Here is a film I never saw until only a few days ago. I heard about it, saw it on the shelf as a kid but never actually got around to seeing it until this Halloween malarky started. I’m glad to say that I’ve now seen it and I guess I have this month of Halloween articles to thank for it. The cover for this film is iconic to me. As a kid I thought the bad guy on the cover with the huge garden shears had no head. It became one of those elusive movies that had an interesting cover but I never got to see. After 30 years, I can say that I’ve finally seen this film so what did I think? Here’s the rundown……
Tom Maylam, 1981 US
A supposedly cruel caretaker at a summer camp has a practical joke played on him that goes horribly awry. “Cropsy” as he’s called (worst villain name ever) wakes up in his bed to find a rotting skull with candles in the eyes staring back at him. Startled, he screams and pushes the skull off the desk and straight onto his bedsheets which, as luck would have it, happens to ignite a large can of gasoline that he keeps next to the bed. (cause that’s where I keep mine!) From this seemingly petty prank comes a catastrophe of mammoth proportions as Cropsy is burned alive from head to toe and busts out of the cabin, rolls down the hill and into the lake. Barely surviving, Cropsy recuperates at the hospital until well enough to go on a killing spree to which no one is safe. He makes his way back to the camp (after some time? nothing is said about time period) and starts picking off hapless teenagers with reckless abandon. From here it’s pretty by the numbers stuff and we’ve all seen Friday the 13th.
The film wastes absolutely no time with character development but rather puts in place the common stereotypical teenagers you’ve come to expect. The Douchey Jock, The Nerd, The Clown, The Level Headed Leader, The Tag alongs and the bevy of teenage girls showing their breasts. All fodder for the Cropsy Killing Machine. The acting is pretty awful, in fact, it’s very awful but really you cannot expect oscar winning stuff with a teen slasher flick. You will recognise faces though. Young fresh faces that you sometimes know but can’t place. Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) appears looking thin and with a full head of hair. Ageing is so cruel, I know the feeling. He plays against type with a fairly laid back and cool character. Also amongst the cast is a very youthful Fisher Stevens. I knew the face but damn he’s so young in this, I had to IMDb him. You can tell why the main character never went far in film, he’s pretty awful. In fact, from acting alone you can see clearly that the ones with somewhat of a future in film clearly had an edge over the other actors in The Burning. Brian Matthews, who plays the central character Todd, couldn’t act his way out of a cardboard box and it was fitting to find that he had future bit parts in The Young and the Restless and Days of Our Lives. Everyone else was pretty incidental and really just there for the garden shears to be inserted into.
After saying all of this, I didn’t dislike the film. I kind of was expecting it to be corny anyway. I mean, this is an early 80′s slasher we’re talking about here. There are a lot of aspects about it that worked and worked well. The “vaseline on the lense” to denote seeing through Cropsy’s eyes was a simple but effective technique, and kind of works with the “burned hideously” motif. There were many times where I thought my highly trained brain from years of slasher films knew what was coming only to find that it surprised me with something completely unexpected. Maybe some scenes were metered out for longer due to budget constraints but the final showdown where the good guys are weaving their way through the abandoned mine, for longer than is what is usually needed today, only added to the tension. The music at times felt directly lifted from John Carpenter’s The Thing with it’s solitary bass guitar doing the “duh duh…………duh duh….” but was still fitting. Other musical beats have that classic 80′s tone that is commonplace for these films and give them their charm. I’m never unhappy to see naked women so there’s a thumbs up in that area. The flashback sequence interspersed with the finale of the film is probably one of the better moments and also one of the more modern types of things you find in films today. I was quite taken aback in fact as it’s something I don’t remember seeing in films of that time period. I could be wrong.
The gore in this film is where it really shines. Yes you can see how they done it, yes it looks fake at times but man, this film made me really miss practical effects and yearn for more uses of this seemingly forgotten artform. Tom Savini is the master behind these scenes. Supposedly turning down Friday the 13th Part II to do this film certainly did The Burning a major service. The raft slaughter scene is particularly awesome with some great shots of shears piercing through very realistic looking skin. Enough to make you “Eeeeewwwwww!” at least. Even the fairly cruddy looking Cropsy burned face reveal at the end is done just quick enough and looks horrid enough that it certainly leaves an impression. Had they lingered too long on it, it wouldn’t have had the same effect but the quick glance you get puts the fear into you. Other gems like fingers being lopped off and slashes to the face are more than competent. It really is a credit to the film, and the reason it was heavily censored and banned in some countries back in the day.
The Burning certainly is a recommend for people wanting to watch a classic slasher that isn’t as well known as the Friday’s and the Freddy’s but is certainly born from the same mother. It stands up fairly well against the test of time and the gore is very well executed (pardon the pun). It’s certainly a film worthy of watching for this Halloween Horror Countdown month. Enjoy.