Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Burning turns thirty.


My favorite slasher film, The Burning, opened thirty years ago, on May 8, 1981.

Even director, Tony Maylam, said of The Burning, "This is a formula horror movie, in it's time." That being said, I feel that The Burning is the perfect slasher film.

A campground worker is seriously burned by a group of kids. Five years later, he returns to the camp and murders his way through the current crop of kid campers. It's pretty simple. The basic foundation of the story was based on the Cropsy maniac legend from the north-eastern part of the U.S.

A documentary was released a few years ago briefly detailing the legend and going in-depth on it's possible origin. The documentary is simply titled, Cropsey. (If you have Netflix, you can watch it online.)

The film was the first project of Bob and Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Films. Director, Tony Maylam had directed Genesis in Concert and attracted the eyeballs of Harvey Weinstein who ran a company that put on large concerts. The Weinsteins knew that the film was going to be based on the Cropsy legend.

Friday the 13th came out in May 1980. A large part of the film's success was the realistic gore effects created by Tom Savini. Harvey Weinstein and Tony Maylam flew to the Pittsburgh home of Tom Savini to woo him for their film. Lucky for them, Savini had some reservations about the upcoming Friday the 13 part two story. Weinstein and Maylam were able to recruit Savini for The Burning. Savini set to work, thinking of new ways to murder teenagers.

Maylam knew that the killer would use garden shears as his main weapon. "I just thought it was a cool idea," Maylam said on the commentary track for The Burning DVD.

Savini created the Cropy make-up in four days. In his make-up effects book, Grande Illusions, Savini wrote, "I sculpted Cropsy's face remembering the pictures I'd seen at the burn unit at Pittsburgh's Mercy Hospital and a beggar I'd seen on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh when I was a kid, and the book Nursing the Burn Patient by Feller."

Cropsy's look is horrifying and perfect. He does not look like a typical burn victim, but a melted, twisted man. Less a victim and more a monster.


Ezra Pound said that there are Innovators, there are Masters, and there are Imitators. Many slasher fans cry out that The Burning is one of the many fine imitations which make up the slasher genre. I disagree. I believe the Innovators of the American slasher genre are films like Blood Feast, Black Christmas, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Masters, the films that embody the genre to perfection, are Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Burning, Friday the 13th part 4, and, if I can cheat a bit, the first fifteen minutes of  When a Stranger Calls. The rest of the films are Imitators, which is not a derogatory statement in and of itself, with varying degress of greatness.

Why is The Burning a masterpiece within the slasher genre?
The film is part of the wilderness slasher sub-genre (as opposed to the urban slasher) it takes place at a campground for teens. The teenagers in The Burning are a big part of why the film is a masterpiece. They are interesting characters and they are ultimately sympathetic. You do not want them to die. Early 1970's and 1980's slasher films relied on audience projection. Teens were watching teens. The teenage audience was expected to walk in the shoes of the teenage characters and be horrified by their deaths. Later 80's slasher characters were typically unsympathetic. Fans went to watch them die. Killers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger were cheered as their bodycounts grew.

The film is helped along with the young charisma of future stars Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Larry David. Emmy Award winner, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High star, Brian Matthews is the final boy. Even Holly Hunter cutes up the screen and has one line of dialogue. The kids act like kids. Larry David aside, this is not a group of 30-somethings parading as teenagers and acting like they are above it all. These ARE teenagers and young adults. They have the energy and chaos of kids and not one of the actors phone it in.

There are a ton of kids. There are not six kids and five murders with a final girl. You're not really sure who is going to be killed. It is not cut and dry.

The final girl is a boy! Cool turn of events. He has dimensions to his characters. He's a peeping tom and a bit creepy. Do you identify with him? Do you pity him? Want to cuddle his little, troubled head? Hate him? You will feel something for him.

The other kids are loose stereotypes. There is a tough guy but he is not so tough that you can't imagine him off the screen.

The way the actors move and talk in the scene pictured above is just perfect. I would swear that the girl with her shirt pulled down, revealing her shoulder went to my high school, she's a pre-sexual goofball. This film could be Meatballs or some other campground film until the campers begin to be slaughtered.

