The Burning (1980) ***½
If you were to ask a random Brit to give you the first title that pops into their head when they hear the phrase, “Video Nasty,” odds are that in the event of a response more articulate than a blank stare, you’d get the name of some slasher movie or other. From the standpoint of sheer numbers, the slashers dominated both the final official banned list of 1984 and the more extensive provisional lists of films which drew the Director of Public Prosecutions’ fire over the course of the early 80’s. In fact, I rather doubt that there would ever have been a Video Nasties panic at all were it not for the slasher movie. With the exception of a few obviously undeserving pictures that got caught in the crossfire solely because of an outrageously lurid title or a bit of overheated jacket copy, the slashers were far and away the most innocuous movies to be branded Video Nasties, but for just that reason, they attained much greater visibility than their more gleefully noxious fellow-travelers. The very qualities that made the zombie, Nazi, and cannibal movies so much more reasonable targets for the censors’ ire also inherently limited their potential appeal for anybody but the hardcore sleaze-junkies, but the slasher flicks brought the Nasties into the mainstream. Consider: ten sequels to Friday the 13th; seven sequels to Halloween; four sequels to Silent Night, Deadly Night. You don’t get numbers like that without a big fan-base, and the fans of those more reputable franchises could plausibly be expected to pony up for the likes of The Driller Killer and California Axe Massacre as well. Meanwhile, not a single cannibal movie ever had a sequel, and the only Nazi movie I know of to get invited back for an encore was Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS— and even it abandoned the Nazi angle in its sequels! The gut-munchers and death-camp roughies might have flown under the radar all by themselves, but there was no chance for them or any other extreme horror subgenre escaping notice at a time when schoolboys were trading rumors about the high points of My Bloody Valentine on the playground.
Of course, even among the slashers, there were a few extremely ugly and hard-edged films that really did have “censor bait” written all over them, primarily because of their atypically intense and convincing gore effects. The Burning, to the extent that it is remembered at all, is remembered for being among that elite, and it does indeed have a respectable kick to it. But there is a more important point that can easily get lost amid discussions of the minutiae of face-charring and finger-chopping. In addition to offering a high-grade fix for gore lovers, The Burning is an uncommonly effective horror movie from almost any perspective. This is the film for anyone who ever wished that Friday the 13th, Part 2 had a stronger, more sensible script.
It’s the middle of the night at Camp Blackfoot, somewhere in Upstate New York. In one of the cabins, five teenage boys are quietly discussing their plans to get even with Cropsy (Lou David, from The Ivory Ape and Come Back, Charleston Blue), Camp Blackfoot’s universally hated caretaker. It’s nothing more than a prank, really, and on its face, it scarcely sounds like the kind of thing that could cause anybody any lasting harm. The boys will all sneak over to Cropsy’s cabin, where the ringleader will let himself in and leave a little present for the caretaker on the nightstand by the head of his bed— it appears to be a Halloween decoration of excellent quality, a kerosene lantern in the form of an approximately life-sized human skull, worm-ridden and matted with the last vestiges of decayed flesh. Once the lantern is in place, the boys will wake Cropsy up by banging on his window; that blazing-eyed corpse-face will be the first thing he sees, and if all goes well, Cropsy will spend the wee hours of the morning surreptitiously feeding his drawers into the nearest furnace. All does not go well, however. The kids’ prank is so effective that Cropsy panics utterly, knocking the lantern from its perch and into the bed with him. The flaming kerosene spills out all over the unfortunate caretaker, and by the time he makes his way to the shore of the lake and dives in, he has received third-degree burns over virtually his entire body. The doctors who treat Cropsy at the hospital don’t have enough healthy tissue to work with for a skin graft, and when he is finally released after some five years of care, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that he would have done better simply to have died that night. A sadistic misanthrope to begin with, Cropsy leaves the hospital nursing a pathological hatred for practically everybody. On his first night out, he hires a whore— and if you ask me, he meant to kill her even before she got a good look at the face hidden beneath that wide-brimmed hat and started screaming. After all, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything left of Cropsy’s dick when there’s so little left of the rest of him.
Camp Blackfoot was understandably closed down soon after its caretaker nearly burned to death, but a new campground has since opened its doors a few miles up the river. Our introduction to the place comes when Alfred (Brian Backer, of Steel and Lace), the strange and withdrawn camp whipping boy, sneaks into the girls’ shower enclosure to spy on Sally (Girls Nite Out’s Carrick Glen), with whom he is apparently infatuated. He gets caught, obviously, and head counselors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayers)— the latter especially— are just about ready to hang him out to dry. Worse yet, the camp’s primary bully, Glazer (Larry Joshua), considers himself to be Sally’s boyfriend despite a near-total lack of encouragement in that direction from Sally herself, and he’s about twice Alfred’s size. Alfred’s just lucky he’s got friends, in sharp contrast to what you’d expect on the basis of other summer-camp slasher flicks. It’s a small circle, but Dave (Jacob’s Ladder’s Jason Alexander, best known for his many years playing George Costanza on “Seinfeld”), Fish (J. R. McKechnie), and Woodstock (Fisher Stevens— Benjamin in the Short Circuit movies, who turns out to be about as Indian as I am) between them are enough to keep Glazer at bay, if for no better reason than that Woodstock is a crack shot with a BB gun while Dave is Glazer’s condom connection.
