THE BURNING is a slasher movie I like, and I can acknowledge that it’s not great but it just fits into my wheelhouse (you know, the house where I store all my wheels as well as some of the movies I like). Something about those FRIDAY THE 13THs and SLEEPAWAY CAMPs just engrained the summer camp of the ’80s into my mind as a perfect place for a slasher. By day it’s canoes and pushing people off of docks and wearing those gym socks with the stripes at the top. Then at night you realize you’re out in the middle of the fuckin woods! What the fuck are you gonna do if (let’s be honest – when) something happens? Where are you gonna go? Deeper into the dark, quiet woods?
But actually Jason and these guys are scarier when they strike in the sunlight. The sanctity of the summer paradise invaded by machetes and improperly used spear guns. Lens flares and dripping blood.
I was gonna say summer camp wasn’t even a big part of my life, but on second thought maybe it had some small effect on my brain. Don’t spread this around you guys but when I was a kid I went to a “karate camp” on an island in the San Juans. Every morning we would walk barefoot down a gravel road to the “dojo,” which is Japanese for “tennis courts.” I still remember a punch and two kicks that we learned, I forget the blocks, but still, don’t fuck with me man. I’ve been training since childhood.
After our lessons it was normal camp shit except one day my cabin’s counselor had a big buildup to a story this other co-counselor type guy was gonna tell us that was gonna blow us away. It turned out to be about seeing Bruce Lee at a restaurant one time. I think he said he shook his hand, I forget if he got to sit down with him or not. The other story they told us was about “The Prop Man,” a camp legend who was supposed to have survived a small plane crash on the island and lost a hand, and decided that the best response to that situation would be to jam a propeller prop in the stump and live in the woods for now on.
In retrospect it seems like he’d be happier if he tried to return to civilization and receive the attention of medical professionals. There must be some bank robbery or other crucial piece of motivation either dropped from this campfire story over the years, or from my memory of it.
I don’t think I ever believed these actual accounts, but one time me and some fellow karate warriors took a canoe far beyond where we were supposed to, and I swear we saw the parts from a small plane. They were neatly stacked up though, not strewn around like wreckage. It was weird. Was this the inspiration for the story, or the evidence? Or do I think I remember something that never really happened? More importantly, is the Prop Man coming for me right now for revealing that I know too much? I don’t know. All interpretations are equally valid.
Anyway that must be some of the appeal of this genre. 1) You remember stories like this if you ever went to camp. 2) You see the counselors in the movie up to no good and you think oh shit, that’s what was going on? Come to think of it I kinda remember something about them sneaking off together at night.
When I first saw THE BURNING some years ago when it was only available as an import disc, it was like discovering an old FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel I never knew I skipped. Instead of Jason, the disabled kid that drowned at the camp, it’s Cropsy, the alcoholic groundskeeper that some kids accidentally burned alive playing a mean prank on him. They claim he’s an asshole, but we don’t really know how true that is because the poor bastard is asleep when it happens. They light a rotted-head-shaped-candle (or a rotted head with candles in it?) next to his bed and then bang on the window. Unfortunately, he knocks the thing over and catches his pants on fire. Also he happens to have a big can of gas nearby. Wouldn’t you know it, the day you have an open can of gasoline nearby would be the same day you catch on fire? Anyway he burns to a crisp, the kids run off and later we find out that the whole camp burned down, although I don’t believe that is illustrated visually.
Later the legend goes that “they never found the body,” but actually they did. We know because he was in a hospital burn ward. Unlike the Prop Man, Cropsy does receive professional medical care, but he’s so fucked up even (extremely unprofessional) hospital interns think he’s a monster. So years later he’s like fuck it, I’m gonna strangle a hooker and then I’m gonna get my garden shears and go trim some campers, you know?
That little section between the origin story and the rampage years later is a nice touch. Traditionally you would skip over what happened to him after being burned, just jump right to him being a legendary ghoul.
This isn’t usually in the slasher movies either, but they have the camp movie element of the feuding kids. There’s a macho muscle guy who sexually harasses the girls and there’s the nerds that try to get revenge on him and what not. There’s a nerdy outcast guy who spies on a girl showering. To the credit of the movie this is treated as creepy and a violation, unlike many comedies and horror movies of the decade which treat that sort of thing as hilarious and awesome.
Among those campers are 18-years-old-but-looks-16 Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter (I finally figured out who she plays this time, but I think she only has one line), and most impressively 22-year-old Jason Alexander. Yes, young Jason Alexander, already a wisecracker, doing impressions and shit, putting on a Vaudeville show in every scene, but with hair on the top of his head. I’m pretty sure that must be his real personality at that age. Always on, and acting way older than he is.
(Note: There was also a Seinfeld episode called “The Burning,” but I think Alexander was playing his usual Seinfeld character and not this character Dave. Therefore in my opinion the Seinfeld episode does not count as canon in the one-film BURNING franchise.)
After a bunch of the teen infighting shit they all go rafting and they split up and Cropsy attacks. The great thing is that he attacks a raft full of them, so instead of the classic picked-off-one-by-one tradition the spree kicks off with a sudden massacre of five people, basically half of the main characters. And then the pile of bodies and parts floats back to greet the other half of the cast.
Then it’s mostly what you expect. Trying to get help, chasing, hiding, an abandoned mine shaft, an ax, a blowtorch, bleeding, burning, thinking he’s dead when he’s not. It’s pretty gory too. It’s fun.
I always thought this was a blatant FRIDAY THE 13th ripoff, but the first murder takes place in New York City, so it’s also like MANIAC. Which makes it a completely original new take on the summer camp slasher movie. But also supposedly this script was written before FRIDAY THE 13TH came out, and actually it’s much closer to FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, which only came out about a week before this. In fact, FRIDAY THE 13TH makeup effects genius Tom Savini thought the idea of making Jason be the killer in part 2 was so stupid he chose to do THE BURNING instead, providing some disturbingly realistic stabbings.
Director Tony Maylam was not necessarily trying to be a horror director. He had done some TV movies and a Genesis concert movie. He later did SPLIT SECOND with Rutger Hauer.
This is the first movie produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who also helped write the script. You gotta wonder if them having co-written this decades ago is what makes them so sure they know better than other directors how to edit movies. Brad Grey, another famous producer, was also one of the writers, and this was his first movie too. Apparently Cropsy was like the Prop Man, he was a legend that Weinstein had heard as a summer camper in upstate New York. And I guess MADMAN, another legendary-killer-discussed-around-the-campfire early ’80s slasher, also being inspired by Cropsy, had to be drastically reworked when the filmatists heard about THE BURNING being in the works.
According to camp legend, Weinstein still owns the original garden shears from the movie and uses them to hack random chunks out of Asian movies that he has purchased for his save-for-eventual-botched-release shelf.
There aren’t any THE BURNING references in SCREAM are there? I wonder why Weinstein didn’t get them to put some in there. I guess Randy probly couldn’t have rented THE BURNING at that Blockbuster Video or whatever, so that’s why all he knows is HALLOWEEN and PROM NIGHT and stuff. Well, now it’s available from Scream Factory, so everybody can have a look if they like this sorta shit.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.