The Slasher boom that caught fire in the late 70’s in North America pulled a lot of ‘inspiration’ in their kills from the Italian Gialli that had gone before ( I’m looking at you, Friday The 13th Part 2), but oddly none adopted the feel or the look from their stylish brethren. That is, until The Burning (1981), a summer camp slaughterhouse produced by a fledgling little company called Miramax. A uniquely nasty little number, The Burning stands apart from many of its campkill cousins with elevated performances, strong direction, and a mood that evokes the best of Argento.
Bob and Harvey Weinstein started Miramax as a way to get into the movie business, coming from a background in music promotion. All signs pointed towards horror as the entry point – you didn’t need stars, and limited locations keep costs down. The Burning was budgeted at 1.5 million, and only brought in half of that in North America upon release in May. However, the burgeoning financial minds of the Weinsteins presold the film rights worldwide before the film premiered ensuring a profitable venture, and Miramax was on its way to becoming the independent juggernaut of the following decade.
Here comes the shortest paragraph: The story. In 1976, a group of campers at Camp Blackfoot play a prank on the caretaker Cropsy, accidentally causing his cabin – and him – to go up in flames. Fast forward 5 years, and Cropsy is released from the hospital, horribly burned, disfigured and still holding a grudge. After a deadly dalliance with a prostitute, Cropsy pitches a tent at Camp Stonewater, where he exacts his revenge on unsuspecting campers and counselors alike. And that’s that.
Where The Burning earns its scarred stripes is in the delivery. This is paced differently than a Friday The 13th movie – it doesn’t race from one set up to the next, but rather has a dreamy, languid pace in common with a Bay of Blood (1971) or Deep Red (1975), two Italian masterpieces of the genre. As well, all the characters are given beats that make you sympathize with them more so than usual, a line here or an action there adding gravitas to an already time worn setting.
Director Tony Maylam should be given a large share of the credit for making this a cut above the rest. As mentioned before, the pace is almost glacial, punctured by startling kills that really emphasize the brutality of the proceedings. Maylam clearly has not taken the hiking trail through Crystal Lake and we’re all the better for it. He also stages the kills differently, often shooting Cropsy in silhouette and shadows, his giant slicing shears tearing through the air with a horrifying force. The look of Cropsy is stunning. Black pants and boots, long black jacket and gloves (a tip of the blade to Argento again), a black fedora and a scarred visage - covering scarf completes an outfit that should be as iconic as a hockey mask or Christmas sweater. Maylam makes us wait until the end before displaying Cropsy in full on extra crispy mode. It’s a good reveal, fiery and fearsome. Maylam would go on to do only one more genre film (1992’s dystopic Predator hodgepodge Split Second), which is a shame as he has a classical style for suspense and terror that could have made him a horror icon with the right project.
The screenplay, credited to Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein, lays out all of the familiar ingredients on the table and then decides to throw out the recipe and wing it. This film works differently than others of its ilk due to the fact that these campers are likeable. Killable, sure, ‘do’able, okay, but most of them are good, decent, and not annoying at all. So when the shears do come down, you actually sympathize with their plight. What a crazy concept, huh?
More Argento allegiance is pledged through the moody synthesizer score of Rick Wakeman (Yes) , recalling the tense stylings of Italian soundtrack legends Goblin. An atmospheric triumph.
The cast! How’s this for a group of unknowns? Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit). Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Jason Alexander (Seinfeld). All of the cast deliver performances that are natural and engaging, drawing the viewer in so we feel every swipe during Cropsy’s cutting concerto.
A big selling point back in the day for Slashers were the effects – and if you were lucky enough to get Tom Savini, you got the attention. Savini, at this point, was famous for Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) – ultrarealistic effects that had audiences screaming with joy. His work here is effective and the raft scene is an orgasmic smorgasbord of slice and dice.
It is puzzling that The Burning never got its due upon release. However, as other films have faded from memory like a bygone summer camp experience, Cropsy’s bonfire continues to blaze for those brave enough to feel the heat.
The Burning is available in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: KILL, BABY, KILL