I had another column all sorted for today, and then last night I saw The Burning and everything else became immediately less important.
It's October, and as Brian pointed out, this is the month that even casual horror movie watchers pile on the fright flicks. The Burning is free streaming on Netflix and the film had somehow evaded me for the past thirty years. And then last night I said the words, "What I'm really in the mood for is an old-school slasher movie, but one I've never seen before," and like magic, my friend Jerry was at the ready with The Burning. The nice thing is that, unlike so many of the old horror movies on Netflix, the offered version of The Burning looks great. It's clear and sharp and very pretty--and that makes a difference, because The Burning is actually shot and framed quite well. And this version is unedited! There are apparently several different edited options of the movie floating around, but the one on Netflix is whole-hog naked and disgusting.
In the interest of full transparency, The Burning (1981) is definitely a partial rip-off of the slasher flicks that came before it. While the riffs on Halloween and Friday the 13th are pretty blatant, there's some real gold in this movie. And hey, A Nightmare on Elm Street totally stole the implied pedophile/burn victim killer from The Burning! The film was the very first produced by the Weinstein brothers for Miramax. Harvey actually co-wrote it along with future Paramount CEO Brad Grey. It's directed by Tony Maylam and features the always splendid makeup effects of Mr. Tom Savini. And The Burning represents the first feature film role for Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (with a head full of hair and a reasonably compact tummy), the always reprehensible Fisher Stevens and a teeny-tiny Holly Hunter, who has maybe one line?
So why is this movie a blast? You guys, it takes place at summer camp! I love love love summer camp movies, and I particularly dig summer camp slasher flicks. The Burning's Camp Blackfoot puts me in such nostalgic mind of my own Camp Lakeview, from camp flirting to the mess hall to canoe trips to the bunkbed bungalows. After a pretty gruesome cold open, there's a really charming, cute tone for the first half of the film. While some might argue that the pacing is skewed--we don't get to serious slashing until about an hour in--I appreciate the effort to legitimately establish character dynamics and relationships, and to its credit, The Burning is at least super naked right off the bat. The two camp counselors (including the dashing, open-shirted Brian Matthews who will hereafter be referred to as Action Figure Todd) are in love while trying to wrangle the irrepressible, hormone-beset campers. There's a lot of gossiping and camaraderie and rallying around the pitiful nerd (Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High! who does not deserve the camp sympathy he gets because he is a total peeping creep). The Burning is just pleasant until it isn't anymore, and then it gets awesome.
The one doing all the slashing in this particular slasher flick is reviled former camp caretaker Cropsy (named after the urban legend of the Cropsey maniac), who was horrifically burned after a crappy kid prank turned much crappier. He stalks through the film swathed in trenchcoat and shadows, wielding a gigantic pair of gardening shears. Despite some solid melty make-upping by Savini, the filmmakers elect to hide Cropsy's burned visage until the climax, presumably to build mystery and suspense. But they still get their money's worth out of Savini through a series of brutal, close-up, daylit kills that still look great today.
The campers take an overnight canoe jaunt to an island separated from the campgrounds by a large lake, then find themselves stranded after Cropsy makes off with their canoes. Action Figure Todd earns his keep by supervising the incredibly efficient construction of a very large and professional-looking raft, and six of the campers take off on the raft to round up the canoes. Cropsy hides in one of the canoes, jumps onto the approaching raft and then shears the everloving shit out of these six kids in broad daylight. Savini's signature effects are displayed beautifully here as gently wobbling flesh is ripped broadly apart, hands are defingered, heads are scalped and throats are Colombian necktied all over that remarkably well-constructed raft.
The Burning ends a little differently than one might expect, including the decided eschewal of any possibility for a sequel, but I'm not besotted enough to argue that this film is groundbreaking. The women are mostly naked victims, the guys are all rapists at heart (except Action Figure Todd!), the title is hilariously vague, the score is painfully lame and the film's big reveal is something I assumed we were already supposed to know the whole time. But The Burning just has something--a bright, gory charm--that I found really fun. So if you haven't seen it and this month you find yourself craving a summer camp slasher, give Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp a rest; check outThe Burning instead.