The Burning (1981)A column article, Classic Film/New Blu by: Adam Barraclough
In an alternate universe very much like our own, few people have ever heard of Jason Voorhees but everybody knows horribly burned summer camp killer Cropsy! There have been twelve The Burning films, a TV series, tons of merchandise and even a crossover flick co-starring Freddy Kreuger, the similarly singed star of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. In this alternate reality, the mangled visage of Cropsy is one of the most widely recognized icons in horror.
Alas, in our reality poor Cropsy is barely known and Jason Voorhees is the international celebrity. Things might have been different had fledgling producers the Weinsteins and their newly minted production company Miramax rushed The Burning into production when the project was first pitched and beaten Friday the 13th to the punch. Or so the story goes. Watching The Burning it’s difficult to imagine that any of it was written without cribbing directly from Friday the 13th and meant entirely to capitalize on the then red-hot 80s slasher film trend.
The formula is pretty damned transparent: Summer camp kids play a prank on the much-maligned camp caretaker, a notorious booze-hound named Cropsy, and he ends up engulfed in flame. (Perhaps he’d doused himself in hi-octane hooch before taking a nap?) Five years of painful reconstructive surgery later, and remembered now only as a camp legend, Cropsy returns to Camp Blackfoot to seek revenge on those horny troublemaking teens!
So what makes this film worth holding on to? Why the deluxe reissue by Shout! Factory? There are multiple reasons that The Burning stands out, but what it boils down to is that though it may not be innovative in terms of concept, it is often very creative in terms of presentation and execution thanks in large part to the involvement of effects legend Tom Savini. And it likely doesn’t hurt that The Burning features the first big-screen roles of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter.
That pool of talent also contributes to one of the film’s problems. As we get to know this cast of goofy kids, they are actually pretty likeable. Particularly Jason Alexander, who expresses the same quick wit and snappy humor that brought him success later in his career on Seinfeld. There’s a bully character that you can’t wait to see filleted, but for the most part you really don’t want to watch any of these kids die. They may smoke a little pot and a couple of them end up fucking in the woods, but these aren’t the empty soulless sin-filled whiny assholes offered up for sacrifice in other slasher pics of the era. They’ve got heart, they're funny and their friendship seems genuine.
It helps then that the kills are spectacular, quick and brutal. Cropsy’s weapon of choice is a pair of long-bladed garden shears and he makes good use of them; chopping, stabbing and slicing his prey to death. Savini’s innovation shines here and he describes in an included interview how he tried to make each effect more bloody and outrageous than the last. One scene in which Cropsy dispatches five campers in quick succession is so rapid-fire that it makes Voorhees and Myers seem positively shambling and sluggish by comparison.
For the era, The Burning is shockingly graphic, a fact which led to it making the notorious UK “video nasty” list. Fans of the film have long savored Savini’s artful practical effects, including a scene in which a character’s fingers are sliced off in a spray of blood and flying digits, another in which a teen is speared through the throat by Cropsy’s blades, then hoisted off the ground as the point of the shears are driven deep into the wood of a nearby tree, and yet another in which he opens a young woman’s forehead to the bone with a single powerful slice. Cropsy is never seen as supernatural per se, but he does possess a certain measure of very determined strength and he pursues his vengeance with zeal.
As for the look of Cropsy himself, Savini is said to have crafted the fiend’s melty visage in only three days, perhaps explaining why he looks more like a wax museum figure that got a little too close to the radiator than an actual burn victim. That said, Cropsy does look horrifying, and thanks to a multi-layered makeup process the effect is sufficiently creepy and unsettling. Played by Lou David, Cropsy looks just as intimidating and hulking as his slasher-film brethren, moreso given that his own warped visage serves in place of any hockey mask.
It’s not entirely clear why The Burning never spawned a sequel. Friday the 13th Part II was filmed and released around the same time, as were a flood of other slasher flicks, so perhaps it was simply buried. Still, it would seem there was enough here to warrant further interest and I’m happy to have a pristine HD release of a film I fondly recall from my first forays into slasher horror.
The print is solid, though what you expect from something of this budget and era when transferred to Blu-Ray. There are a few “Cropsy POV” scenes in which the lens has been smudged around the edges, and though it’s a bit of a cliché it makes a little more sense here given the burn damage to his face and eyes. It’s occasionally apparent that certain scenes were shot day-for-night as the Blu-Ray makes it easier to spot the filter, but nothing is too terribly distracting.
Commentary Track 1: Director and co-writer Tony Maylam, moderated by Alan Jones. These two Brits have a dry-witted good time discussing various aspects of the film. Though Maylam lets a few pokes at the Weinsteins slip by, it’s not quite the confessional of their down-and-dirty antics that it feels like it could be, given what’s hinted at; Maylam is too loyal to dish much. Thankfully he’s also wonderfully self-deprecating, often admitting how cookie-cutter and by-the-numbers the whole production is.
Commentary Track 2: Stars Shelley Bruce and Bonnie Deroski, moderated by Edwin Samuelson. Through fun recollections of their time spent filming, the ladies provide some insight into the filming process -- which closely mirrored the summer camp experience being brought to the screen. You get a feel for the camaraderie and fellowship that influenced the performances and made the characters so damn likeable.
Blood 'n' Fire Memories Featurette: Tom Savini gives the scoop on his role in The Burning in the standout of this release’s specially produced featurettes. Savini is a cocky asshole, but he’s one amazingly talented cocky asshole and it’s great to hear him reminiscing about this shoot. He also drops the juicy tidbit that he passed up working on Friday the 13th Part II to do The Burning and though this may not have set him off on much of an altered career trajectory, it’s interesting to speculate about how that may have changed either film.
Slash & Cut Featurette: Editor Jack Sholder discusses the challenges of editing the effects for as much realism as possible, focusing mostly on the infamous raft scene.
Cropsy Speaks! Featurette: Lou David is a strange, strange man and though he is delighted to share his thoughts on playing Cropsy, he waxes sentimental about the birth of his son and needing to make a tough career choice going to work on the film the day after his son was born.
Summer Camp Nightmare Featurette: We hear from Leah Ayers (Bloodsport) who gives more background on the groovy summer camp vibe of the film. She mentions the Weinsteins (who were still very much in the concert promoter game at the time, hauling all of the young cast further upstate to see George Benson in concert.
Behind-the-Scenes Footage: Some nice chunks of handheld behind-the-camera footage of the effects sequences. It’s odd that this wasn’t simply spliced together with Savini’s interview as he discusses much of it without it being shown, and when it is shown here it isn’t given much context. Still, it’s neat to see, especially having already heard Savini’s take on these clips.
Still Gallery: Vintage posters and stills, some nice effects shots
And as with all the recent spate of Shout! Factory reissues, The Burning comes with new cover artwork courtesy of Nathan Thomas Milliner. It’s one of my favorites of the crop, and as with the others is reversible should you want to display the original poster art.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.