I have a lot of affection for The Burning but as it turns out that seems to have nothing to do with the film itself. My oldest friend Chris and I had many a fun hour watching a crummy old VHS copy of this Friday the 13th rip-off at his parents house. I think it must have been the combination of the killer Cropsy’s weirdness and Tom Savini’s way over the top gore which made the film worm its way into our horror filled hearts. Or maybe it was just watching Chris roll around in hysterics when someone has his fingers lobbed off with a pair of garden shears. It couldn’t be the actual film, which in truth, is kind of rubbish.
Saying The Burning is not good though is kind of like condemning the slasher genre as a whole (apart from Halloween of course). These films ARE rubbish, they are throw away trash, but you have to put them in the context of when they were released and who they were aimed at. While Halloween was a masterpiece in tight suspense, the films that followed were really riding on the pigtails of Friday the 13th. What that filmed did was ignore the craftsmanship of John Carpenter’s seminal classic and exploit the other aspects of it: ie teenage sex and extreme violence. What made it so successful was that it gave the teenage audience exactly what they wanted: annoying, young disposable characters, just like themselves, being murdered in a series of horrific set-ups. People through the ages have enjoyed watching these two things at their lowest common level: nudity (in strip joints and classical paintings) and extreme violence (in Gladiatorial arenas and at public executions). Friday the 13th just combined the two, but took away the realism, making it perfect fodder for people to jeer and cheer at in the comfort of an air conditioned auditorium. In this context The Burning succeeds brilliantly in exactly what it sets out to do: thrill the teenage audience and turn them on at the same time. Even at the beginning, after the prologue involving Cropsy being burnt to a crisp by a stupid teenage prank, we have a character virtually talking like a showman at a freakshow. “You aint ever gonna forget this, come on man, take a look” he says to a junior doctor at the hospital but really he is talking to us. He is even looking directly at the camera. The next shot, when we flash-forward five years, is a girl’s arse jiggling about.
This was the film that started Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s movie career, and its got their understanding of what an audience wants written all over it. I love the original poster, it’s like they said “We want to make the Gone With the Wind of slasher movies!” Look:
Plotwise, its the usual business: teens at a summer camp are hunted down and killed by Cropsy, seeking revenge on the teens who left him hideously deformed, although of course he’s really just killing a bunch of kids who have nothing to do with it. This is often the case, the killer never just tries to find the people who hurt him, just anyone who reminds him of them. Seems like an awful waste of energy to me. This would be terribly unfair if wasn’t for the fact that these teenagers are such a risible bunch that they deserve everything they get. And that is certainly the point: we’re not meant to care, they just have to get naked and die. And they do, a lot. Its hard to say which characters are the most deserving, but the stereotypes are all here: the creepy nerd, the bullying jock, the blonde slut, the bland hero type, the overweight funny guy, the prom queen. Actually scrub that, it is easy who is say should die first, its the two (yes two!) sleazy date-rape type guys. Both of them are desperate to get laid but not in a nice coming-of-age way. They come out with lines like “Don’t fight it” and “Well why else did you come here if you don’t want it”. Real charmers. However, both times it is the girls they are with who are killed by Cropsy. This is kind of bizarre on his part. Why, when these blokes act exactly like the kind of dicks who set him on fire, does he wait til the girls are alone and slice them up, rather than killing the boys? Is it because the girls have performed the cardinal sin of getting naked and having (or almost having) sex? Its a standard trope in the slasher movie, and I’m sure Cropsy is up-to-date with the nonsense of this puritanical approach to female character arcs.
Like I say, this film doesn’t care about the characters, but it does care about making a good film (is that possible with such a rubbish script?). The Weinstein’s are pretty ambitious with this, it looks far prettier than Friday the 13th: the lake is nicely shot, the camp’s dining hall has many scenes with easily a hundred kids pissing about in the background to give it a sense of scale and busyness, and there’s a lovely shot of Cropsy with the sun behind him, his weapon of choice silhouetted in the summer sky. Oh yeah, Cropsy likes to kill with a massive pair of garden shears. Not the most wealdy of weapons but certainly good for causing a variety of horrific and gory deaths, provided by legendary make-up effects master Tom Savini. Right, I don’t even want to say anything sacrilegious but some of the effects look a bit ropey. The finger chopping is still fun but when one of the rapey guys gets stabbed through throat (hurrah, at last!) it is very obvious that he is resting his head on a false neck, like one of those pictures you stick your head through at the fairground.
It doesn’t matter though, they’re still fun, and almost charming nowadays, well, as charming as being garrotted by garden implements can be. I like how Cropsy’s first kill is a prostitute and he doesn’t have any shears yet so uses a pair of scissors. Its like a mini test run for him, see if he likes doing it this way with a small version before popping down to Homebase to get the full-size model.
I don’t know why he has to kill a hooker first, can he not just get on with the teen killing? I mean, I cannot emphasise enough how awful this bunch are. And how weird. There’s a super nerd character who is introduced spying on a girl in the showers. When he’s caught he explains its because he has no friends and he thought this would make him more popular. How would that work exactly? I don’t think he’s thought this through, he just ends up with the shit kicked out of him. Later he watches the thug who beat him up getting it on with one another girl/rape victim. He’s asking for trouble. But there’s a twist! Nerdy boy is defended by the camp leader/hunk who befriends him after feeling sorry for him. In the climax the poindexter gets caught and the hunk (who essentially is the Final Girl of the movie) decides to abandon his actual girlfriend and rescue the nerd. At the end they come out cuddling each other which is not what I was expecting for such a simple-minded movie but good luck to them.
There are other weird details. The thug throws grains of salt at the nerd in a very weak bit of bullying, a character called Woodstock is killed because he goes back to his cabin because he can’t cope without his Vitamin supplements (really?) and there’s a great shot of the point of view of the garden shear’s handles stabbing a chap through the throat and pinning him to a tree. Also Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander pops up as a jock (!) who has a sideline in selling condoms to other teens, but they’re the non-lubricant kind so are no good to anyone apparently.
So The Burning: lots of gore, lots of fairly depressing sex and lots of incredibly dumb and annoying characters. But it goes at a good pace, when the teens aren’t talking to each other at any rate, it has enough weirdness to entertain and looking back to when it was released you can see how it would connect with the audience. It certainly connected with Chris and I, two teenagers laughing at the blood and guts, then trying to reenact it with a bottle of tomato ketchup. We were no Tom Savinis though I might add… just stupid, dumb kids, exactly who The Burning was made for.