Made at the height of the splatter craze inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), and especially Friday the 13th (1980), The Burning (1981), is strictly by-the-numbers sex and gore exploitation. Though its shock scenes are undeniably effective, thanks to Tony Maylam's direction and Tom Savini's makeup effects, the script is criminally stupid bordering on extreme tastelessness. The film is primarily notable in that many of the people associated with it would soon move on to bigger and better things.
At Blackfoot, a vaguely Western New York summer camp, a group of teenage boys plot against a much-hated caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David), but their prank goes horribly wrong: a worm-infested skull lit with candles frightens the man only too well. He panics, knocks it over (as well as a big can of gasoline, conveniently kept next to his bed) and ends up setting himself afire. (One would have thought that the very obvious goggles and head-to-toe asbestos fire suit Cropsy wears as he runs out of the cabin would've protected him, but apparently not.) Cropsy survives, but "the skin grafts don't take" and five years later he's released from the hospital.
Later, at Camp Stonewater, just across the lake from the now-defunct Camp Blackfoot, a group of horny teenagers (including supposedly 16- to 18-year-olds with suspiciously receding hairlines) live it up away from Mom and Dad. More than a dozen older campers head out for a three-day canoe trip to "Devil's Creek," but Cropsy soon comes a-callin' and armed with a pair of razor-sharp hedge clippers begins wreaking his revenge, knocking off teenagers like fish in a barrel.
The Burning's main claim to fame is that it was the very first film of Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and marked the feature film debuts of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. Hunter's role is insignificant, but it's interesting to watch Alexander's wiseguy character which very much is like a teenage George Costanza (from TV's Seinfeld).
The Burning was inspired by a story told around campfires throughout the American Northeast, though variations of it have been around since time immemorial practically everywhere. Unfortunately, the script adapts it in the worst possible, least logical ways.
In what could only be described as an awesome lack of taste and sensitivity, the film implies burn victims unlucky enough to survive their injuries have no other recourse than to become horrible teen-slashing monsters. An early scene finds a hospital orderly (Mansoor Najeeullah) describing Cropsy's condition to a nervous intern (Jerry McGee): he's "a fucking Big Mac, overdone! No way I'd want to be this freak - a monster, man!" An obviously offended Cropsy then grabs the orderly with his badly-burned arm; you'd think after a week in the hospital the doctors would have removed the flaky, black-as-burnt-toast dead skin.
Of course other, better horror films had featured burn victims as monsters, namely House of Wax (1953) and the 1943 and '62 versions of Phantom of the Opera, but those characters were clearly sympathetic eccentrics whose lives are ruined by crooked business associates who get their just desserts in the end. That's not the case here at all. We're told that Cropsy was a mean drunk and a sadist but we see none of this, just a helpless man getting burned, and in any case this information is relayed by a character partly responsible for Cropsy's disfigurement, so his testimony is at the very least questionable.
Once out of the hospital, for no good reason Cropsy viciously murders a blowsy hooker (K.C. Townsend), stabbing her with scissors, strangling her, and tossing her through a second-story window. There's no reason for this scene at all, except to indulge audiences early in a picture where things don't really heat up until the last 25 minutes. (It's so out of place one wonders if it was added later to bring the film's running time to 90 minutes. There's a lot of obvious padding throughout, especially during the climax, which has an unusually high quotient of discontinuity.)
The dramatically logical way to go from here would be to follow Crospy seeking vengeance against those that disfigured him. Instead, Cropsy and his garden shears make a beeline for Camp Stonewater and innocent, alternately likeable and annoying teens who did him no harm whatsoever. Film theorists types with nothing better to do have read all manner of conservative themes in these films, that the genre implies that teens engaging in forbidden fruits like smoking and premarital sex are "punished" by such horror characters, but movies like The Burning merely are following the the established patterns of the genre, figuring what worked before would work again: from scenes of titillating nudity followed by gory killings set to a Halloween-esque synthesizer score, with subjective camera angles, roving camera work from the killer's point-of-view.
Video & Audio
Though its packaging notes an "R" rating, Fox's DVD of The Burning appears to be a completely uncut version of the film. The picture was apparently trimmed by about 45 seconds to avoid an "X" rating, but all of this footage is present here, meaning Fox either had the film re-rated (not likely), hoped the MPAA wouldn't notice (improbable) or simply didn't realize that a re-rating was required (the most likely explanation). In any case the 16:9 enhanced presentation looks great; the film elements show no signs of damage or age-related wear. The Dolby Digital mono is clean and clear; optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are available, and the dual-layered disc is closed-captioned.
Extras include a surprisingly interesting and intelligent audio commentary with director Tony Maylam and genre scholar Alan Jones, and an 18-minute, 16:9 featurette, Blood 'n' Fire Memories. The latter is an interview with the entertaining and perceptive Tom Savini, who also provides greenish behind-the-scenes video footage.
Splatter fans will be glad to see The Burning in all its uncut, widescreen glory, but less devoted horror devotees might want to steer clear of this routine dead teenagers picture, of little interest except as a curiosity for the soon-to-be famous people behind it. Rent It.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.