And what slaughterings they are. This is Tom Savini at his slashing finest. Cropsy's garden shears cut, slash, and stab their way through young flesh. I'm a throat slitting fan (Annie's death in Friday the 13th is slashtastic perfection) and Savini delivers.

"The scene on the raft," as it is known, garnered the film a spot on the UK's Video Nasty list. The scene is less a stereotypical slasher scene and more a mass murdering, jet fueled, massacre. Cropsy ambushes five of the teens from a canoe (Cropsy must have the balance and agility of a feline ninja.) and within ten seconds he has cut through them.

Forget CG garbage effects, these are practical special effects with the Karo syrup blood flowing.


The music in The Burning is also excellent. Rick Wakeman wrote the music with Alan Brewer handling some of the musical score. Alan Brewer is listed as the Musical Director and was also the arm of Cropsy in the early hospital scene. The music is just 80's enough to remind you of the period, but not so 80's as to alienate younger audiences and turn off those of us that had been there, done that.
Like Halloween and Friday the 13th part 2 (which began shooting four days after The Burning wrapped) the killer is known. We know Cropsy is the murderer and, for the most part, we know why he's killing the kids. He's pissed. Unlike the original Friday the 13th, where the killer's identity is a mystery, and Black Christmas, where the killer's identity is confusing and irrelevant, you see Cropsy in the first scene of the film. You see his face and learn who he is. Only after he is horribly burned does he become a serial killer.

Interestingly, Halloween, Friday the 13th part 2, and The Burning all hide their respective killers face until the end of the film. There is a flash of Cropsy's fried mug earlier, as he walks past a window, but the full reveal of his face is held until the end of the film. So, the film is shot like a suspense film, hiding the killer's face, not because of his identity but because the filmmakers wanted to shock the audience with Cropsy's horrifying visage.

Another aspect that I love about The Burning is that Cropsy is utterly destroyed at the end of the film. There will be no part two.


A curious scene in the film has Cropsy, recently released from the hospital, kill a prostitute. The motivations of the scene are unclear. Is this personal? Does Cropsy have a psychological hatred of prostitutes? Are we missing a piece of the Cropsy puzzle? I always think of the scene as the event that drives him over the edge. That turns him into a serial killer. Cropsy starts the scene unarmed. Only when the prostitute balks and panics upon seeing his face does he move in and attack her. Is murder on his mind when he enters the room? It looks like it from his giallo-like outfit (see pic above) but perhaps the assumption is incorrect. He's a burn victim with raw, exposed, nerves. Perhaps the black gloves are necessary. Perhaps he knows he is physically damaged and sex is impossible but needs a little sympathy and caring for fifteen minutes. For whatever reason, he moves in on her when she attempts to kick him out. He begins strangulation. When she goes for a pair of nearby scissors, he takes them from her and murders her with them.

It's a strange scene but adds a level of mystery to the film. It's like seeing the original Star Wars and just imagining what the Clone Wars were. Why does Cropsy kill the prostitute?


The Burning only played in a few theaters and did terrible. A 1982 rerelease did better and coincided with the VHS release but the film soon disappeared. An official DVD release wasn't available until 2007. I first heard about the film from Tom Savini's Grand Illusions book in the mid-80's. I read about the make-up effects and pined over the gory photos before I was allowed to see rated-R films. I finally got my hands on a VHS bootleg as a teenager in the late-80's. The official DVD is a thing of beauty with a short documentary featuring Tom Savini, a commentary track with director, Tony Maylam, and the picture looks fantastic. Sellers on Amazon.com have the film for about $7. Get it.



Above, my daughter kissing my Cropsy mask.
(There is an incredible article on The Burning here. Be sure to scroll to the bottom, the article is multiple pages. It is also full of spoilers and images of Cropsy, BEWARE!)

UPDATE:
Not only did this cool poster from Mondo come out last year, but The Burning is now available on Blu-Ray. It looks and sounds beautiful.
You can read more about my thoughts on slasher films HERE.
My top ten slasher films of the 70's and 80's can be found HERE.

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