The Test of Time: The Burning (1981)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they continue to be must see? So…the point of this here column is how a film stands against the Test of Time, if the thing holds up for a modern horror audience.

Director: Tony Maylam
Starring: Brian Matthews, Brian Backer, and Jason Alexander

There’s always been something alluring about early 1980’s slasher movies, before the genre became too drenched in copycats, rip-offs and endless sequels. Now obviously this wasn’t ever the most elite of all genres. Hell, it’s the bastard child of the film industry, the dirty secret that everyone wants a piece of (because they make money), but rarely fully embraced by a studio.

Anyway, by 1981 the slasher genre already had its bigs in HALLOWEEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and FRIDAY THE 13th. Lost in the shuffle -- a movie that shouldn’t have been. Co-written and co-produced by Harvey Weinstein (brother Bob helped write the script), it came nearly a year to the day after FRIDAY THE 13th. While that franchise abused the notion of sequels, this one got the short end of the sheers in terms of mass pop culture. But should it belong under the category of classic?  

Under the examination: THE BURNING.

Campers are jerks. 

THE STORY: At Camp Blackwood, a bunch of jerk campers decide to play a good old fashioned prank on a grounds keeper named Cropsy…and nearly burn him to death. Poor Cropsy is left very crispy while the boys of summer suffer zero consequences for attempted murder. Five years later the camp is going strong with sexed up teens playing baseball, canoeing and other camp-type things. There’s a lot of subplots about teenage romance, but none of it matters once Cropsy returns to start killing them off with his super sharp gardening sheers (I assume they’re sharp). Can he be stopped in time before summer ends? 

Can't stand ya. 

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP:  First thing first. I have to address the fact that THE BURNING stars Jason Alexander. Maybe younger readers don’t recognize the name, but he’s George Constanza from SEINFELD. George was one of those characters where the actor seemingly never existed before or after the role. The guy will always be George. So seeing him with a lot of hair and in a slasher film, well…that’s some amusing shit.

I’d wager that director Tony Maylam instructed most of the actors to “act like obnoxious campers,” which no one had a problem fulfilling. While they don’t have a lot to do but make stupid jokes, try to date rape women, and have fun with lame camp activities, everyone in the film does seem very natural. A lot of dialogue seems very loose and I swear half the cast were extras. While Alexander, Brian Backer, Leah Ayres and other deliver lines, the rest of the campers have to stand right next to them and act. For example, toward the end when a group of them discover a pile of bloody bodies and have to row back to camp, everyone from the main actors to the extras look truthfully mortified. 

The gore effects here are absolutely classic. Created by the legendary Tom Savini, THE BURNING goes all out. Granted, gardening sheers don’t conjure nightmares like Myers’s big ass knife, Freddy’s finger blades, or Leatherface’s chainsaw, but that doesn’t hold back Mr. Cropsy. He attacks victims with a painful brutality that’s over-the-top enough to disgust the normals while giving horror fans something to get nutty about. Cropsy slashes, stabs and chops fingers to graphic delight, and the effects still hold up. At the time (and still today), Savini was a freakin’ rock star, and his effects work here top that of FRIDAY THE 13th. Dude was on fire.

The pain looks real.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: The worst thing about THE BURNING is the same issue with way too many horror films: the plot is stupid, mostly nonexistent with the whole revenge angle of Cropsy returning years later. That part makes sense and all, but it’s everything in-between the action that isn’t very interesting. I don’t care about the troubles of the stock characters (the jock, the bully, the nerd, the perv). Most of all, I feel for the female actors here, as none of them have a thing to do but get naked and get murdered. At least give one of them some power, or at the very least give the audience a subplot to care about. Now I do realize the point of having male and female campers in a 1981 slasher movie was to get the girls naked (which they do often…not a complaint), but they’re so interchangeable. 

And while THE BURNING has fantastic gore, I think Cropsy never entered the realm of pop culture because…he’s pretty lame. Ok, he was burned really, really badly and now he’s dressed kind of nicely…in black overcoat, gloves, and a hat though we mostly we see his feet as he chases folks. Not exactly memorable. And the POV of the killer was done to perfection with HALLOWEEN. Adding a little Vaseline to the lens doesn’t exactly change the game.

The cast that did not define a generation. 

THE VERDICT: I’ll give credit to Maylam, who does a solid job with the look, style, and pacing. Sure, just like FRIDAY THE 13th, the story of Cropsy also involves a camp, jerky campers, and a bad guy who was nearly murdered by the same campers only to seek revenge, but THE BURNING never played like an exact copy. In fact, it’s a better movie than the original FRIDAY THE 13th.   




Tom Savini is my hero. 



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