CULT CORNER: The Burning (1981)

John revisits a camp-set slasher flick with Tom Savini effects. No, not Friday the 13th, the other one…

Who made it?: Tony Maylam (Director), Peter Lawrence, Bob Weinstein (Writers), Harvey Weinstein (Producer), Miramax Films.

Who’s in it?: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, Lou David.

Tagline: “It will take you further than fear.”

IMDb rating: 6.4/10.

The Burning is a slasher film I return to over and over again. It still makes an impact on me whenever I watch it. The brilliant execution of such a simple tale of revenge is what makes it stand-out as one of the best in the genre. The killer is truly unforgettable and the stuff of nightmares. It remains a real bloodthirsty treat for horror fans.

One night at Camp Blackfoot, a group of young male campers decide to play a prank on the caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David). A boy sneaks inside Cropsy’s cabin while he is asleep and places an unseen object next to his bed. The boy lights the object before sneaking back out to join his friends. The campers then knock on the cabin window, waking Cropsy from his sleep. He is horrified at the sight of a skull crawling with worms and eye sockets lit by candles. Screaming in panic, he accidentally knocks over the skull and sets fire to his bed. The blaze quickly spreads, setting alight a can of gasoline which ignites the entire cabin and Cropsy with it. He races out, engulfed in flames and screaming for his life, much to the horror of the campers.

One week later, at St. Catherine’s hospital, an orderly shows an intern a badly-burned patient who is lying inside an oxygen tent. It’s Cropsy, lucky to be alive. Even though we don’t get to see the full extent of his injuries, it is clear he has been burnt to a crisp, when his charred hand suddenly slips out of the tent and grabs the orderly.

Five years later, Cropsy is finally released from hospital. We don’t get to see the damage caused by the fire all those years ago, but under a long black coat and hat, we know he’s permanently disfigured from the terrible incident. As he walks along the streets at night, Cropsy comes across a hooker who lures him into her apartment. Cropsy turns out the lights before entering the hooker’s apartment. He soon reveals himself to the prostitute (but not the audience) and she tells him to leave, disgusted by his appearance. Angry, Cropsy grabs the pro, takes a pair of scissors off a nearby dresser, and stabs her to death.

Several days later at Camp Stonewater,  Cropsy, armed with a pair of garden shears, is hiding in the bushes and spying on a group of campers as they play baseball. Here we are introduced to counsellor Michelle (Leah Ayres) and campers Alfred (Brian Backer), Sally (Carrick Glenn), Dave (Jason Alexander), Woodstock (Fisher Stevens), Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), Fish (J.R. McKechnie), and Sophie (Holly Hunter). Naturally, they will soon fall victim to Cropsy’s razor-sharp implements…

The Burning was the brainchild of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who produced the film with a budget of $1, 500, 000 under their newly-formed banner Miramax Films. The Weinstein’s would later be known for producing a string of award-winning hits such as Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996), Good Will Hunting (1997) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Harvey, Tony Maylam and the future chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, Brad Grey, came up with the story, while Bob and Peter Lawrence wrote the script. The brothers hired British filmmaker Maylam to direct what would be his second feature after The Riddle of Sands (1979). His other work mainly came in the form of documentaries such as Genesis: In Concert (1977). His experience in this field certainly helped create a realistic feel for the film, with its purposeful use of handheld camera. Maylam even smeared Vaseline around the camera lens to create a hazy, sinister effect for Cropsy’s point-of-view shots. So, it’s a real shame that his later film credits included such forgettable ventures as The Sins of Dorian Gray (1983) and Across the Lake (1988). His only other “known” film was Split Second (1992) starring Rutger Hauer.

The rest of the crew was equally impressive for such genre fare. For the make-up effects, the Weinstein’s enlisted the services of Tom Savini who had turned down the opportunity to reprise his work on Friday the 13th: Part 2, mainly because he felt the idea of Jason returning from the dead to be absurd. Rick Wakeman, best known for being a member of British rock band Yes, composed and performed the music, creating dramatic and pulsating melodies and cues, which only heighten the overall suspense.

