director Jack Sholder, whose brief but eclectic career included Freddy’s Revenge, Wishmaster 2, Alone in the Dark, and the phenomenal The Hidden. Ultimately, The Burning is merely an average summertime horror with an above-average sense of humor, but there’s one key difference. The production snagged the now-legendary Tom Savini to provide outstandingly nasty makeup effects. While the film wasn’t a box office success, at least the movie gods smiled lovingly upon the production when it came to the effects work. Savini’s work had been instrumental in the success of Friday the 13th, but he questioned the validity of making a Friday sequel with a fully-grown Jason in the role of a potato sack-wearing killer. This trepidation freed him up to recycle and improve upon some of the gruesome kills he’d orchestrated in Cunningham’s film. Savini said, “The cast was literally lining up to find out how they would die. It made me feel like an assassin!” It’s these effects which help The Burning stand apart from other films, including Madman, which had to change its plot after learning about the rival production from an auditioning actress.
British prog-rocker Rick Wakeman (of the band Yes) provided the kooky electronic score that’s alternately appropriate and intrusive. Sometimes the beeps and boops are downright silly, but to his credit, he ably provides the film with its biggest jump scare early on. As a camper sneaks into the cabin of Camp Blackfoot’s cruel caretaker Cropsey (Lou David, The Last Dragon), the sleeping bully abruptly turns over, prompting an extremely loud musical chord. It’s achieved so early on in the film that I’m sure moviegoers still had plenty of popcorn to throw when it scared the pants off of them. A group of boys want Cropsey to “get what he deserves,” so they plant a worm-infested skull containing burning candles in its eye sockets by his bed. There‘s a decent amount of build-up during this scene as the kids rhythmically tap on a window to wake the nasty man up. Everything goes awry when Cropsey freaks and in a comically escalating sequence: lights his own pants on fire, knocks over a can of gasoline that’s inexplicably right by his bed, then emerges from the cabin fully engulfed in flames. This stunt was performed by Tom Cruise’s stunt double Reid Rondell, who was only 17 at the time and who would later die in a helicopter crash on Airwolf.
Rather than immediately jump five years into the future, the film takes the time to lightly explore Cropsey’s plight and mental state. A highly inappropriate orderly (Mansoor Najee-ullah, Scent of a Woman) describes the former caretaker as a “Big Mac well-done.” If he was an asshole before the accident, he’s a homicidal prick now. Skin grafts don’t take and he’s released from the hospital, doomed to forever cover his entire body. His POV is shot through a Vaseline-smeared lens and there’s an odd scene involving a prostitute, whose reaction to Cropsey’s appearance is poorly telegraphed. She gets the business end of a pair of scissors for her trouble.
Over at neighboring Came Stonewater, weirdo camper Alfred (Backer) is caught creeping the girls' shower. “I only meant to scare her,” Alfred sheepishly claims. And you think that makes it better?! We’re supposed to root for Alfred since he’s an outcast and a loser, but his aloof nature and overall gloomy disposition make him pretty unlikable. Much more amusing are the wacky antics of Dave (Alexander) and Woodstock (Stevens), who encourage Alfred to take a stand against abusive muscle head Glazer (Joshua). Even when Alexander was skinny, he still keeps his shirt on when he swims. The non-swimming Alfred is pushed in the water by Glazer, who strokes his way over to the ladies’ section to flex his pecs and tell them they look like “a buncha mermaids.” Woodstock takes aim at Glazer’s ass with some kind of harmless pistol that would never be allowed into a camp these days. After they bullseye Glazer, a pudgy camper shoves him into the water, resulting in a slapstick-y but legitimately funny scene. There’s a certain infectious charm that endears these wiseacres to the viewers. This is mostly due to the clearly-improvised dialogue delivered by the talented actors.
Dave must take his inspiration from Shawshank’s own Red because he’s been known to locate certain things from time to time, but instead of a rock hammer, he provides Playboy, Hustler, and rubbers, but he fucks up by not getting the lubricated ones. Alexander and Stevens apparently put in a great deal of effort in their scenes together. One particularly wonderful moment occurs when the two of them sarcastically answer a fellow camper's question in unison, “your mother.” They exchange a bemused smile.
