Archive for May 8, 1981

The Burning

May 8, 1981

Quite the grim and nasty movie, The Burning is. Oh, it has its share of goofing around — it’s set (like Friday the 13th) at a summer camp, so there are many scenes of camper hijinks that feel like padding — but it has a memorably ugly undercurrent. The premise is based loosely on an actual urban legend/campfire tale (of which there are many variants): Five years ago, a despised camp caretaker named Cropsy fell victim to a prank that went awry; horribly burned from head to toe, he gets out of the hospital, warms up by butchering a hooker, and heads to another summer camp in search of nubile, foolish teenagers to slice up with his absurdly large pair of shears. Much emphasis is placed at the beginning on how hideously disfigured Cropsy is, how the skin grafts didn’t take, how even a seasoned prostitute cowers at the mere sight of him. You can bet Sam Raimi took a long look at The Burning before getting started on his Darkman: Cropsy is like Peyton Westlake without the artificial-skin formula and with a heaping plate of bitter, homicidal rage.

The Burning is of interest for other reasons, notably its unusually strong pedigree of future successes (Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, co-scripter Bob Weinstein, producer Harvey Weinstein, editor Jack Sholder) and slumming successes (composer Rick Wakeman, who contributes an off-balance score). As a slasher movie, it belongs firmly in the company of such rip-offs as My Bloody Valentine and The Prowler; excoriated at the time, those early-’80s Dead Teenager Films (Roger Ebert’s term) have become sources of affectionate nostalgia for horror fans of a certain age. People get excited when these movies finally show up on DVD (and they get downright orgasmic if the DVD offers an uncut version). I’m no different. I first saw The Burning at age 12 or so, on cable, very early in the morning; I actually got up to watch the damn thing, rather than staying up late (which I also did regularly, in those dim days before VCRs).

The movie has stayed with me for some twenty years. I think it’s because The Burning feels, at times, as if it were made by Cropsy. It is powered by a strong sense of anger and disgust. We feel bad for Cropsy when he sets himself on fire and goes screaming into the night, just as we felt bad for the dork-turned-murderer in Terror Train who was led into a room containing, instead of the sexy girl he was expecting, a sexy cadaver, which drove him insane. The idea of a “harmless prank” that ends up fucking someone’s life forever disturbs us. It goes back to Carrie and the bucket of pig blood that led to a massacre. Carrie destroyed the innocent as well as the guilty, and therein lay the horror, but we couldn’t help rooting for her to release that rage. And so, in movies like Terror Train and The Burning, a dark part of us wants the blood to spill, wants the characters to die. Hell, the movie is even named after the motivating trauma — it’s not called Camp of Blood, or whatever. The title itself reminds us continually why people are being killed.

There’s precious little plot, and only a mild twist. One of the counselors, it so happens, was in on the prank, back when he was a camper; but since we don’t find that out till near the end, we don’t feel the character’s guilt the way we felt Hart Bochner’s “Oh shit, I’m going to die and I probably deserve it” dread in Terror Train. As a slight change of scenery, some of the counselors and campers take off via canoe to the other side of the lake; this accomplishes little except isolating a smaller group. (Oddly, the campers are never threatened, even though it was a group of campers who burned Cropsy; he goes after the counselors exclusively, as if he somehow knew that among them is one of his destroyers.)

When the canoes mysteriously disappear, the kids and counselors build a raft, and some of them float off in search of the canoes; this leads to the movie’s centerpiece, staged by director Tony Maylam and special-effects guru Tom Savini as a lightning-fast mass murder on the water. Can a man really dispatch so many people in so little time? I don’t know, but the moment brings you up short; horror movies condition you to believe that going off alone is certain doom, whereas there’s always safety in numbers. Here, there’s not only no safety in numbers — it happens in broad daylight, man, in the middle of a fuckin’ lake! This camp must be a damned and forgotten clime, where killers can butcher so easily and with such impunity under the cover of nothing.

There’s really no rhyme or reason to who lives or dies; some of the counselors who stay at the camp will live, some who left on the canoe trip will die. Two of the comely young counselors who disrobe for the camera are earmarked for destruction, as if Cropsy were punishing them for their very sexuality — and here, more than in most other slasher films, the have-sex-and-die motif has a nasty realism. Cropsy was burned all over, and we must assume that includes his genitalia; how filled with rage he must be at the sight of girls who once might’ve been masturbation fodder for him, but whose very presence now mocks the insensate meat of what’s left between his legs — not that any woman would come near him even if he were sexually intact, as we saw in his encounter with the prostitute.

This is a slasher movie with a difference, though it plays by almost all the rules and is generally too predictable to be “scary” (with the major exception of the raft massacre, where all you’re expecting is for them to find a body part in the canoe, you pretty much see all the killings coming a mile away). It tries to drum up audience rapport with the doomed counselors (though Jason Alexander shows his comedic gifts even here), but our sympathies are unavoidably with Cropsy, based on the filmmakers’ empathy with the horrors he went through (five years of unsuccessful skin grafts, man — can you even imagine the torture?). His revenge, even on those who had nothing to do with his disfigurement, feels inevitable, preordained. All of this is an attempt to dig out why The Burning has stayed with me since 1982 or so. It’s a legitimately ugly movie; it gets under your skin.