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Face-Off: The Burning vs. Madman

Since this article is being posted on Wednesday the 13th, I felt like taking a look back at a couple early '80s campground slashers that were along the lines of FRIDAY THE 13TH, but weren't actually FRIDAY THE 13TH films. The Wednesday the 13ths of cinema. Two that stood out to me were Tony Maylam's THE BURNING and Joe Giannone's MADMAN - both slasher movies that are set at operational camps populated with counselors and campers, both of them about campfire legends that prove to be true. In fact, both films were supposed to be about the legend of "the Cropsy maniac", but a different slasher had to be created for MADMAN when the filmmakers found out THE BURNING had gone into production before them. So let's see how the Cropsy of THE BURNING and the Cropsy replacement of MADMAN fare when put against each other. It's Cropsy vs. Madman Marz. Place your bets!

CAMPFIRE TALE

Just under halfway into the film, camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) recites a campfire story about a maniac named Cropsy, as many campers in the New York area have apparently done over the last several decades. Todd knows that part of the story he tells of a mean, alcoholic caretaker suffering horrific burns in a prank gone wrong is actually true - he was there, he saw Cropsy burn when he was a kid. It won't be long before Todd finds out the second half of his story, about Cropsy living in the woods and watching, waiting for his chance to attack campers, is also true. Matthews did a great job telling this story, and you can see how important casting was for the role of the storyteller when a different actor tells a version of the campfire story at the end of the film and his delivery isn't nearly as effective.

This film gets its campfire story told right up front, with grandfatherly head counselor Max (Carl Fredericks) telling the story of Madman Marz, an evil fellow who used to live in the abandoned house not far from camp. An alcoholic farmer who beat his wife and children and would take any opportunity to get in a fight with strangers, Marz walked from room-to-room in his house one night and hacked up his entire family with an axe while they slept. Outraged locals smacked Marz in the face with his own axe and strung him up from a tree. Strangely, Marz disappeared from his noose overnight. Now he stalks the woods, looking for people to kill. If you say his name above a whisper in the woods, he'll hear you and come after you. The filmmakers created a creepy story that Fredericks tells perfectly, and it even comes with a rhyme about Marz.

SLASHER

We're told Cropsy was an awful person even before he was burned, but we're not shown that part of his life. The film does give some information most slashers would have skipped over, showing that Cropsy didn't decide to go off into the woods until after he tried living in the city and was rejected by a prostitute. His first kill. The director was holding off on fully showing Cropsy and his burned face (there is a quick flash early on), so most of the film we only see him in silhouette, or see his gloved hands stabbing the garden shears into people. Even when his face is revealed he doesn't get much chance to make an impression on the viewer, it's just a display of an unnerving special effect on a guy holding a flamethrower.

The campfire tale tells us Marz was a bad guy in his regular life before he started killing people, but the film jumps right to the murders and then shows us what Madman Marz has become since he was on the receiving end of vigilante justice. Hairy, barefoot, dressed in his farmer-style bib overalls, grunting and roaring, Marz can sometimes come off as being unintentionally funny. At least we get to see the guy quite often, and I have to commend the filmmakers for having the confidence to show off their ghoulish character when many others would have chosen to keep him hidden. There are some great shots of Marz in action, and the characters don't stand a chance against him.

CAMPERS & COUNSELORS

THE BURNING spends a lot of time establishing characters and digging into their interactions with each other, so much that a good portion of this film feels more like a dramedy about the camp experience than it does a horror film. There's the awkward kid who doesn't fit in with the others, the pranksters and jokers, couples trying to figure out their relationships. Nice guys might turn out to be not so nice, tough talkers might not live up to their talk. Notable cast members include Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, and Brian Backer (unfortunately, only one of them ends up on the body count), but the standout of the film is Larry Joshua as Glazer, a guy who builds himself up to be something special but really isn't so impressive.

Maybe you could blame Max for what happens, since he was the one who told the campfire story in the first place, but I'm putting the blame on mouthy teen camper Richie, who is the one who shouts Madman Marz's name in the woods, thinking it's all a joke but actually calling Marz to their camp. It's a shame Richie doesn't get a brutal death. It seems like the counselors are supposed to be younger than they look; they talk about their lives and relationship issues like they're in their late teens, but appear to be much older. There's just enough character work to let us know who these people are, then they start getting knocked off. The coolest thing about this cast is that the heroine is played by Gaylen Ross of DAWN OF THE DEAD (working under a pseudonym).

BODY COUNT

This film is tough competition in the kills department, since it boasts special effects by Tom Savini and contains one of the sub-genre's most popular slashing scenes. Even though nearly every single kill is performed with garden shears (and the one that isn't still uses scissors), there is enough variety and blood in the individual kills to keep them interesting. The standout kills come in the famous raft massacre scene, when Cropsy hacks and slashes five teens to death at once.

Madman Marz may not have had Tom Savini providing the blood for him, but the gore effects in here still look great anyway. Marz gets in some good kills, reaching the double digits and using more than just one main weapon. His favorite is an axe, of course, sentimental attachment since that's what he used on his family, but he also kills people with his bare hands, hangs one from a tree, and (this one is probably my favorite) smashes a character's head under the hood of a truck.

TONE & STYLE

THE BURNING has a very natural and realistic style, which helps the viewer buy into all the character work that's in it. I never went to camp, but this seems true to life. There just happens to be a scarred maniac lurking around the cabins and stalking campers in blurry POV shots. I actually could have done with a bit less of the character stuff; there's so much of it that I've always found this movie to be a bit slow and dull. The slashing scenes are nice, though, and the deaths have impact as the film gets darker and more intense while it goes along.

MADMAN feels like it's just slightly off from our reality, with the night scenes often being soaked in blue moonlight and the low-key supernatural Madman Marz looking like he stepped off the pages of an EC comic book as he rips through the cast like a monstrous beast. The film moves along at a good pace, keeping the kills coming without too much time passing between them. The tone is creepy, if you're not busy chuckling at Marz, but it never feels like the movie is trying too hard to mess with you. It's just a fun time, as an '80s slasher is expected to be.

MADMAN

We might have a controversial result here, as THE BURNING generally seems to be more popular than MADMAN, but I personally get more entertainment out of the latter film. MADMAN is more my speed; literally, it moves along at a faster pace than THE BURNING, and the timing of the kills is more to my liking. I also find Madman Marz himself to be more interesting than Cropsy.

I do appreciate both of these films. I would choose to watch '80s slashers over most other movies out there, so these are both winners in my book. I'd just rather watch MADMAN than THE BURNING when the choice is between the two.

Do you agree with the result of this Face-Off, or do you prefer THE BURNING? Share your thoughts on these films, and on '80s slashers in general, in the comments section below. If you have any suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can send them to [email protected].

Happy 13th!

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