The Burning (1981) Review

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We didn’t start the fire.

The Burning (1981): 8 out of 10: is a slasher horror film that follows a chilling tale of revenge and terror. The movie begins at Camp Blackfoot, a summer camp in Upstate New York. Years ago, a cruel prank gone wrong resulted in a caretaker named Cropsy (Lou David) being horrifically burned and disfigured. Now, after spending several years in a hospital, Cropsy is released and seeks revenge against those responsible for his gruesome injuries.

As the campers and counselors prepare for another summer, Cropsy lurks in the nearby woods, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. His rage and desire for vengeance consume him, driving him to commit brutal acts of violence against anyone who crosses his path. One by one, the unsuspecting victims fall prey to Cropsy’s deadly garden shears.

In charge of the campers are “boys will be boys” counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) and his love interest “no means no” counselor Michelle (Leah Ayres). As the body count rises and fear grips the camp, Todd becomes determined to put an end to the bloodshed. He rallies the remaining survivors to fight back against Cropsy, desperate to protect their own lives and uncover the truth behind the vengeful killer’s identity.

The Good

The Good: Usually when one curls up with a Miramax film with Holly Hunter, one is not thinking slasher movie. Alas, the Burning is the not just the first film for both Miramax and Holly Hunter but also for Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens as well. It is not just the stars of tomorrow, either. Everyone seems to give an excellent performance with the acting above average across the board. Jason Alexander, in particular, is charismatic and funny.

And this being the early eighties, there is an outdoor ladies’ shower and some lakes for skinny dipping. Unlike Harvey Weinstein’s other movie with Holly Hunter The Piano, the full frontal nudity here is courtesy of former Miss Ohio USA Carolyn Houlihan, not Harvey Keitel. Also, the campers have guns, gamble and smoke like chimneys because of course they do. Like I said, the Eighties.

We also have the king of slasher film make-up Tom Savini on board. He skipped Friday the 13th part 2 to do The Burning. Tom is clearly having fun and gives his A game with some spectacular kills and effects. Even Cropsey’s burn makeup, which Savini has said was rushed, is pretty decent.

The Burning is a bit of a slow burn (No, that was not a play on words) with a dead hooker early on (Oh Harvey), but nothing much else outside of some close calls. And then we have the raft scene.

You know, sometimes movies have that one scene. Like in The Terminator, where the Terminator drives the car into the police station and it just blows your mind and brings the movie to the next level. That kind of thing. The Burning has one of those scenes we’ll call it the raft scene, and it takes the movie up to another level.

The Bad

The Bad: it is a common complaint to complain that teenagers in films are clearly played by twenty something actors or even older (Grease. Porky’s Revenge!,Breakfast at Tiffany’s) but usually they are not sharing scenes with actors the same age playing the “adult” authority figure. You will need a scorecard and perhaps a second viewing to figure out who is a camper and who is a counselor in the film. (Larry Joshua in particular looks like he got on the wrong bus.)

If you have ever been camping in real life, you know the woods are dark. Very dark. Film needs light to work as a medium (Though not every filmmaker has gotten the memo.) So it is understandable that director Tony Maylam (Journal of a Contract Killer) and cinematographer Harvey Harrison (V for Vendetta) use day for night photography. And in most scenes, such as Karen (Carolyn Houlihan) and Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) skinny dipping, it works fine. But then we have a turn of events where the scenes go from day for night to actual daylight to day for night again. Someone clearly dropped the ball and this collection of scenes is simply confusing.

Like Glazer (Larry Joshua) finally having sex with Sally (Carrick Glenn), The Burning climaxes a little too early. While it is hardly the worst ending for a slasher film, the last ten minutes have no final girl. Just two guys you really wouldn’t mind seeing get killed and Cropsey with some decent burn makeup. The action inexplicably takes place in a copper mine that wandered over from My Bloody Valentine. The whole climax is a watch checking slog.

The Ugly

The Ugly: Harvey Weinstein wrote and created this film. It is a combination of his confessions and his worldview on full display.

In Conclusion

In Conclusion: Here is a thought. Even without the slasher, The Burning really works well as a summer camp movie. The Burning is an excellent companion piece to other camp films of the time, like Meatballs. I know I have already praised the acting, but it really is much better than average. The trauma shown by the surviving campers is out of a serious war film rather than a simple slasher.

The Burning is one of the best examples of a teen slasher film from the early eighties. And while it got buried by the competition at the time, it has earned its cult status.

Fisher Stevens is very skinny in this film.
Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) seems to be Harvey Weinstein’s author insert. He creeps around the girl’s shower and is a creepy Peeping Tom overall. He easily could have been the serial killer had The Burning already not had one.
I confess if this was not a Harvey Weinstein joint, all the various date rape style antics would go on uncommented. Pretty common in early eighties media. But through the lens of Harvey, it brings it to the next level.
I see Harvey’s favorite films are playing at The Venus
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