The Burning (1981)
AKA Cropsy, Carnage
Starring Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Carrick Glenn, Carolyn Houlihan, Fisher Stevens, Lou David, Shelley Bruce, Sarah Chodoff, Bonnie Deroski, Holly Hunter
Directed by Tony Maylam
Expectations: High, once again because this features Tom Savini FX.
On the general scale:
On the B-movie scale:
The Burning is exactly the type of movie that led me to start writing reviews. I’ve always liked the Leonard Maltin review books, and I referred to my battered copy of the 1998 edition incessantly during my film snob phase. My love of horror movies often led me to search the book for what Maltin thought of the bloody affairs I loved so well, but this generally didn’t end well. Maltin isn’t much of a horror fan and he usually rated the films much lower than I thought they deserved. I can’t fault him for disliking a genre and its sadistic tendencies, and the genre does contain more than its share of shitty movies, but it seems kind of counter-intuitive to give a bunch of low-scored horror reviews when you’re not a fan. This is exactly why you don’t see me reviewing loads of romantic comedies. Anyway, I looked up The Burning in anticipation of watching it for the first time and was surprised to see the word BOMB in bold, dark type. Maltin reserves his BOMB rating for those films he finds unworthy of any rating stars, but thankfully I knew not to fret. The Burning is excellently made, and an absolute joy to watch for horror fans, and Maltin’s dismissal of this type of high-quality genre film is exactly why I felt the need to start writing reviews. It just took me a while to get around to it.
So The Burning is an incredibly simple story. Some might say too simple, but I say it’s just the right amount of simple to allow for a fun, easy-to-digest slasher. The film opens with a group of punk kids plotting to play a prank on their summer camp custodian Cropsy. Apparently he’s a drunk asshole, so the kids get a skull with worms crawling all over it, put lit candles in its eyes, and place it at Crospy’s bedside. They wake him up, and in his flailing he knocks the skull into his bed, lighting the whole thing on fire. He gets horribly disfigured, and after five years of healing at a local hospital, he’s ready to slice and dice his way to some sweet, sweet revenge.
Perhaps The Burning is too simplistic in its writing, and the characters aren’t all that deep, but I never noticed because I was having so much fun. Most slashers are the kind of movies where you’re tolerating the in-between parts because the gore is good, and gratifying, when it comes, but in The Burning it’s all good. The minutes fly by, which is saying a lot for the first hour when it’s mostly summer camp peeping toms and dudes trying to get laid. I usually get bored by this kind of cliché nonsense, but in The Burning I was smiling the whole time. It’s just so much fun, and it’s paced well, never lingering on any one scene for too long. The camera is a different story, though, at times capturing the females in leering, voyeuristic angles that can only be described as perverted, male wish fulfillment. Your enjoyment of the film will definitely hinge on your tolerance of horny, loud kids, but even their abrasive voices and the harsh, trebly sound mix coming down the tubes from Netflix wasn’t enough to put me off my high. The Burning is just that good.
But enough about camp counselors and skinny dipping in the lake, the real reason why anyone is going to remember The Burning is the FX work from Tom Savini. He turned down a job working on Friday the 13th Part 2 (he did the FX on the original) to work on The Burning, and thankfully for us his work here is perhaps some of the best of his career. Up until about an hour in, when the raft massacre occurs, I thought The Burning would be one of those movies with a lot of tension, but not much gore until the end. That all changed when a group of kids paddle their raft up to a drifting canoe. Hell, in the form of long garden shears, breaks loose on the unsuspecting campers and it instantly became one of my favorite FX sequences of all time. I was on board when Cropsy raised his shears high over his head to create the iconic poster image, and I was sold when he snipped off one kid’s fingers, but I had an out-of-body experience when he plunged those shears deep into the neck of a kid laying on the raft. It’s one of the most realistic FX I’ve ever seen, and I say that completely without hyperbole. It’s fucking nuts.
This scene kicks off the final half hour, which is basically all pay-off for the tension that was slowly and methodically built up over the course of the previous hour. What was just a fun, enjoyable camp movie, turned on a dime to become one of the most gruesome and exciting slasher films of all time. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to a horror film this enjoyable, and if you haven’t seen it, and you’re a horror fan, you really should set aside 91 minutes for a film that will shock, delight and enthrall you. The Burning is far from a BOMB, it’s THE BOMB.