So the killer's head is a volcano? The Sun? What the hell am I looking at?
A group of horny teenagers are brutally murdered by an unseen killer. Sound familiar? During the “slasher boom” of the mid-70's and early 80's, a lot of horror movies followed this simple formula. Black Christmas is widely considered to be the first true slasher film, followed by Silent Night, Bloody Night and Savage Weekend. Thanks to successes like Halloween and Friday The 13th, studios desperately tried to cash in on slasher movies, amping up the gore while keeping the same basic story. Despite being a subgenre, slashers are one of the most popular and best-known styles of horror. Does it matter if a slasher is generic as long as there's lots of gore?
The Burning is a 1981 slasher starring Brian Matthews (The Young And The Restless, Days Of Our Lives) as Todd. When he was a teenager, Todd and a group of campers played a prank on Cropsy, the camp's caretaker. They placed a rotting skull with candles in it's eye sockets on Cropsy's table, hoping to scare him. When Cropsy woke up, he inadvertently knocked the skull onto his bed, setting himself on fire. He managed to survive, though he was permanently scarred and disfigured. 5 years later, Cropsy was released from the hospital and Todd has become a counselor at a summer camp. Alfred (Brian Backer, Fast Times At Ridgemont High,The Money Pit), an outcast camper, is caught peeping on one of the girls at camp and is threatened with expulsion. He tells Todd that he was just playing a prank to get back at another camper, a meathead named Glazer, for giving him a hard time. That night, Alfred sees someone outside his cabin, but no one believes him. Todd and his girlfriend Michelle (Leah Ayres, Bloodsport, The Brady's) take a group of campers down river for a few days. Unknown to them, Cropsy is out in the woods, stalking them. When their canoes go missing, a small group builds a raft to get back to camp. They spot one of the canoes and head towards it. When they reach it, Cropsy jumps out, brutally hacking and slashing them to death with garden shears. Cropsy kills more of the group, killing Glazer and his girlfriend Sally. Alfred sees this and grabs Todd. When they find the bodies, they are attacked by Cropsey. How will they survive and how will they get back to camp?
If this story sounds familiar, it's not your imagination. Friday The 13th came out in 1980 and it's sequel came out the same year as The Burning. The then new company Miramax Films was looking to cash-in on the slasher craze of the time. Harvey and Bob Weinstein (Gangs of New York, Kill Bill) wrote and produced the movie and put about $1.5 million into making it, a much higher budget than some of it's slasher brethren. They also hired makeup and special effects wizard Tom Savini (Dawn Of The Dead, Friday The 13th) away from Friday The 13th Part 2 to provide all the gore and makeup. Slasher movies rarely require much in the way of story, but it's so similar to the Friday The 13th series that it feels like I'm watching the same movie. There are oversexed teen counselors being murdered by a sharp metal object in the woods. That's not “like” Friday The 13th, that is Friday The 13th. Despite essentially being the same movie, The Burning has a lot more bloody violence and gore, some of which got them in trouble with the Motion Picture Association. While the scenes are tame by today's standards, they were pretty shocking for 1981. The violence is pretty entertaining thanks to Savini's creative makeup and effects. The violence is pretty entertaining thanks to Savini's creative makeup and effects.
Speaking of effects, the makeup used for Cropsy's disfigurement looks less like a burn victim and more like a pink California Raisin. Apparently, Savini only had about 3 days to work on the makeup giving Crospy a melted look instead of burns. We go through most of the movie never seeing him and it was disappointing when his face is finally revealed. The film uses the first-person perspective from Cropsy's point of view when he is stalking his victims. Friday The 13th did the same exact thing. The movie's final scene takes place in a mine shaft, reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine, which came out in the same year. Either these are incredible coincidences, or the Weinsteins just didn't care and took from other movies. The acting is decent throughout, though Brian Backer is a little annoying. His delivery is a little too desperate and sweaty. Part of that is the writing because he's supposed to be a somewhat sympathetic character, but still comes off like a creep. The Burning has smaller roles played by future stars like Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) and Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona, O, Brother Where Art Thou?) and it's fun to see them before they got their breaks.
At least you can still do the "I'm talking on the phone" hand gesture
The Burning is a by-the-numbers slasher movie very similar to other slashers. It's not terribly original, but what it lacks in creativity, it tries to make up with blood and gore. The violence is very entertaining and quite messy for the time period. Tom Savini works his magic with some very good effects, though his makeup for the villain is lacking. The acting and directing are fine and it's fun to pick out some famous actors in smaller roles. The Burning is by no means a bad slasher movie. It gives the audience what it wants: blood and guts. While some scenes in the movie are cliché or don't make sense, like why Cropsy killed a random prostitute in the beginning, the movie's quick pace tries to erase lingering questions. It's not a classic and doesn't have great name recognition, but The Burning is still worth a watch if you're feeling nostalgic or want to catch a lesser-known movie from the slasher boom.