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The Burning (1981)

Hot Young Talent

Forget Kevin Bacon. If you want to play a kick-ass game of movie trivia with your friends, ask them what film marked the producing debut of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the writing debut of mega-producer and former Paramount CEO Brad Grey, and the acting debuts of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. There’s no way they’ll guess that all of these powerhouses got their start in a 1981 cult slasher called The Burning.

Following the previous year’s splatter sensation, Friday the 13th, The Burning is also about teenagers at a wooded camp who are brutally picked off by a faceless killer. Both movies share a similar look, and they even have the same effects man in common: horror icon Tom Savini. What sets The Burning apart from its better-known predecessor is not just the young-star-gazing, but also the fact that the film is genuinely scary and engaging.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that The Burning gets right in one picture what Friday the 13th failed to accomplish across eleven sequels.

It’s a weird film, to be sure. The beginning and ending teeter on comedic genius; though the robust middle portion delivers just about perfect terror. We open with a group of teenage boys playing a prank on Camp Blackfoot’s groundskeeper, a cranky drunk named Cropsy. The gag goes awry, and Cropsy is set on fire. Years later, he’s released from the hospital, where he underwent several failed skin grafts and psychotherapy sessions. His first act as a free, disfigured, black-trench-coat-wearing-man is to pick up a prostitute and kill her in an unintentionally hilarious scene.

Cut to another camp that has opened in the same woods as the now-closed Camp Blackwood, where we meet a large group of carefree counselors and kids. A number of them head out on a canoeing trip to a secluded area, and Cropsy picks them off using his extra-shiny gardening shears. As the first act progresses into the second, the script takes a lot of time to develop the relationships between the characters, and The Burning plays a lot more like Meatballs than Sleepaway Camp. These kinds of movies always include some interplay between the victims before they get sliced up, but this film takes pains to set up story arcs that build momentum; this means that when the bodies start to pile up, there’s weight to the death scenes—it feels as though actual lives are being cut tragically short.

The second act is where much of the killing takes place, and the deaths are spectacular. Tom Savini out-did his work in the first Friday film—and, in my opinion, his later work in Part 4, The Final Chapter—by amping up the brutality and realism of the wounds. These don’t feel like stylistic, “cool” ways to kill people; no, these are sloppy, undignified death scenes. The actors help sell the effects, too, their faces registering genuine surprise and fear. The third, most crucial ingredient to the suspense is director Tony Maylam’s refusal to rely on cheap red-herring scares. There are no cats jumping out of closets or hands reaching into frame that belong to a lost counselor’s friend. The shocks are all earned here, and almost each death left me sad and on-edge.

Unfortunately, The Burning’s climax is unforgivably lame. It’s a goddamned injustice. There’s a showdown between Cropsy and two of the survivors that could have been really interesting to watch had it not been impossible to see. Generally, it’s not a good idea to shoot a complicated fight scene between three characters and a flamethrower if all you’re interested in are extreme close-ups of the actors’ faces. I honestly was lost for about three minutes during what was arguably the most important part of the movie. The very end of the film is great, and—in keeping with the rest of the picture—offers an unexpected surprise (for those who’ve seen The Burning and don’t know what I’m talking about, consider what the typical horror film would have done with that last shot).

My few quibbles aside, I can honestly say that The Burning is now my favorite slasher movie. The infamous “raft scene” alone is more intense, shocking, and unforgettable than anything in any movie of this kind that I’ve ever watched. Frankly, I find it appalling that it’s been nearly thirty years since this movie came out, and of the hundreds of genre films—including all of the lame sequels and remakes—none have come close to delivering this level of scares, laughs and surprises. The Burning is a serious but flawed masterpiece; it doesn’t feel like a cash-in, but like a movie that other movies ripped off—including Friday the 13th (which, incidentally, starred Kevin Bacon).

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