The Burning is one of those movies I should have gotten to a long time ago.
I love summer camp slasher flicks, I love Tom Savini's make-up effects, and I love cult films. The Burning has a big reputation among devotees, especially for the infamous raft attack In addition, the movie was discussed in the famous gender study Men, Women, and Chainsaws for being one of the only slasher flicks featuring a final boy. Finally, the killer in the movie is supposedly based on the urban legend of Cropsey that circulates on the East Coast.
Yet despite all these intriguing features, I never bothered to track it down until one lonely afternoon last week while surfing my Netflix instant downloads on my Xbox. I went in with an open mind, expecting a cheesy good time.
Turns out The Burning is a genuinely well-made and scary horror film.
The Burning tells the tale of Cropsey, an ornery old drunk who works as a handyman at a summer camp. Some campers got it into their heads to play a trick on him, but things go horribly wrong and Cropsey is burned. Cropsey returns to the woods years later, gardening shears in hand, looking for payback. The rest is what it is.
On paper, much of this story boils down to the same tale told in Friday the 13th. While Cropsey didn't have the same staying power as his more famous counterpart, his romp is unquestionably memorable. The acting is pretty good, the script is strong, and the scares are genuinely effective. In some weird ways, this movie actually resembles the original Halloween, in that it's a slow burn sort of film, and the filmmakers take their time in setting up the scares.
One of the things that got me about this movie is that it takes place in an actual, functioning summer camp. The story takes places while the camp is in full swing, with the place packed with adolescents. They goof around, play pranks, splash each other, and act like kids having a good time. And, unlike most slasher films packed with gorgeous '80s 20somethings, the kids in The Burning actually look like kids. There are dorky kids and heavy kids and awkward kids. Even the girls who get nude look more less like toned athletic models and more like shy virgins.
The screenplay is well-written by later Hollywood moguls Brad Grey and Harvey Weinstein. The characters are actually characters (I loved the awkward, virginal sex scenes), the story unfolds in a logical progression, and the young campers are actually capable outdoorsmen. When the kids are trapped in Devil's Cove after Cropsey steals their canoes, they immediately set out to building a raft and escaping. It doesn't end well for them, but you have to applaud their initiative.
Going into the movie, one of the big selling points was the fact that the final survivor was Alfred, a nervous outsider who somehow manages to best Cropsey at the end of the film. Much is made in Men, Women, and Chainsaws about gender inversion in the slasher genre, specifically that most final girls are more masculine than their counterparts, whereas Alfred is slightly more feminine than his friends. I dunno if Alfred is necessarily more feminine but he is unquestionably more weird. We first meet him sneaking into a girl's shower, trying to peep at one of the fellow campers. He gets caught and, unlike most macho fratty movie assholes, Alfred comes off as a creepy weirdo. He's actually not a particularly pleasant character. He sneaks and spies on his fellow campers, particularly when they're having sex, and he cowers behind his friends whenever anyone confronts him. He does make interesting cinema, and he is one of the two young men to end Cropsey's reign of terror.
The other final boy is Todd, the head counselor with the mysterious connection to Cropsey. Unlike Alfred, Todd is confident and capable without being an overconfident goon. Most of the macho types in slasher movies usually become knifebait, but Todd is a nice change of pace. He goes back to rescue Alfred from the creepy, maze-like foundations that Cropsey hides in. It's a great final battle in a creepy locale, and the scene ranks among my favorite closing acts in any slasher film.
I do have to say that watching The Burning was a very similar experience to watching Friday the 13th Part 2. The campfire ghost story scene is taken almost verbatim from F13 and the story hits a lot of similar beats, replacing the counselor's bar night out for an upriver trip for the older campers. I don't think it's necessarily a case of plot theft, but rather both are sort of the ur-story of the madmen in the woods.
Overall, I really liked The Burning. It's a strong, scary horror film and what it lacks in refinement it makes up for in lean, muscular storytelling. It's probably not gonna win any converts, but if you like horror campfire tales, then check out The Burning.
Oh, and the movie stars a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter.