Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #1
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: May 8, 1981
Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $707,770
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Tony Maylam
Screenplay: Peter Lawrence & Bob Weinstein
Special Effects: Tom Savini
Cinematography: Harvey Harrison
Score: Rick Wakeman
Editing: Jack Sholder
Distributor: Filmways Pictures (theatrical) Metro Goldwyn Mayer (DVD)
Stars: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Ned Eisenberg, Carolyn Houlihan, Carrick Glenn, Shelley Bruce, Holly Hunter, Bonnie Deroski, Sarah Chodoff, Kevi Kendall, JR McKechnie, Ame Segull, George Parry and Lou David as Cropsy
Suggested Audio Candy:
Rick Wakeman “Soundtrack Suite”
Every horror enthusiast has one movie which they hold especially close to their bloody beating heart for whatever reason that may be. Normally said film transports us back to our youth and leaves a balmy glow inside each time we so much as bear it a glancing thought. For me, that particular film is Tony Maylam’s seminal 1981 slasher and one-time infamous video nasty, The Burning. If you asked a hundred slasher aficionados to name a classic from the eighties eruption, then I would assume that an overwhelming percentage would instantly blurt the words Friday The 13th without a second’s pause. On balance it performed far better at the box office and has turned into one of the longest running franchises in horror folklore so makes sense I guess. After all it started the trend didn’t it?
Negative. Firstly, I’m sure that anybody who has watched Mario Bava’s pioneering 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve won’t need reminding that a particular scene from Friday The 13th Part 2 shamelessly ripped off one of its more inventive kills to give American audiences something to cheer over and Bava’s film pre-dates that by a full nine years. So we’ve established that Sean S. Cunningham’s movie wasn’t the great innovator as many wrongly believe. It did, however, carry the torch and opened doors for a lot of aspiring slasher franchises to get off the ground. In my humble opinion, The Burning, which was initially titled The Cropsy Maniac, is a way more gratifying experience than Camp Crystal Lake’s money-making mimicker could ever hope to be.
For a long time now it has lived in the shadow of its more illustrious older cousin. However, I would argue doggedly that Maylam’s film edges it in virtually every critical area regardless of whether or not that places me in the minority. This is evidently not the general consensus as The Burning struggled to make any kind of impact theatrically, despite being unveiled at the height of the slasher boom. Whilst not a commercial success, Maylam’s film didn’t go entirely unnoticed and landed him in hot water with censors on both sides of the Atlantic. The MPAA demanded numerous cuts to even consider awarding an R rating and the BBFC promptly followed suit. The fact that it ended up floundering on the DPPs video nasty list is beyond preposterous but thankfully infamy provided it its eventual fan base. Its inclusion on the list also highlights that it is a slasher with a much more vicious streak than most of the competition. Its killer is spiteful and lacking any kind of remorse, not to mention rather handy with his trademark garden shears.
The plot revolves around a sadistic alcoholic caretaker at a summer camp who falls foul of a misfiring prank, leaving him littered from head to toe in ghastly burns and severe disfigurement. After a suitably grisly rendezvous with a rather ropy looking hooker upon his hospital discharge, we venture to Camp Stonewater with the crispy Cropsy in tow and understandably more than a little perplexed. The first hour of The Burning is rather uneventful by all accounts but that is not to say it’s in the slightest bit meandering. Instead Maylam utilizes any down time wisely, introducing us to a large cast of fun-loving teenagers, some of whom were barely fifteen, which no doubt stoked the fire with the censors.
From the offset, we are actually provided with good reason to invest time into the characters. This instantly sets it apart from a fair wedge of the other slasher films doing the rounds at the time, whereby every lemming wore a red number painted across their forehead and seemed to have their premature end coming to them. Stonewater actually feels like an authentic summer camp and is populated with regular care-free kids. The affable cast includes a promising Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and a blink and you’ll miss it part for a young Holly Hunter who is supplied a solitary line of dialogue to cut her teeth on. We also have brainless bully Glazer (Larry Joshua), love rat Eddie (Ned Eisenberg), obligatory eye candies Karen and Sally (Carolyn Houlihan and Carrick Glenn) and scrawny pervert Alfred (Brian Backer) as well as squeaky clean counselors Todd and Michelle (Brian Matthews and Leah Ayres) whose first-base flirting appears doomed never to progress beyond dry humping.
After familiarizing ourselves with our victims for over half of the film’s running time, we take a canoe trip upstream to the perfect spot for a good old-fashioned hootenanny and this is where The Burning suddenly shifts to a much more ominous tone. What follows is a breathless second act which may just about justify its inclusion on the nasties list. The dispatches, when they come, are fiendishly gory and well worth the postponement. Two words speak volumes – Tom Savini. Enlisted by Miramax to deliver the red stuff, there is no safer pair of hands than his. The make-up effects hold up brilliantly to this very day and, as far as I’m concerned, it was an astute move by Savini to turn down Friday the 13th Part 2 in favor of this, regardless of its lukewarm commercial reception.
Then there is the small matter of its infamous five-strong raft annihilation and words all but fail me here. We’re talking butchery on a gargantuan scale and a handful of scalps in quick succession for Cropsy, all of which demonstrate the grand practical FX of a man on the crest of his creative wave. I challenge anyone to name a more iconic scene in slasher history and would gladly partake in a lobotomy just to experience it first-hand one more time. The madness is complimented hand-in-glove by a truly masterful and eerie score compliments of Rick Wakeman, which assists greatly in cranking the tension up to thirteen.
I’m perpetually befuddled that The Burning bombed so badly at the box office and it’s even more inconceivable given the fact that it actually received a rousing reception at test screenings prior to its release. While I’m positive that it has long since returned its investment plus change in DVD sales alone, I still find it mind-boggling that it was so unanimously shunned in the first place. There really is no accounting for taste it seems. Put simply, there is no other film of its ilk of equivalent quality and Maylam’s film remains as effectual now as it did over thirty years ago. Now that’s staying power. With the current trend for rehashing the classics, none feel so primed for revisitation. Having said that, attempting to replicate this with any degree of success would be some challenge and, trumping it, downright miraculous. Besides, I’m not sure that you could fit ten teenagers on a rickety raft.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: For a film such as this to end up branded indefensible alongside far more deserving works speaks volumes for its meanness of spirit. Cropsy has an absolute field day, especially during that notorious raft package deal, and every drop of luscious splatter is depicted up close and with grisly relish. In addition, there is plenty of the obligatory skin which we have become accustomed to from eighties slasher. The delectable cocktail of Karen and Sally more than caters for any throbbing loins, in particular the latter who possesses cans like fleshy pink party hats. Speaking of which, study closely for Eddie’s visible amusement when Alfred is caught with his dick in his palm, snooping on Sally in the shower cubicle. It’s a fair way beyond priceless.