Sunday, March 20, 2011

Movie Review: The Burning (1981)

A camp full of horny teenagers being stalked by an unknown murderer. Why does that sound familiar??? Because it's 1981's The Burning, one of the first films done by the original house of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, Miramax Films.

FIRE, FIRE, FIRE! [Beavis voice]: Some kids at a summer camp play a prank on the mean old caretaker, Cropsy, which goes wrong and ends up horribly burning him. He leaves the hospital five years later and decides to go back and get revenge - starting a bloody murder spree on a new crop of kids trying to enjoy their summer.

This is another "dead teenager movie" that should have been lost and forgotten for being so similar to other popular movies from that time, but there are a few things about The Burning that make it take one step out from the crowd.

For starters, there is a pretty good cast. Only a few recognizable faces including Jason Alexander (and apparently Holly Hunter - but was I asleep or something because I  never spotted her) but the other no-names are very good in their roles. Highlights are the head counselors Michelle and Todd; tough guy asshole Eddie; and even the camp bully Glazer, who turns out to be kind of a nice guy in the end. The side characters are your typical 80s teens wearing coochie-cutter shorts (that girl at the beginning in the yellow tank top really should have been wearing a bra) but their acting is surprisingly natural and realistic. There's even a fat chick, which is like, unheard of.

Can I just say something about the prank the boys pull on Cropsy? Okay, so what they do is sneak into his cabin one night and place a rotting human skull, with little candles in the eye sockets, on the table by his bed. He knocks it over which sets his sheets - and himself - on fire. Two questions. First, what the hell kind of prank is that?! A prank is when you freeze somebody's underwear or put honey on their door handles. These kids are messed up to think of something like that.

The second, and probably most important, question is: Where the fuck did they get a rotting human skull? I guess it could have been fake, but it looked pretty darn real to me which is more than a little suspect.

Most of the kills are quite well done, albeit uninventive and a little boring. Cropsy's murder implement of choice is his trusty garden shears and he never uses anything else, save for the hooker he killed at the beginning. That was done with a big pair of scissors, which are very much like shears - clever! People get fingers cut off, get their throat slashed, and get stabbed in the neck with this vicious instrument, all brought to wonderful life by that master of gore work, Tom Savini. I heard the gore was cut down a bit for the film, and I'm not sure if Netflix gave me the uncut version or not. Either way, the kills were nicely realistic and the blood was pretty much the most perfect color I've ever seen.

The most famous scene in the movie is the when Cropsy attacks the group of kids on the raft they built, trying to get back to camp after their canoes go missing. They spot one of these canoes floating in the middle of the lake and when they get closer, Cropsy leaps up shears in hand and massacres all of the kids in minutes. This is a great scene because it breaks some steadfast rules of slashers. Up until now in this film, Cropsy went after the kids one by one while they were alone but this attack was in broad daylight with five or six kids getting killed at the same time. It comes so unexpected and is such a blitz and violent attack that it really makes this movie so much different than other slasher films.

The editing and other shot choices in The Burning are sometimes... interesting. The POV-killer-vision or whatever is annoyingly familiar with the slow moving camera through the trees, blurry, spying on the kids. Nothing special. A few times in the movie, usually after a kill, the filmmakers do a very unusual thing. They use a fade to red transition between scenes, a pretty ballsy move because it can look very cheesy. But this is an 80s slasher movie so cheese is par for the course. It's only used twice so it never becomes overly ridiculous.

Overall, The Burning is an impressive genre film that does things just a little bit differently enough to get it noticed.


  1. well said Michele, a great review about a terrific slasher-classic.

  2. Always love your reviews, and get especially excited to see your take on films that I have already seen!

    As for whether you saw an edited cut or not, if my understanding is correct: only the un-edited version has the scene that you described with the raft slaughter. So I belive what you saw was a complete cut. No pun intended, of course.

    Check out my review, if you like.


  3. 1981 was such a majestic year for horror and science fiction.

  4. i've gotta say that i think this is probably the weakest display of Savini's effects. I love him but not this movie