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16.12.08

The Burning (1981)



Director: Tony Maylam
Starring: Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Brian Matthews
Released by MGM

Slasher flicks were so prevalent in the early eighties, film critic Roger Ebert created a catch-all term to categorize this particular genre: dead teenager movies. While I have nothing but respect for Mr. Ebert, his phrase is a little misleading; most of the victims in these films had not seen the inside of a high school in more than a decade. Despite his questionable choice of words, he was correct to lump these films together. Most followed the same predictable template, only attempting to be creative when it came to the onscreen skewering of the mostly forgettable young actors who found work in these things. The Burning is an odd duck. While it follows the formula to the letter, it remains more memorable than most of its peers, thanks to unusually high number of talented people on both sides of the camera.

The story begins at an upstate New York summer camp, where a handful of ornery campers are looking to pull a prank on Cropsy, a particularly unpopular caretaker. The prank takes a very flammable turn and to the boy's horror, Cropsy is severely burned. After years of skin grafts and reconstructive surgery, the disfigured caretaker is released from the hospital. Cropsy makes the leap from unlikeable caretaker to homicidal maniac; showing his newly found murderous side by immediately procuring and slaughtering a prostitute, presumably just for kicks.

Back at camp, a new batch of kids have arrived and the pranks, bullying, and outdoor fun that makes up your typical summer camp movie are in full swing. A group of friends, led by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (sporting a full head of hair, and not looking much different than he did as George Costanza) are engaged in a protracted battle against a hotheaded thug named Glazer (Larry Joshua, who was pushing thirty at the time of filming, but looks thirty-five). Camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) is always around the make sure that their shenanigans don't get too out of hand. Fisher Stevens appears as Woodstock, and a very young Holly Hunter can be seen if you make sure not to blink. The slash-and-kill action kicks in when the older campers set out for a brief rafting trip....and run headfirst into Cropsy, now brandishing a pair of shiny hedge clippers.

Storywise, The Burning is fairly unremarkable. This is, for all intents and purposes, your typical madman-at-a-summer-camp slasher flick. Somewhat interestingly, though, the makers chose to skip the whodunit element that was typical of the genre. You know who the killer is from the get-go, it is only the disfigured face of Cropsy that is kept from viewers until the final moments. The lack of mystery is compensated for by the fact that the campers are better developed, a little more three-dimensional than the characters that usually populate these kinds of films. The film is also accompanied by a very effective soundtrack, courtesy of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.

The real star here, and the reason The Burning has so many admirers after all these years, is the work of legendary make-up effects man Tom Savini. Savini was knee-deep in slasher work at the time (Eyes of a Stranger, Maniac, Friday the 13th), and here he debuted several innovative techniques that would go on to become the industry standard. The film features some extremely violent murders, most notably the notorious "raft" scene, and a very good melted flesh effect for the Cropsy maniac. Savini's work gives The Burning a realistic and brutal quality that gives the film an edge over the other slasher flicks of the era.

What can you say? It's dumb fun. And apart from a horribly botched ending (which features the crummiest insert shot I have ever seen), it's a notch better than most of its competition. Whether you are nostalgic for the gory slashers of a less P.C. time, or a new fan of the genre who is tired of the PG-13 trash that litters the market, The Burning is worth revisiting.

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