While I’ll grant that Tony Maylam’s The Burning doesn’t deserve the same iconic status as Friday the 13th, it certainly warrants the attention of slasher fans who have never seen the film, or perhaps reconsideration by fans who have forgotten it. And in some ways, I think it’s actually a more interesting film.
Of course, The Burning is not without its problems. For instance, many of The Burning’s plot devices are obviously derivative of Friday the 13th — namely, a lakeside summer camp full of awkward youngsters discovering their sexuality while being methodically stalked and killed by a vengeful staff member. And The Burning does not have the same sense of terror or dread. This is partly due to The Burning’s soundtrack, which includes too much synthesized keyboards and bluegrass, and partly due to the odd pacing of the film. The now famous raft sequence is brilliantly edited, but the buildup seems too slow. But perhaps I’ve fallen victim to the MTV-generation’s demand for rapid-fire editing. Also, Cropsy may have one of the most charming names in all of slasher-dom, but he’s no no Jason. He’s no Pamela Voorhees either. I’ve always found the original Camp Crystal Lake slasher all the more terrifying because of the fact that she’s a deeply wounded mother with a grotesque sense of moral hygiene. Cropsy’s wounds, on the other hand, are really only skin-deep. They do not explain nor really punctuate his pathology. We may assume that as the camp caretaker, he’s been the frequent object of ridicule, and that his alcoholism makes him socially dysfunctional. And, of course, he has plenty to be angry about since he’s been horribly disfigured because of a teenage prank. But the film seems to deliberately go out of its way to ignore all but a rudimentary, cardboard characterization. For instance, after a long convalescence, Cropsy emerges from the burn ward of the hospital and heads straight to the nearby red light district. He didn’t have to. The film could have just as easily had him go straight to camp. The fact that the film deliberately undertakes this detour could have been the perfect opportunity to explore, if only superficially, the psychological nature of his wound. But it never develops beyond anything more than the simple fact that he’s burned and pissed off and ready to kill. Granted, that’s all motivation needed to get the film going, and I suppose there’s no need to put Cropsy on the proverbial therapist’s couch, but the film ignores possible avenues for his character development that might have added extra menace to the overall tone of the film.
However, in terms of the actual summer camp to which Cropsy naturally returns, The Burning’s Camp Stonewater is far more interesting than Friday the 13th’s Camp Crystal Lake. At times, the film gave me the impression that its writers had actually spent time at such camps—especially during the dialogues that captured that odd mix of naiveté, bravado and sexual desperation that defines teenage male psychology. And, of course, there are nude teens aplenty at Camp Stonewater, but I was startled by the number of actual children at the camp. This gave the film a certain edginess that was sometimes lacking at Camp Crystal Lake. The presence of so many children not only provided a more dramatic sense of danger, but also added the thinnest bit of realism. In fact, the premise for the film is supposedly “Cropsy the Maniac,” a story that originated at an actual summer camp and is still being told to scare youngsters around the camp fire to this very day. So the story goes, anyway.
Aside from what is actually an intriguing origin, the other interesting aspect of the film is its departure from the standard punishment themes at work in most slasher films, including Friday the 13th. First, everyone knows that slasher films feature sexually promiscuous teens who are punished by a maniac with a knife, or some other appropriately phallocentric implement of death. Fans and film critics alike have long argued that slasher films are a parody of our culture’s puritanical drive to punish. In The Burning, the title may refer less to Cropsy’s seared flesh, and more to the sexually frustrated teenagers at Camp Stonewater. They’re painfully, awkwardly, and sometimes absurdly frustrated. For instance, Glazer, the camp’s token bad boy bully, spends a good deal of the film bragging about how he can only use lubricated condoms. It turns out, however, that he can’t actually perform. Even more shocking, however, is the fact that his partner, after a few rounds of obligatory teen ridicule, actually shows the sort of compassion and concern for her partner that few maniacs would warrant punishable by slashing. Cropsy kills them both anyway. Likewise, even though Karen undoubtedly draws attention to herself as an appropriate slasher victim by engaging in some full-frontal nudity before skinny-dipping, she actually refuses to have sex with her partner Eddy. Eddy gets violent, Karen sulks off into the woods, Karen is killed, and Eddy lives. This defies all slasher logic.
Even more intriguing, however, is the absence of a final girl. Michelle is the leading candidate for that distinguished role in the film, but she’s absent in the film’s climactic final scenes. The final-role honors actually belong to two final boys. At the film’s end, Todd, Alfred, and Cropsy form a bizarre triangle that I’m still trying to fully decipher. Cropsy and Todd form a bond, of course, because it turns out that Todd was one of the children responsible for Cropsy’s accidental burning. This, I suppose, is standard revenge-theme fare, but to make matters much worse, Todd has been telling the story of Cropsy to entertain the children at camp. The fact that Todd reduces what should have been the most horrible and life-alterning moment of his life to a cheesy campfire yarn could mean that Todd has been so wounded that he’s blocked out his memories of the incident. This would also help explain his annoying and sometimes creepy “father knows best” meets "Marlboro man" attitude. He’s overacting the “good guy” role because of his repressed guilt. He does seem startled by the revelation that he’s responsible for Cropsy’s disfigurment as it all comes back to him in a series of flashbacks. But I’m inclined to believe that in actuality, Todd is as badly damaged, and just as deranged as Cropsy. And the pathology seems to be contagious. Consider, for instance, the fact that the film’s second final boy, the voyeuristic camp kid Alfred, becomes a Stonewater counselor at the film’s end and once again reduces the tragedy of Cropsy to a cheap campfire scare. Todd and Alfred can’t be called the film’s protagonists. Todd is too guilty. Alfred is too plain weird. In other words, no final girl emerges, bloodied and scared, but morally pure. Instead, The Burning offers as its partial resolution the fact that the ambivalent and strange camp culture at Stonewater will undoubtedly keep perpetuating the story of Cropsy for the sake of a good scare and campy cornball fun. And precisely because of that fact, I’d argue that Camp Stonewater embodies the essence of slasher films just as well as Camp Crystal Lake.