If you’re a fan of 80’s horror, you pretty much have to love slashers. If you love slashers, you’ve likely seen 1981’s The Burning, and you probably have an opinion as to whether or not it’s a rip-off of the insanely popular film from the summer before, Friday The 13th. Writer Harvey Weinstein (of the now ubiquitous Weinstein brothers, whose careers in horror films were launched with The Burning) has said he had already written the story before Friday the 13th came out, but it remains a point of contention. Seeing as both films drew a lot of inspiration from the local New Jersey/New York legend of Cropsy, I’ve always kind of thought it a moot point; Sean Cunningham and crew may have gotten the story onscreen first, but it doesn’t detract from the value of The Burning to me; hell, the argument could be made that ninety percent of all slashers made after 1980 was ripping off F13 and/or Halloween to some extent, so what’s the point?
There, I got that bit of bullshit out of the way early, so now I can review this particular little classic without further distraction.
A group of boys, tired of the bad attitude and pranks of their summer camp custodian, decide to play a little prank of their own. Waiting until the grungy dude drinks himself into a drunken stupor, they conspire to sneak into his hovel and plant a spooky, candlelit fake head, complete with slimy ooze and gruesome expression. Unfortunately, when they awaken him by knocking at the window, he flips his shit, kicks over the candle and turns the whole (gasoline and assorted maintenance-type chemical-soaked) place into a raging inferno in seconds.
The groups of youths, frozen in their horror and disbelief of their action, watch slack-jawed as the caretaker bursts forth from the blazing bungalow, flailing wildly at the flames before tumbling down an embankment to the waters of the lake. Like any self-respecting pranksters that may have just killed someone, the group quickly makes themselves scarce; someone must have been a samaritan, however, because the scorched man winds up in the burn unit of a hospital, but with no family and such horrible injuries, he becomes a sort of freak-show attraction to the (surprisingly callous) hospital staff.
Five years of healing later, he is finally released, albeit horrifically scarred and maimed, mentally as well as physically. Meanwhile, activities at a nearby summer camp are in full swing, complete with swimming, canoeing, intramural sports, and boys sneaking into the girls showers. Around the communal campfire, the story is told of the burned man, and how he will return to avenge the wrong done him, complete with one of the camp employees jumping into the circle in a jury-rigged costume at a tense moment, all to the delight of the campers…but when the older kids (fourteen or fifteen-year-olds, by the looks) and a few counselors group off and canoe to an isolated part of the lake for a more intense camping experience, the lines between the harmless campfire tale and reality become horrifically blurred…
Yeah, sure…I can hear what you’re thinking; the similarities abound between this and the night of Pamela Voorhees’ rampage from the summer before, but in my humble opinion, the story had enough substance and character development to distinguish itself as it’s own entity. One of the best parts, again, at least to me, is that we actually get to know the characters a bit, forming opinions and affinities (or animosities) before the carnage really begins. Of course, this makes for a bit of a slow start, but there is a murder in the first fifteen minutes or so, just to whet our appetites. The script has the advantage of including young campers as well as counselors, with some strife here an there to keep things interesting; of course, there’s the standard boob shots and sneaking away to have sex moments, but you also get a little situational comedy thrown in just to keep you a bit off-balance.
There’s even (imagine!) a bit of a twist at the end, but it’s not so much of a surprise as it is a karmic moment; you’ll have to see it to get what I mean. The performances are a cut above what most slashers could boast; granted, you’ve got your over-the-top moments, but overall the acting is pretty damned good, a happy side-effect of the talent involved. This film was chock-full of quite a few faces that would be familiar in the years to come, including names like Leah Ayres, Ned Eisenberg, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, and even a young, stocky Jason Alexander with a head full o’ hair, seeming to be having the time of his life. The special effects by Tom Savini (who’d turned down Friday The 13th Part 2 to work on this film), are of course innovative and excellent for the time, surpassing even a lot of modern CGI with their practical goodness. Of particular mention is the infamous “raft” scene, where the gruesome carnage is showcased in grand fashion, with not even the younger kids being immune to the horror (it was largely this scene that got this film added to the infamous “Video Nasties” list in Britain at the time).
This flick is one of my favorites from the wonderful decade of the 80s, folks; from a talented cast to remarkable FX to a pretty good story (at least at the time; camp stories hadn’t been done to death yet), it has everything I can think of to be considered great addition to the slasher film subgenre. If you’re one that hasn’t had the opportunity to see it, I’d recommend it; if you’re a slasher nut and haven’t seen it, I suggest you go out right now and find a copy…you’ll be glad you did.
Just remember…don’t look; he’ll see you. Don’t breathe; he’ll hear you. Don’t move — you’re dead!
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