…because, as has been the case before, it doesn’t require much more.
The Burning is a summer camp slasher from 1981, during the brief period between slasher movies being established as a genre in their own right and their descent into self-parody, when the slasher formula could still be played with a straight face.
As always, this review is entirely about my own reactions. For a more scholarly and informative article, see here. Spoilers start below the fold.
The movie begins, as so many slasher movies since Prom Night have, with a bunch of kids – teenagers attending Camp Blackfoot – earning the ire of the psycho by playing a prank. The Burning differs from most of those others in that the pranksters don’t earn our ire at the same time. The victim of the prank, the camp’s caretaker, one “Cropsy”, is a drunken bully who deserves to have his nose tweaked. What’s more, the prank really should have been harmless. Only Cropsy’s disproportionate, drunken panic turns it into the disaster it becomes (though you can fault the kids for running away afterward – the man needed help!).
Five years later, Cropsy is released from the hospital. Attempts at grafts have failed, so most of his body is still covered with terrible burns. He is understandably filled with a terrible hatred for the people who did this to him, so he…travels to an entirely different camp than the one he used to work for, and kills a bunch of completely random kids.
As you do.
Actually, I doubt you do, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
To be fair, Camp Blackfoot was either closed down or, if you believe the campfire stories, burned down, and Camp Stonewater is just a couple of miles downriver. And one of the pranksters is working there as a counselor. Still, for most mad bastards on a roaring rampage of revenge, especially in a movie like this, the connection’s a bit weak. Jason killed anyone who entered his territory – but Camp Stonewater is not Cropsy’s territory. Michael Myers was terrifying because he killed at random…but Cropsy is explicitly out for revenge. Why not just kill that one guy, and move on to the rest of the jokers who burned you?
Anyway, leaving that aside, The Burning is a fairly standard slasher once Cropsy leaves the hospital. The killer hunts a bunch of horny teens through the woods, picking them off one-by-one and killing them in interesting ways. Tom Savini is on the job, so you know the kills are truly spectacular. Some nice T&A to tide male viewers over between killings, hetero female viewers are sadly neglected.
(By the way, am I the only one who prefers the nude scenes in these older movies, where the breasts are natural and neither the bodies nor the cameras are twisted into awkward angles to hide a bit of pubic hair?)
Actually, I’m being a little unfair here. There are at least two factors that raise The Burning above and beyond the standard slasher (other than the presence of Tom Savini, I mean).
For one thing, The Authorities actually believe the victims and come a-running when called. The camp supervisor takes a minute to really believe that he’s in a slasher flick – “Is this some kind of joke?” – but all that Michelle, the girls’ camp counselor, has to do is point and say “Look at these kids!”
I appreciate that. I can’t think of how many slasher movies I’ve seen where the Authorities are approached by traumatized, clearly terrified teenagers and dismiss their pleas for help as either pranks or hysteria. Of course they’re hysterical, you assholes! They would be, if their story was true! As a rule, teenagers don’t like to go to adults with their problems, so if they do, maybe you should at least put in a good-faith effort to see what scared them so badly, hmmm?
More impressive yet, the teenagers in question aren’t half-bad kids. Most of them are still generic, expendable meat, it’s true, but you’re not actually eager to see them die. My personal favorite is Dave. Dave is the kind of big, jolly class clown who does his best to make sure everyone has a good time, and who uses his size and wit to keep the local bully in his place. The fact that he’s played by Jason Alexander (yes, Seinfeld’s George Costanza), and that Alexander’s own charisma shines through, is icing on the cake. Dave’s less-distinctive friends are also pleasant enough company, and I’m sorry when some of them have to die, but this is a slasher movie, after all.
None of the girls match up to Dave in terms of memorability, I’m afraid. It makes me wonder if the writers were Dave-like clowns in their own youth, but were forced to rely on rather…distant impressions when writing teenage girls. That said, I think they do a good job with the bits they include: I like that the girls are neither slasher-movie sluts nor virginal Final Girls (though most probably are virgins, young as they are, as are the boys – Woodstock, you’re just kidding yourself with all that Vitamin E), instead being just as horny as their male counterparts, but more nervous and conflicted about acting on those urges because of the greater risks they run…kinda like real teenage girls. I also appreciate that our young BBW isn’t treated as a joke because of her weight, but instead given a bit of stouth strength and some heavy lifting to do.
They really should have let them wear regular clothes instead of swimsuits during that opening softball game, though. I appreciate the attempt at fanservice, but I was too distracted worrying about slide burns on soft places.
There are two other characters besides Dave who are distinctive and memorable, but I’m afraid they’re nowhere near as pleasant.
The first is Alfred, who you might recognize as Brian Backer, who played Mark “Rat” Ratner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Alfred is kind of pathetic and I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him, but that’s actually pretty difficult. Because he’s a creep. We first meet him when he’s not just peeping on one of the girls in the shower, but actually surprising her while she’s naked and frightening her. (He claims it was a prank, but I suspect he was trying for a closer look and got caught.) Michelle, the aforementioned girls’ counselor, wants him gone, but Todd (the aforementioned prankster who is now serving as a camp counselor) promises to deal with the situation himself. Honestly, I think Michelle is right, and I agree with her that Todd is too soft. Stalking and low-grade sexual assault requires more answer than a stern talking-to, especially when a bit of whining about how everyone picks on him turns away Todd’s wrath (in fact, Alfred is part of Dave’s posse – low man on the totem pole, perhaps, but still protected instead of picked on).
