THE BURNING was shot in the late summer of 1980 (with the actors arriving on set on August 28), around Buffalo and North Tonawanda, New York. Much of the filming took place in and around existing summer camps to give it that authentic look (whilst keeping costs down). The same can be said of the costumes. Essentially, there weren't any. The young cast wore their own clothes throughout the production.
Leah Ayres described to me first seeing one of her soon-to-be-famous cast-mates: “I will never forget cute little Holly Hunter fresh off the bus, literally, with her twang, cut-off jean shorts and cowboy boots.” It is rumoured that Hunter may not have had such fond recollections of the film, as it is often said she took it off her CV once she hit the big time.
Many of the cast were local to the New York area, and were aware of the Cropsy legend. Ayres said it was told to her as a “ghost story”. Ned Eisenberg told me,“When I went to camp as a kid they referred to the "Cropsey maniac" in the stories they told us at bedtime.” Not all of the cast had heard the tale, Bonnie Deroski recalls, “No, I had never heard of it, but since then, people have told me they had heard that story at sleepaway camp.”
However, none of the cast members I've spoken to could remember anything spooky actually happening on the set. Shelley Bruce told me: “I had never heard of the legend. I just figured it was made up for the movie. I don't remember anything spooky or odd happening on the set, and trust me, I'm completely into that kind of stuff so I would have noticed.” Ned Eisenberg confirmed this to me, “To my recollection, nothing spooky happened on the set.” Larry Joshua concurs, “I never heard of the tale. Nothing happened that was spooky.”
The press information that was put out at the time paints a rather more sinister picture. The reality, of course, is that this was probably a time-worn promotional gimmick to give the film extra appeal to audiences who might wonder if the real Cropsy himself had turned up to join in the production.
Leah Ayres told me she didn't remember anything eerie beyond trying to scare each other for fun, and as Shelley Bruce said it is the kind of thing you would remember. However, the press notes attribute the following quotes to Ayres: “'The Burning' is a terrifying motion picture … not only on the screen, but even while we were filming.” It continues, “There were times during the filming when I think everyone in the cast and crew were really affected by it. … There's a great deal of tension in the script that had to be captured on film and even when Tony Maylam, the director, shut down the camera, the atmosphere took some time to clear. There were moments when the filming became almost as spooky as the movie itself.” Leah – or very possibly a publicity man or woman with a fervent imagination – continued: “I normally love the outdoors … and the location was magnificent, but every time I went walking through the woods, even when we weren't working, I kept expecting someone or something to jump out at me.”
As might be expected, Harvey Weinstein seemed to be orchestrating this ballyhoo. He tantalisingly explained that even the battle hardened crew became spooked on set, as the press notes said “... by an unexpected shadow in the woods or a branch brushing against a window.” Weinstein elaborated, “The usual solution to this kind of tension is a rash of practical jokes and games to begin, but this time even the jokes didn't get rid of it all. However, we did become the tightest, friendliest groups I've ever worked with. We had to be. Nobody ever went anywhere alone.” Amusingly, the only one on set who was really scared was Tom Savini. Shelley Bruce told me that he is terrified of spiders – and in the great outdoors there are plenty of those!
Tom Savini recalls that the cast were literally queuing up to find out how they would die. In the interview on the Region 1 DVD he cheerfully says he felt like an assassin. Bonnie Deroski told me she was disappointed not to get to die at his hands, but also a little relieved, “Actually, I was quite excited that I was one of the few escapees. I considered myself ‘smarter than the average Cropsy!’ Also, I figured put me in a very good position if they did a sequel. Campers had so much fun at sleepaway camp last year, they came back for another death-defying summer. … Yeah, although my character didn’t die, I actually got to play a dead body at one point. They were getting ready to shoot the transition from the raft scene and one of the actresses who died on the raft had stepped off set for a minute. They were rushing to finish the shot, and asked for anyone to step in, as it was just a girl’s hand that they needed. So that was my hand in the shot with the blood dripping down.”
As usual, Savini was very hands on with the production – no more so than the opening scene when Cropsy is burnt in his cabin. Although it was someone else for the full burn stunt (Reid Rondell, who was only 17 at the time – and who tragically died doing a stunt for the TV show AIRWOLF a few years later), it was Savini's legs that were set on fire in the bed.
Savini also describes how he didn't have much time to put together the special effects for the film; making them all the more remarkable in their full, uncut glory. For Fisher Stevens gory demise he created the effects to classical music. During the reveal – when Leah Ayres discovers his body when she swims out to the now empty raft – the film makers added a little something extra. Ayres told me, “They made sure I did not see Fisher or his special effects head before we shot so I was truly surprised by the actual sight. So, yes, it was gross yet perfect for the scene and we shot it quickly with everyone really focused and energized.” Bonnie Deoski also recalls, “I also remember shooting the scene where Woody’s dead body floats up onto Michelle. Halfway thru the day, Fisher Stevens walked onto location in full makeup, and then went out to the raft and played his own dead body. That was some pretty impressive prosthetics.”
Savini also described how he only had three or four days to make Cropsy – the mask was created in his dressing room in-between special effects duties elsewhere on the film. In Grande Illusions, his first book on his life as a special effects guru, Savini says he based the look of Cropsy on a burnt beggar he had seen as a kid in Pittsburg, as well as text books on burn victims. However, like Maylam – who said that the ending was a little rushed and anti-climactic (he said he would have liked to have had another week on the film) – Savini would have clearly done an even better job had been given the luxury of more time. The resulting mask was more of a melt than a burn – and perhaps looks a little unsophisticated these days, but I think it actually adds to the nightmarish feel of the film's boogeyman. Savini was pleased enough with what he had done – and more importantly what was left after the MPAA censors had had their way – that he subsequently agreed to go on a publicity tour for the film (once again illustrating the special effects guru as akin to rock star).
