Thursday, August 6, 2020

New Flesh: The Burning (1981)

The Film: The Burning (1981)

What Is It About?

The Burning revolves around camper Todd (Keith Mandell), whom starts the film off by reluctantly joining his fellow campers in pranking the camp caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) by lighting a skull on fire in his shack. Unfortunately, the prank goes awry when the lit skull ends up setting the entire shack, along with Cropsy, on fire. The end result of the botched prank leaves the caretaker nearly dead and heavily burnt. However, five years later, Cropsy has finally recovered enough to be released from hospital care. Right after he murders a nameless hooker, Cropsy decides to take out his fury by going on a killing spree at another summer camp. Among those targeted include the older Todd (now played by Brian Matthews), Michelle (Leah Ayres), Alfred (Brian Backer), Dave (Jason Alexander), Glazer (Larry Joshua) and Sally (Carrick Glenn). Can the teens defeat Cropsy before he kills all of them with his signature gardening sheers?

Why Do I Recommend it?

I'll start this off with a confession that will become relevant in a bit: I'm not the biggest fan of Friday The 13th. I think that if you took away the Betsy Palmer of it all (which is legitimately great), it wouldn't be as fondly regarded by some as it is. I understand that the Friday films have a large following, and I respect that and am not trying to insult them or the film. But, for the beginning of a month of content I'm dubbing Cruel Summer Month, I wanted to expose those not in the know to an alternative to Friday that I prefer and that was actually constructed before the former's release: The Burning

What about The Burning makes me prefer it over Friday? The first thing that comes to mind is that I find The Burning's cast to be more memorable than Friday's cast: While writing the plot summary, I found that I was able to name most of the characters from The Burning above from memory alone. Whereas with Friday, I could not tell you the names of anyone besides the Voorhees or Kevin Bacon. In The Burning, despite the film ultimately following the slasher trope of the characters each having a defining character trait, you still have a solid cast. Including the film's final boy Todd, who is shown as a supportive and inquisitive man towards others, and one who was affected by participating in the prank that disfigured Cropsy. Even if he tries to justify it by highlighting that Cropsy was a sadist that loved to scare him and the other youths. He has a solid rapport with Alfred, a new and younger camper whom has issues connecting with others. Alfred is taken under Todd's wing and the film ends up coming down to the two of them being the ones who need to stop Cropsy together. Also in the cast are aggressive asshole Glazer, bitchy Michelle, cautious Sally and, of course, The Burning's answer to Friday's use of young Kevin Bacon: Comedic relief Dave, who is played by a pre-Seinfeld Jason Alexander.

The cast of The Burning

And then there's Cropsy, the film's answer to the Voorheeses. Cropsy, as a villain, is an interesting case because he's sort of a combination of both villains from the Friday franchise: He shares Pamela's motive of revenge, in his case against the campers who disfigured him and ruined his life, while he was the actual victim in all of this, like Jason was. However, what really separates Cropsy from Pamela and Jason is that the character is mean. Not only was that stated to be the reason the prank was performed in the first place, but even after Cropsy recovers after years in the hospital, he's still a cruel character. His first action after being released from the hospital is to go kill a hooker for no real reason other than he wants to blow off some steam. Then, when he returns to camp and begins killing youths, there are some truly nasty murders he commits. A highlight being when he murders five youths on a raft trying to find the group's canoes that have been stolen from them. Not only does he murder every single one of them in swift succession, but it's done in bloody detail. When Cropsy finally gets his in the end, you will be cheering against him to finally die.

Lou David as Cropsy, before and after his burning

In addition to the cast, mention must be given to the film's wonderful technical aspects: For a cult slasher, this film has a surprising amount of good work put into it. Among the highlights are the wonderful prosthetic makeup provided by the legendary Tom Savini, which really adds a lot to the film. Without Savini's contributions, we wouldn't have the splendid practical gore effects present throughout all of the death scenes in this film. A huge part of why that raft massacre I mentioned earlier works is because of Savini's work that really highlights the horror of it. Not to mention that Savini's makeup work for Cropsy really adds to the character's creep factor: While Cropsy is kept in the shadows for the bulk of the film, when he's revealed he's a memorably designed villain and appropriately scary. In addition to the prosthetic makeup, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the film's music score, which I love. Apparently, the man behind the score is Rick Wakeman who is primarily known for his work with the prog rock group Yes. While I've admittedly only heard all of one song by Yes ("Owner of a Lonely Heart"), if Wakeman's work on this movie is indicative of anything, it's that he can make quality music. If you haven't seen the movie, or have and don't remember the score, I urge you to take a listen to it here. It adds a lot of atmosphere to an already good film.  

Some of the blood and gore featured in The Burning

Finally, I think that what is really appealing about The Burning is that, ultimately, I feel like it's a very endearing film to watch, especially during summer. A lot of Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein's (Yes, that Bob Weinstein) screenplay ultimately focuses a lot on what it feels like to be young and trying to have fun during summer. Something that's reflected in the cinematography, which often has some truly gorgeous shots of the summer camp environment and landscape and, in general, a lot of emphasis on the colors orange and red. There's lots of time spent just chilling with the characters before the bodies start to pile up, to the point where it takes almost fifty minutes for the first of the youths to be killed. Instead of immediately killing teens, we get to spend time with the characters as they ride canoes, try to get laid, and tell ghost stories around the campfire. A lot of the characters, especially the guys, have good banter with each other. There's some good dialogue here, including classic lines like "I told you not to beat your schlong last night, it drains your power," "Maybe it's because she likes you, ya dumb bastard!" and the question of "What the hell are we supposed to be looking for anyways?" met with Dave and Woodstock both shouting "Your mother!" Really, as much as The Burning is about seeing a badly burnt caretaker kill youths, it's also about what it was like to be young and have fun in the summer season.

The summer aesthetic of The Burning 

Available on: YouTube & Shudder

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