Adhering to the strict Halloween/Friday the 13th template discussed in yesterday’s review of The Prowler, and adding an element I failed to mention there: the subjective POV shots of the killer, or what in this instance I like to label after the film’s killer: Cropsy vision (convex circular images with Vaseline smeared edges), The Burning is one of the best of the slasher genre to follow in the direct wake of the overwhelming success of the prior year’s Friday the 13th. It also has the highest average of douchey character per horror film out of that crop, which in and of itself is quite a remarkable feat. Remember the inciting incident that lead to Mama Vorhees’ slaughter? Two camp counselors skirted their duties to make love leading to the drowning of her unattended mentally retarded son. That’s a pretty lofty display of a lack of work ethic, but you know, at least they didn’t throw the swimming disabled kid in the river themselves. Well, here four upstate New York campers decide to play a trick on the groundskeeper, Cropsy, for the crime of being unattractive, surly and frequently drunk (never mind the reason behind the last two are due to working for silver spoon mouthed assholes). So what do they do? Why the find what looks like a decayed animal skull and put a candle in it, then scare him awake, leading, of course, to his bed lighting ablaze as well as his cabin (and all earthly possessions) when propane tanks explode, burning the man to a crisp.
It takes Cropsy five years to seek his vengeance, and poor guy probably didn’t even get the actual kids responsible for his disfigurement, which kind of makes him the Paul Kersey (Death Wish 1 version) of slashers. But the assholicity doesn’t end there my friends, one of the campers, and Cropsey fodder, indirectly leads to the death of his girlfriend, who is probably a virgin, when she has reservations in sleeping with his guido ass (though she’s does join in him skinny dipping). The future date rapist leaves her alone in the woods, to be carved up by Cropsey. Even, our final guy here (yes, guy not girl) who is the typical “Boy who cried wolf but there’s really a wolf” archetype, spies on the girls showering.
The Burning is probably best known today for being a launching pad for several of the cast and crew. It’s Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s first produced film to bare the Miramax film brand (or don’t you remember the advertisements of The English Patient extolling the “From the Studio that Brought you The Burning” enticements?), included amongst the five people credited with story or screenplay credit is future Paramount Pictures head and Sopranos producer Brad Grey, and editor Jack Sholder went on to have a decent career in directing television and features, with credits that include Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and The Hidden. But the real fun comes from the cast full of future familiar faces. It’s not uncommon to see one or two actors who went on to have successful careers get their start in 1980’s independent horror including Johnny Depp (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Kevin Bacon (Friday the 13th), Brad Pitt (Cutting Class), even Vanna White (Graduation Day), but The Burning features several, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Ratner, Brian Becker, Fisher Stevens, Emmy Award winner Jason Alexander, and in a role that is a glorified reoccurring extra, future Best Actress Oscar winner Holly Hunter. The talented cast elevates the level of acting we’ve come to expect from the genre, even if half of them are playing major douchebags.
In 1981, probably the biggest get for the small production was make-up/special effects guru Tom Savini, who chose to ply his trade here rather than return to Crystal Lake and the higher budgeted Friday the 13th part II. My guess is that after the original Friday was gutted in parts (but nowhere near the level the sequels would be) by the MPAA to obtain an R rating, he deduced that the smaller status of The Burning would lead to less scrutinizing, and more freedom. The shining example of his skill is in the raft sequence, which became a bit of an internet meme a few years ago. There’s so much going on that it’s nearly impossible to take it in all at one sitting. Up to that point in the film, it’s been a slow burn, so not only is the appearance of Cropsy shocking, the speed and fury in which he dispatches the victims is even more effective. You will also notice that unlike most slasher film deaths that particular murder takes place during daylight, as do pretty much all of the kills in The Burning, a nice manner in which to fully display Savini’s skills.