Elsewhere in the film, Savini expanded on his FRIDAY THE 13TH experience. The scene where Carolyn Houlihan has her throat cut by Cropsy with the shears was similar in – if you'll excuse the pun – execution to the demise of the hitch hiker in the earlier film. Maylam recalls that Houlihan found her nude scenes extremely difficult to do, despite insisting that she was fine to do them when she signed up for the film. However, Carrick Glenn – who also had a nude scene – was relaxed in front of the camera according to the director.
Savini also employed a similarly familiar trick for Cropsy's demise – when the axe smashes into his face – as he used for an almost identical gore gag in Cunningham's film. There has been much speculation as to why the mine system was chosen for the climactic battle between Cropsy and Alfred and Todd. As an earlier script shows, it was originally meant to be a boat house at the camp, but this was switched to a cave system. Indeed, another subsequent version of the script has a scene in Cropsy's lair, where he looks over old newspaper clippings. Maylam says it was changed again to the copper mine because they found bats roosting, whilst Savini recalls it was because the cave system was unsafe.
Ned Eisenberg's death scene on the raft was again similar to one in FRIDAY THE 13TH; whereas with Kevin Bacon's death the blade came from below (the bunk), in Eisenberg's case Cropsy's blade came from above. Savini recalls that the actor was a little nervous of all the blades flying around in front of his face as he lay immobilised – and probably with good reason!
Perhaps the most brutal of all the kills in THE BURNING was that of Larry Joshua's character, who is literally lifted off his feet when Cropsy sticks his shears through his neck and is subsequently slammed into a tree. To achieve the effect of being off the ground, Joshua had to hold onto two poles being held aloft. The actor told me that he enjoyed his death scene, but that “The sweet sticky syrup that was used for blood was the worst part.” He also cleared up something of a mystery. I had always wondered why – given that the rest of the film was so graphically brutal – that we do not see the actual demise (or aftermath) of the killing of his on-screen girlfriend, Carrick Glenn. In the film, we see Joshua return and lift up the sleeping bag to reveal (to him not us) her corpse (and perhaps severed head), as well as Cropsy somehow hiding beneath. I asked Larry Joshua if it was meant to be filmed this way and he confirmed that it was indeed done this way “on purpose”.
He also confirmed that it was the director Tony Maylam playing Cropsy in that scene. Indeed, Maylam maintains that he was Cropsy for about 90% of the movie – as he couldn't get anyone else to hold the shears the way he wanted (to perfect that gleam bouncing off the cold metal).
Despite being dismembered and maimed on camera, the cast and crew of THE BURNING had a blast and most remember their time on the film with a great fondness. For many it was their first time away from home, and it was sure to be an exciting period for them. However, the excitement was somewhat dampened by the location. Leah Ayres told me that North Tonowanda, NY was “... not exactly a happening place to be”, and they had to entertain themselves with evenings down at the roller skating rink. In fact, the height of excitement seemed to be when Harvey and Bob took them all to a George Benson concert in Albany, as well as inviting them to see Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons concert at Kleinhans Music Hall with special guest Bob Saget on September 6th 1980!
Shelley Bruce also recollected how they passed the time with one of Tom Savini's props: “We had a great time playing basketball with Betsy Palmer's head. Tom had done the effects for Friday the 13th and he always had Betsy's head with him lol.”
Ned Eisenberg told me, “We had a ball and I am still friends with many of the people I worked with on that film.” Bonnie Deroski remembers Larry Joshua entertaining the cast with endlessly singing Rolling Stones numbers. Shelley Bruce also said she had a lot of fun, especially during the mess hall scenes (which were shot at Camp Ti-Wa-Ta-EE, Olean Road, Holland, NY): “Oh we had so much fun making this movie. What a great bunch of people. The fun and frivolity you see on the screen was 100% genuine. The food fight in the dining hall was completely real! Food was flying everywhere and I couldn't possible fit more mashed potatoes in my mouth! I was truly about to blow them everywhere.”
Another scene where it is immediately clear how much fun the cast were having was when they were paddling up stream in their canoes. The one canoe sinking was, apparently completely unplanned, but stayed in the finished film. “The canoe scene...totally unplanned that a canoe would sink, it just happened. Most days we were laughing so hard it was difficult to be serious”, Bruce elaborated.
She finished by saying that, “I can only say that I never had more fun with such a cast of characters. We had a great time in Buffalo and an even better time in North Tonawanda. We stayed at this great little place on the banks of Lake Erie and it was like getting paid to spend time having fun with your friends. The days spent on the lake and at the campsite will always have a special place in my heart.”
Bonnie Deroski also had fond memories of the canoe incident, “My favorite memory was the canoeing scene. First of all they put three people rowing in a canoe. Probably was intentional, but with an odd number of rowers it was sure difficult to steer. Then one of the canoes took in water and actually sank and that take was actually used in the film. It was pretty funny.”
Larry Joshua summed it the overall experience up succinctly, “I just remember we laughed a lot, it was a great time period.”
British prog-rocker Rick Wakeman – who knew both Maylam and Weinstein through their rock music connections – signed up to provide the film's score (which was recorded in New York). Both annoyingly insistent and at the same time perfectly of its time, the electronic music actually works incredibly well.
The film was edited by Jack Sholder, who went on shortly to direct the excellent ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), as well as the altogether cheesier A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE (1985).
Most tantalisingly of all, Tony Maylam has said that there was talk of a sequel at the time THE BURNING wrapped. However, Maylam was leery of being type-cast as a horror director and, perhaps, the less than stellar box office put paid to those ideas. However, 2011 is the 30th anniversary of the release of the film – and we all know how much mad killers like an anniversary …