I never went to summer camp, and the reason is simple. I don’t like the outdoors, outdoor sports, bugs, snakes, swimming in lakes, archery, making leather wallets, or getting gruesomely killed by a vengeful psycho. OK, perhaps the latter didn’t come into the equation when I was a lad, but it sure as hell would now. After all, you have to look out for Jason, his mom, Angela, and even Cropsy. That’s right, Cropsy. Not familiar with that one? I wasn’t either until I got a chance to pick up a copy of the 1981 slasher The Burning. While it was the film that launched Miramax, Cropsy didn’t take off like the other slasher characters that made their debut in the early ‘80’s. Bob Weinstein scripted this film before the release of the iconic summer camp film, Friday the 13th, but it was released after and suffered from comparisons. Who is to say that if it didn’t hit the market first that kids wouldn’t be running around in Cropsy masks and wielding plastic garden shears.
The Burning starts off with a summer prank gone wrong. Cropsy is just an asshole caretaker who gives all the campers a good time. So what better way to scare him than putting a skull with candles in it in his room while he’s sleeping? Well, sure there are probably many better ways. Especially if you forget to take any flammable chemicals away before he jumps from bed, knocks everything over, and gets set on fire from head to toe. Somehow old Cropsy survives and lands in the hospital for five years. All efforts to help him fail, and he is released hideously scarred from the accident. So he does what any hideously scarred vengeful summer camp caretaker would do upon getting out. He gets a hooker….. And then kills the hell out of her. Oh, yeah, then he goes back to the camp.
I doubt I have to spell out what happens next. It’s almost the end of camp, and the kids go on a rafting trip that ends up with bodies piling up. What makes the kids fascinating is who they are. There’s Brian Backer, who is perhaps best known as Rat from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as the nerdy creep called Alfred, Larry Joshua (Sea of Love, Dances with Wolves, Romeo is Bleeding) plays the thick necked bully Glazer, and a barely recognizable Holly Hunter shows up in a blink and you miss her role. However, the most intriguing person in the cast has to be Jason Alexander. Yep, that Jason Alexander a.k.a. George from Seinfeld. His character Dave is a clownish guy full of bravado and, more importantly, a full head of hair. Regardless of the fact that the “teenage” Alexander was 22 at the time, he turns out such a memorable part that I kind of wish the movie had been more about him.
While the story is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a summer camp slasher, The Burning is spiced up by the effects work of Tom Savini. Tom actually passed on working on Friday the 13th Part 2 to take part in this film, and he has said many times that he considers this film some of his best work. I can see why, and I guess the Brits could too because this one ended up on the Video Nasties list. The film is chock full of some really gruesome killings that never really cross the line into gore for gore’s sake. Instead, we are treated to some very realistic murders. I was especially impressed by the seamlessness of the stabbings included in the film, and while I never would have considered garden shears a very threatening instrument of death, I can assure you that I wouldn’t want to see a pair coming my way.
While Savini’s effects enhance the film, there’s a couple of things that take away from it quite a bit. The first is the soundtrack that is chock full of noodling keyboard riffs that got on my last nerve. After being irritated by the soundtrack during the film, I was not all that surprised to find out that it was written by Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist for Yes. Now I can get down with some prog rock, don’t get me wrong, but Yes gets a big ‘No’ from me and the soundtrack to The Burning is no exception. Secondly, the POV shots of the killer stalking his prey. While it worked quite well in Black Christmas, it just bugged me here.
This wasn’t an unseen mystery killer. The audience knows who Cropsy is, and the shots with the edges of the lens smeared with Vaseline just don’t have the effect that I think was intended. Instead they detract from the look of the rest of the film which cinematographer Harvey Harrison (who would go on to lens Cheech & Chong’s Corsican Brothers and Still Smokin’) competently shot.
In the end, The Burning was not the neglected slasher gem that I hoped it would be. Instead it was a by the numbers affair. Sure it came out early in the genre’s history and perhaps made the numbers, but the same kind of film has been made dozens of times and often much better. If you’ve seen all the slasher films and this one has escaped you somehow, then check it out. Otherwise, if you want terror at summer camp then a visit to Crystal Lake or a stopover at Sleepaway Camp will probably be a better way to spend a summer day.