i like the burning. hidden in the shadow of friday the 13th, it’s often overlooked and certainly underrated. this is partly because it’s always been a difficult film to find, something that still holds true to this day. despite pre-ordering it, it still took me two weeks to actually obtain a copy through any of the big online retailers and i have yet to see a copy on the shelves of any brick/mortar store in my area.
obtain it i did, however. as is often the case, the film is not nearly as remarkable as i remember it from my youth, but that isn’t to say it isn’t still quite a good film. there are a few reasons this film will never be on the same level as some of the more well known slashers from the same era, but it may not immediately be apparent why. after all, it has quite a few things in its favor.
for one, tom savini turned down friday the 13th part 2 to do the effects for this film. the importance of his involvement can’t be overstated, although the producers did make a valiant attempt to do so by giving him two separate credits in the film (“special make-up effects by” and “horror sequences by”). while the burning may not exemplify the absolute best of savini’s work, it certainly does showcase him at the top of his game as each death is more effective and gruesome than the last. each sequence leaves you wondering just how it was accomplished, a quality that few other makeup artists accomplish in their work as regularly as savini.
talent is also in no short supply when it comes to the cast. brian backer (‘rat’ from fast times at ridgemont high), fisher stevens (hackers, short circuit, and … super mario bros.) and jason alexander (seinfeld) all have starring roles. holly hunter even pops up in the supporting cast. perhaps none of those are as impressive as kevin bacon (friday the 13th) or johnny depp (a nightmare on elm st.), but together that’s more acting talent in one place than can be found in any other slasher from this era.
giving it a bit of reality-based creepiness, the film is based on an actual urban legend, that of the cropsy maniac. just like friday the 13th and elm st., it’s a simple, classic revenge tale of a particularly nasty variety and the simplicity of the story serves the film well.
finally, the film does something that few other campground slashers attempt — it actually has kids at the camp. with the exception of part 6, none of the friday films feature actual campers (and none actually harm children) — most commonly we see counselors prepping for the kid’s arrival. sleepaway camp is another example where actual campers are used, but even that keeps the majority of the violence away from the children. this is not true in the burning. while the ‘children’ killed in the film are actually portrayed by actors older than most real-life counselors, they are killed rather mercilessly. other, much younger campers do ultimately escape cropsy’s sheers but are frequently shown very much in harm’s way or sobbing in mortal terror.
given all the blood, sitcom stars and crying children, one would think this has to be the greatest slasher film ever made. one would be wrong. while the film has many notable qualities, it fails to deliver some of the more basic ingredients of the slasher film formula.
for one… the killer’s name. there are many names that have the potential to instill fear… ‘cropsy’ is not one of them.
secondly, while it would be ludicrous to demand a completely logical back story and motivation for the killer in such a film as this, we do expect a certain degree of consistency and logic to the killer’s actions. there is little of that here. in a typical revenge story one would seek revenge on the person or persons who had done the wrong-doing… here cropsy seems to simply blame anyone within a 10 mile radius of where the event occurred. jason follows a similar pattern when it comes to crystal lake, so i can’t criticize cropsy too much for this behavior, but that’s not the only pattern of killing he shows. the very first kill is bizarrely out of place for a campground slasher such as this as it takes place in the city, detouring more into taxi driver territory than friday the 13th. cropsy kills a prostitute for no discernible character reason. the only possible explanation is producer interference in an attempt to keep the bodycount high.
the kills themselves are usually well executed, and some even seem to contain some intentional subtext such as the image below which, when this angle was shown (i.e., garden shears being thrust at kneeling female victim from between the attacker’s legs), jon stated “it doesn’t get much clearer than that.”
** click screenshots for larger versions **
despite the effectiveness of the kills, i question the pov shots which accompany them. in all of the shots from the killer’s point of view, the camera gets an odd blur around the edges, perhaps in an attempt to show the killer’s vision is obstructed from burn scars. regardless, i’m not sure it’s effective at conveying anything other than ‘oh, the camera guy smeared some vaseline on the lens – that must be hard to get off.’
the film still fails to deliver in other essential aspects of the genre beyond the killer himself. a film such as this does not require multi-dimensional characters nor david mamet-ian dialogue, but it does demand likable (if ultimately superficial) characters. despite the talent of the cast, these characters are as unlikable as they come. the film asks that you most closely identify with a awkward peeping tom, an attempted date rapist and a counselor whose most intriguing character trait is not being able to keep his shirt buttoned. any chance these characters could be interesting is lost when the film seems to forget its genre for about 45 minutes and turns into an pale imitation of a slap-stick summer camp comedy (e.g., meatballs), complete with peashooters, teen boys mooning, canoe races set to banjo music, and a camper’s bizarre refusal to pay another camper for condoms due to their lack of lubrication.
apart from the lubed rubber transaction, one of the oddest dialogue exchanges occurs between the peeping tom and the irritatingly wooden counselor. the peeping tom has just been caught stealing a look at a naked co-ed in the showers, and the counselor demands to know why. one would think such behavior would require no explanation, but the peeping tom launches into two possible explanations for his desire to look at boobies. 1) revenge on the girl’s boyfriend and 2) everyone picks on me. the counselor seems to accept the logic that being made fun of by one’s peers leads to uncontrollable leering in the girl’s shower room, and the scene ends with a healthy pat on the back and smiles all around.
