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Movie Review: The Burning

The Burning (Filmways Pictures, 1981)
Directed by Tony Maylam
Written by Maylam, Brad Grey, Peter Lawrence, and Harvey Weinstein

I love films that get this semi-cult following behind them and are considered lost gems of an era; in this case, the era of the slasher boom which I already touched on in my Prom Night review. But my point is, usually when I end up watching said film I find it very easy to understand why no one really talks about it, in this case, twenty-six years later. Usually it’s not because the film is bad, but just forgettable.

Halloween is fondly remembered because it’s good, Friday is remembered because it proved that anyone with a good idea for a gory murder sequence and a few bucks to put behind it could make a film that would gross 20 million or so.  But most of these slasher films that were released at the time started running together quickly, and it’s hard to remember which one starred who and was about what. I watched this with a friend who swore up and down he had never seen it, and then twenty minutes in started getting some serious cases of deja vu. When it was over, he still wasn’t sure if he had seen it. That’s about the best critique I can give to The Burning.

The film begins at a summer camp that has a name I can’t remember. Sorry, I really need to take some notes I guess. Four campers are in the midst of pulling a prank on the crazy, mean groundskeeper, Cropsy, when everything goes wrong and old Crospy is burnt to a crisp. Somehow he survives, and five years later is released back into civilization with revenge on his mind.

The film picks up at a different summer camp that I assume is close to the one from five years ago because this is where Cropsy comes back to. However, with the exception of a ghost story about Cropsy and how the camp burned down we don’t really get any other explanation. And what exactly does that mean? The camp burned down? Did the woods go as well; is there just a crater there now? From the sequence we see at the beginning, it looks like only Cropsy and maybe his cabin were burnt, but semantics, I guess.

The rest of the film plays out exactly how you would expect it to, but I have to give this film some props. I’m sure most all of you reading this have seen Scream, and know the rules for the slasher genre. Well, in this film, they actually stray from that a bit. The most noticeable difference is that a guy is the one going up against Cropsy in the end at an old mineshaft that pops up in the middle of the woods (because that makes perfect sense). The other thing I noticed is that half of the people you expect to die end up living. Much like Prom Night, The Burning doesn’t really start hacking off people until the hour mark. It still ends up with an above average body count, but that’s mostly because there’s a scene on a raft where six or seven people get chopped up all at once.

Another funny diversion from your standard slasher film is in a scene where a dude pitches a fit about his chick not wanting to have sex with him in the lake. Cropsy decides to kill her and let the dude live. I guess he was more annoyed by the poor guy’s blue balls than his asshole nature toward the opposite sex. Thanks for sticking up for my gender, Cropsy. The killer also thankfully only uses a set of shears for all of his kills and doesn’t appear to have an entire hardware store’s worth of arsenal with him in the woods.

Still, the movie doesn’t work on so many levels. It’s a blatant rip-off of Friday, which isn’t a very good film in the first place. I’ll admit The Burning is an overall better film, but not enough to make it worthwhile in the “ripping off” department. The film probably hasn’t aged well either because so many films since it are so alike that it’s hard to give this one any distinguishing marks ahead of others.

The film also wastes the great makeup F/X of Tom Savini who turned down Friday the 13th Part II to do this film with quick cutaways, and we only get to see Cropsy in full burnt glory for a split second toward the end of the film. In a documentary on the DVD that is more interesting than the film, Savini says he chose The Burning because he thought it was stupid that they were going to have the Friday sequels focus on Jason, and that no one would go see it. He went on to do Parts III and IV after he realized his mistake.

On an interesting note, this is the first narrative film release from Miramax studios. It’s got a funny bit in the opening credits where Harvey Weinstein gives himself the non-existing and ridiculous credit of “Created and Produced By.” This also marks one of the first roles for Jason Alexander. I love to see popular actors of today in stupid films like this early in their career. The Doc always keeps a mental checklist of this, so if I ever do see ole George Costanza on the street, I can have a run-in like this: “Hey, aren’t you that guy from…oh, it’s on the tip of my tongue…” And as he waits for the typical ending to this question that I’m sure he gets all the time, I’ll hit him with “The Burning?” Just to see his jaw drop will make watching this film well worth it.

So, I understand that this film has its fans, and in some sequences I can see why. But, as far as the Doc is concerned, if it stayed locked in a vault of forgotten films, we wouldn’t be missing much.


Sam Loomis

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