Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Summer of Slash: The Burning

I wrote about The Burning when I first started my blog four years ago. The review – which was really short – sucked. I believe it’s still on here somewhere, so if you’re so inclined to search for it – all-the-while seeing what a horribly inept writer I was when I started this thing in 2008 – do so at your own risk (I believe it was part of the first Halloween-themed series I did for the blog, and I unfairly attached my review of the film to the sort-of-similar, but annoyingly tongue-in-cheek, Hatchet). So this is to say that I don’t think I’ve ever given The Burning – certainly one of the most important slasher movies to come out in that oh-so-fruitful year of 1981 – a fair shake on this blog. I’ve seen the film about five times now (so really how bad can it be?) and each viewing improved on the one before. After my most recent viewing, I think I’ve come around quite a bit on The Burning; a film that certainly stands out as one of the best examples of the early ‘80s slasher film. 


My original take on The Burning – that it was just “okay”— was a somewhat unpopular opinion on a film that many horror fans argue is better than Friday the 13th as far as slashers go; my argument was always this: there a lot of movies better than Friday the 13th and the The Burning, being one of them, doesn’t automatically make it a great slasher movie. I don’t know what’s changed exactly (though I can venture a guess: I’ve seen a lot of shit slashers since my last viewing of The Burning; therefore, I’m a lot easier on the film now), but I see the film in a different light than I did on my initial viewing of the VHS about 12 years ago (where I thought the film was pretty boring despite the gore – and yes, the film was still pretty gory despite me not owning the copy that contained an in-tack version of the infamous raft scene).

The plot? Not bad, actually, for a slasher movie, as it plays the revenge storyline about as well and non-contrived as a slasher can. In 1976, a group of campers play a prank (naturally) on the goofy (or cranky – it’s never really established why they want to prank him aside from the fact that they “want to see him squirm”) caretaker Cropsy (which is a helluva great name for a character). Of course things go awry, and poor Cropsy ends up lighting himself on fire. Unlike other “revenge is the motive” slasher films like Friday the 13th or Prom Night or Terror Train, The Burning just gets right to it and doesn’t play around with any kind of contrived plot where we have to guess who the killer is. The filmmakers actually do a nice bit of establishing in the opening hospital scene where we can hear various doctors and nurses in voiceover telling Cropsy that they’re sorry the skin grafts didn’t take, to not focus on revenge, to try and move on with life, and to not fixate on the people that did this to him. What this does is nicely place within the viewer’s head a few things: one is that we know who the killer is so there shouldn’t be a need for false scares (and one thing I absolutely love about The Burning is that the POV shots are actually from the killer and pay off, and I may be wrong about this, without a single false scare), and the second thing we know is that Cropsy is a deformed monster, so we’re going to get some kind of cool makeup for our killer.

Cropsy winds up walking the seedy streets of New York (straight of William Lustig’s Maniac) and finding himself a prostitute that is shocked when she finally sees him. Cropsy doesn’t handle this well, and from this experience, Cropsy claims his first victim. From here, The Burning seems like it’s going to be a pretty basic “teens go camping” slasher movie; however after the initial scene with Cropsy killing the prostitute, it must be said for The Burning that it shows an amazing amount of restraint (again, the overkill of the slasher hadn’t happened yet) in that the second death (and this one is pretty tame by the standards of the rest of the film’s deaths) doesn’t happen for about another 30-plus minutes. So it would seem that the filmmakers understand what they have in Tom Savini (and, duh, what self-respecting horror filmmaker wouldn’t) and made every frame and every moment of his talent worth the wait.