A group of campers head down the river in canoes. Silly banjo music accompanies their trip and there’s some real camaraderie amongst the kids as they splash about. This was due to the odd decision of putting three people each in the canoes, which made rowing quite tricky. When Stevens complains, Alexander pipes up, “Maybe you shouldn’t’ve beat yer schlong last night!” There’s a fun campfire scene where camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) recounts the tale of Cropsey and horny weasel Eddy (Eisenberg) pops up in a mask to scare everyone. Alexander once again for the win: “You motherfucker!”
Later that night, Eddy tries to make it with Karen (Carolyn Houlihan, Former Miss Ohio), who likes him but doesn’t go all the way. The film’s one big takeaway is this: Guys suck. Sexually aggressive Eddy convinces her to skinny dip but she still won’t go all the way. This asshole is a real mook and is practically saying “First you don’t want me to do ya, then you don’t wanna have sex with me! Make up yer mind!” Karen’s clothes are missing and Houlihan is quite effective here as she’s genuinely upset and now desperate to find her clothes. She ventures deeper into the woods and Crospey gets her with his huge garden shears, which Todd mentioned earlier in his story. How Todd knew the shears were his weapon of choice? I have no idea. Tony Maylam came up with the idea for the shears being the tool of death, and like Dario Argento, it’s his hands wielding the shears in closeups.
The canoes disappear and Karen’s missing, so the remaining campers build a raft to ride back to camp. In the most famous sequence, the rowers are set upon by Cropsey, with the shears being raised high above his head, silhouetted against the sun. That image has become the most popular shot from the film and is often used as the cover art for most home video releases. He absolutely annihilates these kids, including Eddy, which is fun to watch. Fisher Stevens’ fingers get cut off, heads get slashed, and Eddy’s throat gets punctured. A single trail of blood runs down the arm of one of the dead girls in a surprisingly poetic but tragic shot. It’s quite a massacre.
More sexual aggression from Glazer as he dry humps resident hottie Sally (Carrick Glenn) then fails to last more than 30 seconds during sex. He offers to grab some matches which are located near a sleeping Alfred. I half-expected Glazer to give the little creep a ‘Hitler.’ Alfred wakes up and follows Glazer, presumably to watch him have sex with Sally because that’s what creepers do, but instead he sees a lurking Cropsey impale Glazer through the neck and pin him to a tree. So begins a great deal of padding: consisting of Todd running through the woods, Michelle (Ayres) getting back to camp, and Alfred’s shockingly inept running skills, where he holds his arms up like he’s got the worst case of B.O. in history.
Alfred wanders into the reasonably creepy ruins of a house and Cropsey catches up and drags him into an abandoned mine shaft. Todd happens upon them and we discover that he was one of the prank-pullers from the beginning. We get a good look at Cropsey’s face, which was a rush-job by Savini which he regards as compromised. It looks fine, but the fact that it looks melted rather than burnt is unfortunate. Alfred stabs him with his own shears as he attacks Todd with a flame thrower. We get a fake-out death, but Todd puts a stop to that by slamming an axe into Cropsey’s head and then we get a little déjà vu with Alfred lighting Cropsey’s corpse on fire. The film ends on a quiet but eerie note as another counselor is recounting the events of the film but implies that the body was never found. His last lines clearly intimate a sequel which never happened. “Every year he kills. Right now, he's out there. Watching. Waiting. So, don't look; he'll see you. Don't breathe; he'll hear you. Don't move; you're dead!” Cut to black.
The Burning has received something of a critical reappraisal over the years. While it isn’t a particularly distinguished film in and of itself, as a by-product of the early 80’s slasher craze, it’s much more accomplished and skillfully made than many horror films of the time. It’s far from perfect, but it’s got charm, energy, and some delightfully gruesome kills.