The name Miramax usually conjures up images of what we often call prestige pics. In the 90’s and early 2000’s the studio started by the Weinstein brothers was known for often dominating the Oscars. As they say, though, everybody has to start somewhere. So, would you believe that one of the first films released by Miramax was a summer camp slasher riding the coattails of Friday the 13th? Forget Jason…meet Cropsy in 1981’s The Burning.
The film begins at Camp Blackfoot where one night a group of campers play a prank on the caretaker, Cropsy. Long story short, the prank results in a fire which burns Cropsy to a crisp. He ends up spending the next several years in a hospital. Fast forward to five years later, when Cropsy is released by his doctors, who are apparently completely unaware that the guy is now a lunatic set on revenge.
Of course, Cropsy heads for the nearest camp and starts sneaking around freaking out the teenage counselors. None of them realize what’s going on, though. They just all think the guys are playing pranks on the girls, and vice versa. An opportunity for Cropsy to start doing some damage arrives when the campers go on a canoe trip down the river. There’s plenty of skinny dipping and sharing each other’s sleeping bag, but soon Cropsy starts taking out the campers with his weapon of choice, a pair of garden shears.
When I was a teenager, I generally stayed away from horror movies, especially slashers. The gore just wasn’t my speed. In recent years I’ve started to appreciate the genre a bit more. When I saw the original Friday the 13th a few years ago, I was surprised to find that it is a much better film than I was lead to believe by the likes of Siskel and Ebert. I enjoyed it. So, let me start by saying that The Burning is soooooooo much better than Friday the 13th! It’s a film that manages to borrow from other successful slasher films of the day, and yet it adds its own flourishes and creates a much more satisfying experience than may of the others.
I thought I knew what I was in for with just the first ten minutes of the film. I mean, it starts with the titular event and the bloody murder of a hooker before we are introduced to the campers with a scene of them playing softball. Actually, what I mean to say is a game of softball where none of the young ladies believe in sports bras and their trots to first are filmed in slow motion so that the audience sees every nuance of their boobies bouncing down the base path. That told me all I needed to know, but then the film surprised me with a plot line that, while not exactly suspenseful, was quite unique and clever.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that it actually gives us interesting characters that we do start to like and care about. I mean let’s face it, most of the teenagers that Jason or Freddy take out become so obnoxious that you actually end up cheering for the knife wielding psychopath. That’s not the case here. It doesn’t hurt things that we’ve got a cast full of stars who would go on to bigger things as our victim pool. Remember how Fast Times at Ridgemont High featured a bunch of future stars in their youth? Well, The Burning is kind of the Fast Times of horror movies. In the cast we have the likes of Brian Backer (who would play Rat in Fast Times), Jason Alexander (with hair), Fisher Stevens, and some chick named Holly Hunter. Also strong are our two lead players Leah Ayers (who was a regular guest star on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and was also a fake Marcia Brady on one of the Brady Bunch revivals) and Brian Matthews…who ends up the, sort of, final GUY!
There are some interesting names behind the scenes on this film, as well. It is directed by Tony Maylam, who, I admit, I know next to nothing about except that he also directed the rarely seen film Genesis in Concert, which is enough for me. Speaking of progressive rock greats, the score on this film was composed by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. The big name in the credits, though, is that of makeup maestro Tom Savini. Let me tell you, he unleashes some pretty gruesome effects in this one. There is a sequence where Cropsy attacks a bunch of the teenagers on their makeshift raft that can only be described as a Savini Symphony. The makeup for burned face of Cropsy is also quite impressive, especially considering that this was not a big budget production.
The Burning is definitely one of the biggest movie surprises I’ve had all year. I can’t help but wonder why this film didn’t do better at the time of its release. It has all the elements of a classic 80’s slasher: grotesque killer, horny teenagers, bloody violence, generous helpings of nudity…it’s all there. Maybe the summer camp setting just made it just too easy for audiences to write this off as a Friday the 13th ripoff. It is that…but for this viewer, I’ll take this one-and-done slasher over that endless series any day.