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Schlock & Awe: THE BURNING

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by on January 2, 2014

Harvey and Bob Weinstein are known for producing some of the most lauded and acclaimed films of the last twenty years. Their companies, Miramax, which they no longer run, and The Weinstein Company, gave us films like Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, and The King’s Speech. This year, the brothers are traveling around promoting four new films they hope will be awards contenders, and they probably will be. With that kind of pedigree, one would assume they’ve always been involved in art house fare. Not so, good readers! One of the Weinstein Brothers’ earliest films was actually a post-Friday the 13th summer camp slasher flick called The Burning. It’s full of blood and guts, melted faces, kids getting dismembered, and a young Jason Alexander with hair! If that alone doesn’t make you want to watch it, your brain needs checking.

In 1981, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th was still very fresh in the minds of America’s horny and murder-scared youth. In order to capitalize on this hot-but-quickly-burning-out trend, the Weinsteins decided to plumb an urban legend of their youth, that of a murderous groundskeeper (not named Willie, unfortunately), and to pack the thing full of as much gore as they could muster. To achieve the latter, they hired makeup effects guru, Tom Savini, who’d just done Friday and turned down the opportunity to do the sequel. The original score was provided by Rick Wakeman, he of keyboarding and Yes fame, and the film was directed by Tony Maylam.

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The title, The Burning, stems from the opening sequence, in which a group of campers in 1976 decide to pull a prank on the camp’s caretaker, Old Man Cropsy. Problem one right here: If you know a person named “Old Man Cropsy,” you should absolutely not pull a prank on him. That is the moniker of the man who will murder you in your sleep. The prank they decide to pull involves placing a flaming skull (never mentioned where they got it) near the man’s bed as he sleeps, then waking him up to frighten him. And frighten him they do; he kicks the skull onto a full gas can, causing it, his bed, and him to catch fire. Why would anyone leave a full, open gas can anywhere near where they slept? It’s sort of Cropsy’s own fault, really.

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This being engulfed in flames doesn’t do much for Cropsy’s self esteem; he’s apparently the most mangled, horribly deformed person the workers in the burn ward have ever seen. When you’re in a burn ward and frightening the workers there with your burns, I think it might be time to just pack it in, lest you forever be known as “the melty-faced guy.” Five years later, though, Cropsy is able to be released, taking to wearing raincoats and wide-brimmed hats to cover up his hideously disgusting face and body. He immediately picks up a prostitute and kills her with scissors before deciding it’s time to go back to work at the camp… His job is now murdering people with pruning shears, by the way.

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When we get to the camp, we’re introduced to a whole ton of campers of varying ages from about 13-18 (or 22, depending on how much we believe some of the actors). Judging by this wide cross-section of youth, I’m guessing this is the Wet Hot American Summer camp. There are literally dozens of kids, and we get to know the plight of most of them. As is common for these movies, a good many of the of-age campers go off to have illicit sexual encounters, which always end well. Cropsy shows up at random intervals and kills various campers. The problem, narratively, is that there are just too many kids and, percentage-wise, Cropsy’s killing figures are pretty low. Pamela Voorhees killed 90% of her available victims; Cropsy kills maybe 20%, though one sequence in particular ups his average quite a bit, which we will discuss momentarily.

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It has to be said that this movie is particularly notable for featuring the screen debut of a number of future stars. Jason Alexander plays Dave, the stocky, sex-obsessed funny guy. As mentioned above, what’s particularly interesting is that he has hair in this. Dave also remains alive at the end of the film, which for a funny guy in an ’80s slasher movie is a real feat. Oscar-winner Holly Hunter makes her debut in The Burning as well, playing Sophie, a camper with no lines who stays alive the whole time. Another future Oscar-winner (for producing a documentary) appears in the form of a very young and gawky Fisher Stevens as Woodstock, the yellow bird from Peanuts… I mean the horny virgin who gets his fingers chopped off before being otherwise dismembered. Three name actors and only one death among them. I’m serious, Cropsy, you’re kind of awful at this.

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The Burning was placed on the United Kingdom’s infamous “Video Nasties” list upon its initial VHS release for scenes of extreme violence, and was hence banned there for about ten years. Mostly, the offenses concern a single scene where a group of kids on a raft, Fisher Stevens among them, come across a seemingly empty canoe in the lake. It’s not empty, of course, and Cropsy pops up and begins snipping off limbs of the kids and stabbing them and what not. It’s a particularly effective scene and one that had to be trimmed in the U.K. and the U.S. to achieve a more favorable rating. This is some of Savini’s best work in the film, the false appendages looking absolutely real for the few seconds they’re onscreen before getting lopped off.

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The movie ends just like you could probably guess it would: Cropsy has a showdown with the hero, Todd, aka “Boringly-Handsome Jones,” and it turns out Todd was one of the kids who burnt Cropsy five years ago when he was played by a different, more ethnic-looking actor. Sort of a cop-out to try to tie things up. In fact, this whole end sequence is edited in such a way as to make you feel like you’ve missed more than half of the story. Characters are in totally different places in space between cuts, and Cropsey arrives with a flame thrower but leaves with an ax. Where did he get either one? Ultimately, Cropsy just gets set on fire again, like he just hadn’t gotten enough of it the first time.

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Of all the cruddy teen slashers of the early ’80s, and there are plenty, The Burning is definitely one of the more enjoyable, thanks mostly to Tom Savini’s gore effects, a pretty good cast, and a script with enough levity to make you chuckle when there’s no killing on screen (and there often isn’t). It’s certainly much better than Sleepaway Camp. Oh, dear God, Sleepaway Camp….