Review by JA Kerswell
It's finger snippin' good! ... In a subgenre as glorioudsly disreputable as the slasher movie few have courted as much controversy as THE BURNING. The juvenile, care-free humour of much of the film is off-set against the remarkably nasty gore effects of Tom Savini. It is this schizophrenic approach that makes the film standout somewhat from its peers. Its infamy, of course, was also cemented by its inclusion as an official ‘video-nasty’ in the UK.
The film begins with a prologue set as Camp Blackfoot, where a group of adolescent boys play a prank on the camp caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David). It appears that their only intention is to scare him – and they do so by placing a rotting human skull (it is never revealed if it is meant to be real), with lit candles in the eye sockets, next to his bed as he sleeps. They bang on the window causing him to awake with a start. He knocks the candles accidentally onto the bed and set it – and himself – alight. The boys watch in horror as Cropsy bursts from his cabin engulfed in flames; he runs to the lake and throws himself in.
Cut to St Catherine’s Hospital (in some unnamed city, which we take to be New York). Cropsy has been admitted after suffering horrific burns. Perhaps echoing the general nihilistic vibe of that period, rather than engendering sympathy, he is seen as a freak show – so much so that an orderly shows him off to a new doctor as a gruesome curiosity. He’s hardly channelling Florence Nightingale when he tells him: “Man, this guy is so burned, he's cooked! A fucking Big Mac, overdone!”. The first hint that Cropsy isn’t taking his ordeal well is when he grabs the orderly’s arm; his flesh hanging off in chunks – causing the poor men to succumb to a fit of shock and bad acting.
5 years convalescence does little to mend Cropsy mentally – and certainly does nothing for his looks. Despite a montage of voices telling him to forgive and forget – and not to blame those pesky kids – the first thing he does is not go on Oprah, but commit murder when he is finally discharged. Finding himself in a sea of neon and vice, Cropsy (his hideous scars hidden by a hat and coat), picks up a prostitute and murders her with scissors in her room when she reacts badly to his face.
The film does a volte-face here. The murder of the prostitute is, whilst not the most gruesome in the film, is probably the most mean-spirited. The somewhat cheesy opening and the open-mouthed acting in the hospital shows that the film is not going to be a necessarily serious or downbeat one (and won’t delve further into the dark side as contemporaries such as William Lustig's MANIAC and Romano Scavolini's NIGHTMARE did), but the subsequent jolt from the prostitute murder into the innocence and youthful joviality of Camp Stonewater in full swing is an effective and unsettlingly jarring one.
As SLEEPAWAY CAMP did two years later, THE BURNING juxtaposes the teen humour of MEATBALLS (1979) (which Brian Backer incidentally also appeared) and the charnel house horror of the previous year’s FRIDAY THE 13TH. It works most of the time. Cropsy is ever present; lurking in the bushes with his trusty garden shears. His point-of-view gaze indicated by what looks like vaseline around the lens (and by all accounts it was!). He is itching to do some teen pruning, but his motto is obviously revenge is a dish served cold. The fact that his first victim is almost the 15 year old Tiger (Shelley Bruce, who even looks a couple of years younger) – who retrieves a ball from the bushes and just misses the shears – again highlights the way the film oscillates from cheese to shock relatively effortlessly. As it was, Shelley Bruce told me she had no idea she was being menaced by Cropsy in this scene until she saw the finished film!
As Cropsy stays on the sidelines we are introduced to the young cast – and their burgeoning love life. Karen (Carolyn Houlihan) and Eddy’s (Ned Eisenberg) flirting. The bully-boy antics of Glazer (Larry Joshua) and his pursuit of Sally (Carrick Glenn). As well as the two camp counsellors, Michelle (Leah Ayres) and Todd (Brian Matthews). Love may be in the air, but so soon will be blood – although the teenage hormones are so strong that the romance continues even after the body parts start flying (albeit without the knowledge of the lovers). Surrounding them is an excitable teenage cast (including Bonnie Deroski whose Marnie was named after the Hitchcock film of the same name – as well as providing a launching pad for the soon-to-be famous Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens and Jason Alexander), basking in the sunshine; swimming and generally enjoying what was up until that point an idyllic summer.