I can’t help but wonder if this is a bit of values dissonance between 2013 and 1980. Certainly the peeping toms of Porky’s were intended to be nothing more than a harmless bunch of high-spirited young scamps, and we see plenty of other examples of such changing mores: kids who look as young as fourteen smoking, Playboys left sitting out on the table when the camp counselor comes in, condoms delivered in plain brown wrappers. Later on, when Eddie – who I’m still not sure whether he’s another counselor or just another elder camper like Dave – goes skinny-dipping with his girlfriend Karen, and becomes almost-violently angry when she refuses to have sex with him, I don’t think he’s supposed to look like as much of an asshole as he does.
So maybe we really are supposed to sympathize with Alfred’s pathetic-ness, and dismiss his peeping as a harmless bit of “boys will be boys” for which Michelle is coming down on him too hard. Even if you do, though, it’s still hard to feel too sorry for him, because his pathetic-ness is an internal character trait which has nothing to do with how the rest of the camp treats him. When you get right down to it, the only person who really picks on Alfred is Glazer, the camp bully.
Glazer is the other memorable character. What makes him memorable are his differences from the standard slasher-movie bully. Most such bullies are Big Men On Campus who everyone but their victims like for reasons that are never really explained. Glazer is a big, clumsy galoot that nobody likes (some of the girls acknowledge that he’s passing attractive – “Imagine all those muscles on top of you”, one lewds – but when he tries to join a group of them after throwing Alfred, who can’t swim, into the water, he is unwelcome) who deals with his social awkwardness by menacing as many people as he can. It doesn’t actually work very well for him, since Dave seems to have appointed himself the protector of the small at Camp Stonewater. Glazer could probably take Dave in a fight, but the cost would be high enough that he doesn’t want to try – besides, Dave is his condom connection, and Todd is watching him like a hawk.
Speaking of those condoms, Glazer does in fact have a girlfriend at the camp. Her name is Sally, and she doesn’t actually seem to like him very much (though he does turn her on), and one suspects that he just sort of unilaterally declared her his girl. Incidentally, Sally is the girl that Alfred is focusing most of his perv on, so I can’t entirely blame Glazer for not liking the guy.
Glazer eventually manages to talk Sally into joining him in the woods to use those condoms. His performance reminds us that he’s still a teenager, too, and if he’s less of a virgin than Alfred, it’s not by much. Sally is willing to give him another chance, but this being a slasher movie, the poor girl dies with blue balls. Glazer himself dies soon after, in a manner that I will discuss further below.
By the way, I was watching this movie with my girlfriend, and she mentioned that Glazer has a habit of flexing his pecs whenever indignant. Keep an eye out for it.
Unfortunately, the film is not without weakness, either. You can actually see the point at the end where the budget ran out. Toward the end, Cropsy is chasing Todd and Alfred through a concrete foundation that I think is supposed to be the ruins of Camp Blackfoot (obviously padding out the running time as he does so). That alone is some microbudget, shot-in-the-backyard shit right there, but it gets worse: Todd finds Karen’s body, but instead of calling the actress back to hang there and be dead, the filmmakers simply cut or copied a frame or two from her death scene, tried to crop it in the hopes that you wouldn’t notice the bright sunshiney forest showing around her edges while she was supposedly hanging like a side of beef in a dark mine, and inserted it.
But all of that is small potatoes. For all its other weaknesses and strengths, The Burning has one big, big problem that hangs over every moment, impossible to forget. Double-extra secret spoiler to follow. I’m serious. This is supposed to be the Big Reveal.
Still there? Okay. You see, this:
Michael Myers was the bogeyman. Jason Voorhees, before he became a giant zombie, was some kind of backwoods mutant. As was Leatherface, for that matter, and both were explicitly men of immense physical power. Even Freddy was a ghost. Cropsy is a summer-camp caretaker with horrific burns over most of his body, who has spent five years in a hospital bed. He is a grievously injured man. Between that and muscle atrophy, he’s lucky he can walk. Whence comes his ability to heft 200 pounds of teenage meat and bone like it was a bag of feathers and staple it to a tree with a set of pruning shears? His ability to use said shears to take out an entire raft full of strapping teenagers like a red-hot blender-blade through a half-dozen sticks of butter?
It doesn’t help that his weapon of choice, his pruning shears, aren’t actually very good weapons, even if sharpened to a razor edge as the legend of Cropsy claims. Oh, I certainly wouldn’t want to face someone armed with a pair barehanded, but the same could be said of a rock. I certainly don’t see how you could use them to put a viewing port in someone’s skull, as Cropsy does, without: 1) great effort and damage to the shears themselves; or 2) Jason-level strength. Cropsy does it with a casual swing.
I know you’re supposed to suspend your disbelief on precisely those matters when it comes to slasher movies. It’s the only way you can actually believe that Pamela Voorhees can force an arrow through a bed and the muscle and vertebrae of a teenage neck above it, or take three solid blows to the head with various heavy iron objects and still keep coming. Even so, this pushes it a bit too far.
In sum, I recommend this movie for the slasher fan. It’s quite well-made for its time (before its budget gives out) and includes several welcome differences from what you’re used to seeing. The traditional twenty minutes or so where we get to know the characters before they start dying isn’t the ordeal that it usually is. I would say that it comes close to the status of forgotten classic, but misses by just a few points. For everyone else, you may enjoy it anyway, but go in with the warning that there are problems you won’t be able to unsee.