The pacing of The Burning is really quite something to admire for a slasher movie (the editing is a star here, and Jack Sholder should be singled out, but more on him later); there’s real tension here. Unlike another 1981 slasher Savini worked on, The Prowler, The Burning isn’t just plodding around from one gore scene to the next; there seems to be a genuine interest in the filmmakers to develop characters, establish setting, build tension, and then pay all of it with visceral gore. There’s an understanding here that scenes like the infamous raft scene become infamous and sought after – and all the more effective – because the viewer had to wait for it. We don’t expect it (how could we with the way the film is paced – unless you were aware of Savini’s reputation at the time – as the film almost lulls you into a false sense of security) and we don’t think we deserve it (like most modern audiences who then seem disappointed by the lack of gore a horror film produces because it could never live up to the standards in their head), but it’s there, and boy what a display (there a few other scenes that are just as effective) of gore effects by the maestro Savini. It doesn’t seem superfluous; rather, the scene is effective because after about an hour of following these characters around (and obviously thinking they all have to be offed one-by-one if we’re thinking of the other summer camp movie) we’re really quite surprised that Cropsy pops up in that canoe and offs about a quarter of the cast in one fell swoop. It’s pretty jarring, actually, and it’s the primary reason The Burning was banned in the UK and put on the infamous “Video Nasties” list.

Another thing The Burning does surprising well for a slasher movie is develop its characters (much like another 1981 slasher, and one of my favorites, My Bloody Valentine); well, that is to say the film develops the characters more than your average slasher. Throughout the first 20 minutes at the camp, the filmmakers seem content on doing more than just showing summer hijinks and “t and a.” Director Tony Maylam, writers Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein (this would be, along with his brother Harvey, his first movie as a producer and Miramax’s first film), DP Harvey Harrison (who films those establishing camp scenes at Camp Stonewater with the kind of eye of someone nostalgically thinking about those lazy, summer days spent at camp), and editor Jack Sholder (who would later go on to make the outstanding slasher Alone in the Dark and the not-so-outstanding A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) all do their part in making sure we actually care about the characters (and  since I’m listing contributors to the film, something must be said of Rick Wakeman’s score, which is outstanding and plays like the best horror score that Goblin never conducted). I mean, one may fail to notice it at first, but The Burning kind-of-sort-of respects its characters – and my god what a revelation that is for this subgenre. There are certain moments where the screenplay inverts certain traits we have come to expect from slasher characters; namely, I’m thinking of scenes where the characters actually notice people are missing, and, miracle of miracles, they don’t run off into the woods by themselves looking for them.

One thing that is absolutely unique to The Burning is that instead of utilizing the most classic of those slasher tropes, the Final Girl, the film uses a male for that role; a Final Guy, if you will. The Burning is a film that really does seem to care about its characters – whether they’re horny dolts, girls that have more on their mind than sex, guys that care about kids getting picked on at camp, or misfits; they all get their moment (some end more horribly than others, and it should be said that The Burning doesn’t kill off its entire cast, something rare indeed). About those misfits: rather than them just being the annoying pranksters and the caricatures (I’m specifically thinking of Shelly from Friday the 13: Part 3) they would later become with all of the other backwoods/campsite slashers and countless Friday sequels, the misfits in The Burning aren’t looked down upon by the filmmakers, and that’s a relief. Surprisingly, there’s nothing on display here (aside from sex and gore) that feels wholly exploitative. Of course it should be noted (and I’m sure I’ve noted it before, but I’ll do it again) that these slasher clichés/tropes hadn’t yet been established in 1981; a year that is often referred to as the golden age of the slasher because it was at the time that studios knew the template laid out by Halloween and Black Christmas and Friday the 13th, yet the subgenre hadn’t been watered down yet by studio obligation to churn out slasher after slasher in order to make fistfuls of money.

The Burning had a lot of talent working on it: Wakeman, Sholder, Savini, actors like Jason Alexander, and of course the Weinstein brothers (I don’t need to tell you what happened to them); however, the director Maylam seemed to kind of disappear (not unlike Sholder, actually, but at least Sholder got to direct a major sequel) into the ether. The only thing I can find on Maylam is that he worked on the 1992 Rutger Hauer sci-fi film Split Second (holy crap that movie came out in ’92! I remember watching that with my brother and dad when it was first released on video…man I’m old); but even then he shares the directing credit  with someone else, leading me to believe he was fired from the project. So then, once has to wonder how much of affect Maylam had on the film or whether he was just there in name only and the Weinstein’s directed the thing. Regardless, the array of acting talent, the tremendous pacing, the character development, the fantastic musical score, and the impressive and visceral gore scenes – all of it is proof that The Burning is one of the prime examples that the slasher movie didn’t have to devolve into what it would become.


Post a Comment