The Burning opened in theatres in the US on May 8th, 1981. Despite the film only managing to gross $707, 770 at the box office, it still remains a popular cult classic among fans. Maybe the fact that it had a limited theatrical release with other teen slashers flooding the market impacted the film’s takings. 1981 was, after all, the year of the slasher with films like My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, The Prowler, Graduation Day, and Eyes of a Stranger all jumping on the bandwagon after the success of Friday the 13th the previous year. In the UK, The Burning was part of a growing controversy in the early 1980s. The full uncut version was released on video instead of the edited one passed by the BBFC, leading to all copies in Britain being impounded under the Obscene Publications Act, as well as being placed on the infamous “Video Nasties” list. Today, it isn’t quite so shocking.

Despite the plot of The Burning being very similar to that of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, the film is a great slasher in terms of scares, tension, humour, and gore. The antagonist is someone who’d make you think twice before going into the woods alone. Unlike some alternatives of the period, the production value is top notch, with its smoky cinematography, deliberant pacing, fluid camera work, and naturally impressive make-up effects lingering in the memory. And what I really like about this film is that the villain is someone you have empathy with, not that it excuses his actions for one second. After all, Cropsy didn’t ask to be set on fire, so I suppose you can’t blame him for being angry and wanting to seek revenge. Other horror characters share this in common, too. Leatherface didn’t ask to be born into a fucked up inbred family, and Freddy Krueger didn’t ask to be the bastard son of a hundred maniacs.

The Burning also starred a number of young actors making their debuts, some of whom would go on to achieve great success in the business. Holly Hunter gave memorable comedic performances in films such as Raising Arizona (1987) and A Life Less Ordinary (1997), and dramatic performances in films such as The Piano (1993) and Crash (1996). It’s remarkable that she went on to become such a well-known and talented actress considering her role in this film is so small. I didn’t even notice her the first time around! Fisher Stevens will always be remembered best for playing the comedic scientist Ben Jubituya in Short Circuit (1986) and Short Circuit 2 (1988). Also, Jason Alexander would later find worldwide fame in the hit US sitcom Seinfeld, where he played the likable George Costanza. So, my advice for any young budding actor who wants to be a Hollywood star would be to make sure your film debut is a horror flick, and if you’re lucky, you could end up joining a list of illustrious stars who got their big break in the genre such as Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew McConaughey, and Renée Zellweger.

For me, though, the real star of the show is Savini and his amazing make-up appliances. His attention to detail and overall presentation for all things gory is always a treat for horror fans. Having served during the Vietnam War and witnessed real-life horror in the flesh, Savini’s work always had that unique touch. Despite all of his hard work on The Burning, Savini was never completely satisfied with Cropsy’s hideously melted appearance, feeling he could’ve created a more realistic-looking burn victim instead of a molten Sloth. The sole reason for this was that Savini was only given three days to design Cropsy’s signature look! Considering the short period of time given, Savini still manages to create a character that is both vile and repulsive, sealing the fate of a slasher classic too good to be forgotten…

Best Scene

Campers rowing along on a raft come across a seemingly empty canoe. What awaits them is truly shocking and terrifying.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The concept of the film (originally scripted as “The Cropsy Maniac”) is based on a campfire story told at summer camps in and around New Jersey and upstate New York. The story is still in circulation.
  • Actors had trouble holding up the garden sheers to the liking of director Tony Maylam, so in a lot of the scenes in which costumed Cropsy kills (most notably the infamous raft scene), he played the killer himself.
  • The film’s composer, Rick Wakeman, was originally offered a percentage of whatever profits the film made but he had decided to opt for a fee instead as he felt the film had no chance of being successful. The film ended up being the biggest grossing horror movie in Japan.

John Cowdell

I have been writing and producing short films for over ten years and are now branching out into film reviews.

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