The Film: The Burning
The Principles: Starring Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter and Lou David as Cropsy. Directed by Tony Maylam. Produced and created by Harvey Weinstein with additional writing from Bob Weinstein and Brad Grey.
The Premise: A cruel pedophile caretaker at a children’s summer camp is hideously disfigured when a prank gone wrong burns him to a crisp. The vengeful maniac is released from the hospital several years later and returns to the scene where a new camp is now located. He starts butchering the counselors with a gigantic pair of gardening shears when they go on an all-night sleepover in the forest.
Is it any good: It’s a sleazy, grimy, mean-spirited summer camp slasher that does an amazing job of walking the tightrope between being both formulaic and out-of-the-box original in its storytelling approach. Birthed like a mutant bastard offspring following the success of the previous summer’s sleeper hit Friday the 13th, it takes the genre to a lot of surprising places while serving up a quintessential 80’s slasher film that has become a one hit wonder classic over the many decades since its release. This one has aged like a fine cheese, making it funky, stinky and a completely pungent experience for the senses. I was a mere child who was obsessively addicted to all things horror when I conned my mother into paying for a ticket to this film along with myself and two of my very young friends in tow. I tricked her into taking us by saying that it was a movie about summer camp like Meatballs, which is sort of true if the Ivan Reitman/Bill Murray comedy had a freakishly burned lunatic with razor sharp hedge clippers ripping the C.I.T.’s to pieces alongside an abundance of the most gratuitous T & A shots ever filmed.
It’s notorious for featuring first time appearances from Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter as a background extra and a hairy, fresh-faced Jason Alexander in a breakout role as the very likable Dave, who provides his fellow compadres with porno mags and condoms and the audience with some nice, natural comic relief. And of course there’s the fact that the film was written and produced by future industry titans Bob and Harvey Weinstein along with Brad Grey, and that this can actually be considered the first Miramax production ever because the company is named in the opening credits. This all adds to the film’s infamy, but for me there are many subtle and not-so-subtle differences that set it apart from other outdoor hackers.
For one, there’s a pervasive male chauvinistic cruelty that permeates the screen from the second it begins as a group of male campers eagerly prepare an elaborate practical joke to scare the living daylights out of the much-hated caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David). The character is described by the boys as being capable of unspeakable acts of viciousness, especially when concerning the female campers, so they frighten him out of his mind with a weird, worm-ridden jack o’ lantern and the candle ignites Cropsy’s sheets as well as the poorly placed gasoline canister sitting next to his bunk. We’re then treated to a wonderfully written and acted scene in which the world’s most insensitive orderly bullies an intern into gawking at the deformed freak, only to be given the jolt of his life. This is followed by a slime-soaked sequence in which Cropsy is released from the burn ward after a few years and immediately finds a scuzzy hooker who refuses him sex due to his condition, so he stabs her with a pair of sharp scissors.
The camp that Cropsy stalks is filled with the kind of fun-loving, sex-craved young people you would find in your typical teen sex comedy from the era, however there a couple of dudes that are borderline date rapists in the manner in which they project their horniness. This is most singularly personified in the form of Glazer (Larry Joshua), the muscle shirt and high-waist jeans wearing camp bully who likes to beat up on the weaker kids when he isn’t prematurely ejaculating on some poor girl. The main subject of his abuse is the nerdy, voyeuristic Alfred (Brian Backer from Fast Times at Ridgemont High) who creeps everyone in camp out early by peeping on one of the ladies while she’s in the shower. And this is one of the places where The Burning deviates from your standard slasher template. The survival girl is replaced with a survival boy in the form of Alfred the weirdo, who would be the number one suspect in pretty much any other film like this from the time.
There’s also the infamous “raft scene” set piece that was released uncut in the U.S. and it is the most gruesome group kill sequence ever committed to celluloid. Rather than typically bumping the kids off one-by-one from the beginning, director Tony Maylam takes his sweet time building suspense and developing characters, so when the “raft scene” happens it’s one of the most brutally visceral moments ever invented for any slasher film I’ve ever witnessed before or since. It’s also some of special make up effects legend Tom Savini’s best gore work ever right next to his brilliance on Maniac and The Prowler.
The film makes excellent use of its upstate New York location and looks and feels gritty and authentic without really trying too hard. Rick Wakeman provides an awesomely effective slasher movie score that’s very moody and borrows more from John Carpenter then Harry Manfredini. I also love the fact that it was made, like so many other one hit wonder slashers from this time period, with absolutely no intention whatsoever of leaving anything open for a sequel. The producers just wanted to make some quick cash to capitalize on the slasher boom and clearly weren’t thinking franchise yet. The precedent had not yet been set that these films had the legs to be made again and again, so when the heroes kill Cropsy at the end of The Burning they fuck him up so bad there’s no way he could come back for more. Jason Voorhees had it better at the end of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and they really massacred him in that one. Although, I do sometimes fantasize about what The Burning 2: Cropsy’s Revenge might have been like, I’m glad we have just this one to look back at in wide-eyed wonder.
Is it worth a look: If you’re a slasher fan and you haven’t seen it yet then it’s mandatory viewing. Like I said, the film has a lot of nostalgic kicks and plays almost like a parody of the genre at times with its over-the-top gore and nudity, but there’s a coating of something slimy over the surface that makes this one stick out in the crowd.
Random anecdotes: The character of Cropsy is based on an actual urban legend from the New York state area about an escaped mental patient named Cropsey who goes after small children in the woods. It was the subject of an excellent true crime documentary about a mysterious series of abductions and murders on Staten Island called Cropsey.
Cinematic soul mates: Bay of Blood, Friday the 13th, Madman, Just Before Dawn, Sleepaway Camp, Wrong Turn and Cropsey.