We are also introduced to Alfred (Brian Backer), the camp nerd (Alfred was coincidentally also the name of the nerd character in the same year’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). He frightens Sally in the shower in a prank that goes wrong, and gets a good talking to by Todd – and is further picked on by Glazer, who objects to him ogling his latest squeeze. Cue lots of subsequent pranking and general teen humour ahead of the big canoe ride up to Devil's Creek.
It should come as no great surprise that Cropsy is along for the trip – although how he gets there is anyone’s guess. THE BURNING is not seemingly concerned with logic on this point. Cropsy’s bogeyman is omnipresent, and will appear anywhere that drives events further – no more illogically than when he spends the afternoon lying in a canoe on the off chance that a bunch of teens will paddle by (more on which later). To be fair, whilst this does smack of laziness on the part of the movie makers, it cements the nightmare logic of the monster who can be anywhere at any time. It also nicely utilises the urban legend of The Cropsy Maniac, where the story took its inspiration from. The film doesn’t even try to engender any sympathy for his character, despite the horror of what he has been through. He doesn’t speak. His only form of communication seems to be sign language with shears! Later in the film we discover that Todd was one of the kids that caused the accident. Despite this – and despite being painted as the sensitive brooding type – he uses Cropsy’s trauma as part of his camp fire routine, where he tries to spook the campers.
Karen is the first to fall foul of Cropsy. The early 80’s reactionary mantra was the old sex=death adage. Karen actually rebuffs Eddy’s come on whilst they skinny dip, but the fact that she showed full frontal nudity is seemingly enough to drive Cropsy to lure her away from the lakeside and cut her throat messily in a game of one-upmanship to the similar scene in FRIDAY THE 13TH (the one with the hitchhiker, which Savini also orchestrated). Cropsy does get his chance to kill two fornicators when he attacks Shelly post-sex (although we never actually see what happens to her), and puts his shears through Glazer’s neck and pinning him to a tree.
Presumably, Cropsy then sets the group’s canoes adrift on the river; meaning that the campers really get to put those outdoors skills to use by making a raft. Now, if you could condense THE BURNING into 20 seconds then the raft scene pretty sums it up: a greatest hits of teenage carnage. It’s a bravura show of blood and fast-editing. We may be used to fast-editing now, but this rivals the shower scene in PSYCHO (1960). Did I just write that? I guess I did. The kids on the raft think they are about to recover one of their missing canoes, but as they approach Cropsy stands up – with a roar and silhouetted by the sun – his shears aloft; and starts to skewer and slash his way through the group. Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) has his fingers snipped off; Eddy has his throat punctured and various body parts fly. It is brutal, calculated and an iconic moment in slasher cinema. No wonder it was the main bone of contention with censors on both sides of the Atlantic. It still smacks a punch today.
The discovery of the raft – floating down the river like a make-shift Marie Celeste – throws the rest of the group into panic. However, they manage to get back in double quick time to camp (especially considering that it was meant to be three days away!), leaving Alfred and Todd to battle Cropsy. Now, Alfred had already got more than he bargained for when he went to spy Shelly and Glazer getting it on. He got Cropsy hot on his tail – with Todd not far behind.
The ironic – but oddly unclimactic – ending has Cropsy engulfed in flames (again), after being stabbed with his own shears by Alfred and whacked in the face with an axe by Todd. However, an extra coda has a fresh group of kids and counsellors around a camp fire telling the legend of Cropsy – although the film never did generate a sequel.
Alfred, of course, is one of the rare examples of a final boy – although in reality he is not quite (as he is rescued by Todd, who Cropsy was presumably after the whole time and was originally killed in an earlier version of the script).
Time has been kind to THE BURNING. I mean, it looks extremely dated – but that, for me at least, only adds to the charm. 1981 was the apex of the slasher movie’s popularity: the culture clash between the optimistic early 1970s and the nihilism of the 1980s. The pacing is off sometimes, and it doesn’t flow or hang together as well as HALLOWEEN (1978) or even FRIDAY THE 13TH. However, it is still great fun; populated by likeable and, despite being fairly one-dimensional, realistic characters. There is also a certain fluidity of the shots which shows from the start that there is a certain degree of talent behind the camera.
Read on to find out everything you could ever wish to know about THE BURNING!
Bodycount 10 female:5 / male:5
1) Female stabbed with scissors and pushed through window
You can read the original Hysteria Lives! review here.