Not that you need me to tell you this, but Glazer is far from the only camper with sex on the brain. Eddie (The Exterminator’s Ned Eisenberg) is especially horny, and considering the ass on his love-interest, Karen (Carolyn Houlihan, whose ass is also featured in A Little Sex), I can’t say I blame him. One night on the down-river canoe trip that marks the climax of the summer for the older campers, Eddie manages to convince Karen to go skinny-dipping with him, but he overplays his hand and the girl storms off. Karen’s exit is spoiled somewhat, however, when she discovers that somebody has run off with her clothes and scattered them all over the woods. By the time she’s found the last of them, that same somebody— and it seems safe enough to conclude that we’re talking about Cropsy here— has found her and slit her throat with a big pair of pruning shears. Cropsy also cuts all the canoes loose from their moorings, stranding the campers many miles from any hope of aid, and placing them more or less totally at his mercy.
I believe we can now add The Burning to the list of films which the makers of Friday the 13th, Part 2 simply have to have seen. Remember Paul Holtz’s “I’m going to give it to you straight about Jason” campfire story— the one that climaxes with Ted leaping out of the bushes with a spear and a rubber mask? Well it’s in here, too, except that Todd is relating the legend of Cropsy, and the camper in the fright mask is brandishing a knife instead of a spear. We’ve also got a ruined campsite rumored to be haunted by a vengeance-crazed killer, and while those ruins specifically are not the setting for the climax (or not unless the inmates of Camp Blackfoot could earn merit badges in mining, at any rate), the final showdown certainly does take place in some sort of ruin. And of course, The Burning also beat the Friday the 13th franchise to the punch in placing a Michael Myers-type monster-killer in a woodland environment— Cropsy was Jason before Jason was. The difference between The Burning and any film in the more famous series is that this movie’s creators took great care to keep things as logical as possible. They also conspicuously avoided what were already threatening to become some of the slasher genre’s more annoying cliches. The best example of the former is surely the cut-off campers’ almost immediate recognition that they’re in some sort of danger (although it isn’t until the second night, when Alfred’s incorrigible voyeurism leads him to witness the murder of Sally and Glazer, that they understand the specific form that danger takes), and their consequent continued efforts to get help from the outside world. On the cliché-avoidance front, the most striking example may be the way the story uses Alfred. Despite his being a weirdo and a peeping Tom, at no point is it ever even vaguely suggested that he might be the killer. The filmmakers know we know that Cropsy’s the one, and they never try to pretend otherwise.
In light of the unusually high levels of competence on display here, it is worth pointing out that Jason Alexander (who distinguishes himself as one of the few comic relief players in slasher history to be actually funny) is far from the only person involved in making The Burning to have a noteworthy career, either subsequent to or simultaneous with its release. Pay close attention, and you’ll also see Holly Hunter making her debut in the role of one of the minor campers, and the suitably eerie electronic score was composed and performed by none other than Rick Wakeman. Much of the cast went on to long years of steady employment on television or as character actors, and while the majority of them might best be described as hard-working journeymen, that’s a lot more than you can say for the stars of many early-80’s slasher flicks. Most surprising of all is the identity of The Burning’s co-writer and producer— it’s Harvey Weinstein, one of the masterminds behind Miramax Films! It is to Weinstein that I give the lion’s share of the credit for The Burning’s effectiveness, for its greatest strengths are ultimately a tight, streamlined script and a judicious marshalling of unobtrusively dependable talent, both in front of and behind the camera.
There is one flashy thing about The Burning, however, as I have already indicated, and the nature of that one flashy thing also reflects well upon Weinstein’s judgement as a producer. The Burning, being a gore movie, needed good gore effects, and in 1980, there was nobody better at creating those in Weinstein’s price range than Tom Savini. For years I’ve wondered what Savini’s secret is— why his simulated carnage invariably looks so much less simulated than everybody else’s— and I think it finally clicked when I saw Cropsy’s burn makeup. It was right in front of my face all along, a detail of his background which I’ve known since I was a teenager, but had never really thought about: Savini was a combat photographer in Vietnam. Unlike the vast majority of his competitors and imitators, he would have seen in person and for real just about every form of damage that the human body can sustain. Where other artisans of mutilation are forced to use their imaginations, Savini has years worth of on-the-job experience. And while that experience can hardly have been something Savini would have asked for were it up to him, it is an immeasurable boon to the films on which he has worked since his discharge. The Burning is no exception. Though there is nothing here to match, say, the shotgun blast to the head in Maniac for sheer impact, there is a horrid authenticity to these effects, a sense that they represent exactly what would happen if the same acts of violence were carried out in real life. It’s what makes The Burning the grim experience that it is, and I can see why Mary Whitehouse wouldn’t have liked it one bit.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal salute to the Video Nasties. Click the banner below to see just how much nastiness my colleagues and I could take.