after someone reminds the director that he’s making a horror film, the film does make up for the previous hour’s banality with what is commonly known as ‘the raft sequence.’ through the magic of dvd this very effective scene is made far more so by the inclusion of the gorier bits that were cut out of most previous releases. in isolation, the scene is far less frightening than in context, but i include it here regardless for those that wish to review it. i’d suggest not watching it if you’ve yet to see the film in its entirety and plan to do so.
the film’s biggest break from the slasher formula comes in the last act. i would like to suggest that the burning contains the worst ‘final girl’ from the early days of slasher films, and quite possibly the worst ‘final girl’ in all of slasher history.
imagine if bob from halloween had survived being nailed to a cabinet with a kitchen knife and had taken laurie strode’s place in the final third of the film. furthermore, imagine bob wearing really tight pants and losing another button from his shirt every ten minutes. imagine bob running around expressionless, his hands on hips while the haunting halloween theme has been replaced by cheesy 80s keyboard music. finally, imagine that an aggressively ill sea turtle with mild to moderate epilepsy was hired to edit the last 20 minutes of the film. if you can keep all that in the transit of your mind simultaneously, then you’re pretty close to envisioning the finale of the burning.
below you can see todd chronologically throughout the last third of the film as his neckline plunges lower and lower. in the first picture we see counselor todd yelling at one of his less obedient campers. it’s worth noting that in this scene the actor playing todd is 28 years old; the actor playing the camper is 29. while it’s obvious from the photos that todd is not unattractive, he is no jamie lee curtis. nor is he amy steel. not only does he lack the anatomical parts to qualify as a final girl… he was apparently also last in line for charm, likability and common sense. as you can see in shots 2 and 3, todd’s belt possesses far more charisma than todd could possibly muster.
in addition to being a rather boring male, i’d also like to point out one more large (although easily missed) flaw in the character of todd. if you read the film carefully, you must accept the conclusion that todd isn’t just uncharismatic — he’s likely a sociopath. while this might normally make a character more interesting, in todd’s case it just makes him unbelievable in addition to being uninteresting. let me explain…
cropsy was burned alive accidentally by a group of campers 5-10 years prior to main story of the burning. by this time, cropsy has become an urban legend. we get to see counselor todd telling cropsy’s story to the young campers around a campfire in an attempt to scare them…
only problem was, the gag went wrong. the next thing anyone knows, cropsy’s trapped alive and burning in his bunk. they try to get him out but the fire’s so fierce they can’t reach him. all they can do is stand outside and listen to him cry out in agony. they say he smashed his way through the bunk room door, just a mass of flames. and as he screamed out, burned alive, he cried out, "I will return, I will have my revenge." they never found his body. he survived. he lives on whatever he can catch. eats them raw. alive. no longer human. right now, he’s out there. watching. waiting. don’t look, he’ll see you. don’t move, he’ll hear you. don’t breathe… you’re dead!
with that last line, one of the other counselors jumps out in a mask and scares all the little kids poopless. this same scene occurs almost verbatim in friday the 13th part 2, and variations of it occur frequently in slasher films since. the problem i have with this scene is that in the film’s climax we learn that todd isn’t just some random counselor… he’s one of the kid’s that burned cropsy alive. that means that just a few years after setting another human being on fire, todd not only decides he wants to work where the tragedy occurred — but he uses the story that he not only knows is real, but was personally responsible for, as entertainment (going so far as to include the actual name of the victim). unless todd was so traumatized by the event that he blocked it out (there is no evidence supporting this idea within the film) and honestly believes it is nothing more than a story, then i see no explanation other than todd feels no guilt for almost murdering an innocent man.
ok, so the final girl is a lame, uninteresting sociopathic man with a fuzzy chest and the killer is a crispy critter with goop around his eyes… but the ending is still exciting, isn’t it? well, not really. savini’s sculpture for cropsy is certainly nice, as is cropsy’s final demise… but the editing of the final scene is so distractingly confusing and contains so many continuity mistakes that it castrates any effectveness the scene may have potentially had. for example:
in what is obviously a producer’s tinkering to add more ‘jolts’ to the climax, the scene has been cut together as to give the impression that when todd looks though a doorway in the abandoned mining building, he sees one of cropsy’s earlier victims nailed to the wall. unfortunately, it’s clear that all they’ve done is intercut a shot of todd looking with a still image from the earlier death scene. further, since the image is of a girl nailed to a tree (and there are no trees inside this concrete building), they’ve simply blacked out the sides of the image in an attempt to obscure the forest. anyone who’s seen a still image cut into a film knows how poorly it matches… but the black edges leave you with the impression that todd just got really scared by a poorly lit poster hanging on a dorm room wall.
in another part of the scene cropsy is seen advancing towards todd holding a flame thrower with both hands. then it cuts immediately to a reaction shot from another character across the room who has been secured to the wall with cropsy’s shears. the problem is that the reaction shot is obviously being reused from earlier in the scene as cropsy’s gloved hands are still very clearly around the character’s neck… we then cut back to cropsy, easily 20 feet away, still holding the flame thrower with both hands and still slowly advancing on todd.
i’ve spent a lot of time pointing out some of the flaws that keep cropsy from joining the prestigious ranks of jason, freddy and michael… but don’t get me wrong. the burning is a fine film. when it works, which is more often than not, it works well. it’s also interesting from a historical perspective as it is one of the earliest slashers, created during a time when the slasher film formula was incredibly popular but still a bit malleable. so, if you’re fan of vengeful burned up caretakers, guys who wear unbuttoned denim shirts with jeans or jason alexander with hair, throw the burning into your netflix queue.