United States. 91 minutes. Directed by Tony Maylam, 1981. Starring Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Lou David.
Once upon a time, at Camp Blackfoot, a prank went horribly wrong: an attempt by campers to get revenge on sadistic caretaker Cropsy resulted in the caretaker suffering horrible, disfiguring burns all over his body. Now, five years later, Cropsy has been released from the hospital and has made his way to another summer camp, Stonewater. Deranged, he plans to get his own revenge on the sort of campers responsible for his condition…
Consider, if you will, the classic, enduring slasher and slasher-type movies of the genre’s golden age (from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s). It’s easy to think of Halloween as being about Michael Myers, Friday the 13th about Pamela Voorhees, A Nightmare on Elm Street about Freddy Krueger. But they’re not, not really. Which isn’t to say that a compelling antagonist isn’t a requirement; the slasher villains are iconic for a reason. But they are not the stories of the slashers; they’re the stories of Laurie Strode, Alice Hardy and Nancy Thompson.
So who’s the central character of The Burning? Is it Todd, the alpha-male of the counselor team? Is it the awkward and unpopular camper Alfred, or his wisecracking friend/protector Dave? Is it Cropsy himself? The problem at the center of the film is that the filmmakers–director Tony Maylam and the screenwriting team, which includes Miramax moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein–is that they don’t seem to have any idea who the movie should be about. They introduce a large cast of characters, which is a requirement for summer-camp movies, but don’t do a very good job of juggling them. Cropsy’s the focal point of the first five to ten minutes and then fades into the background, and isn’t much of a presence until he starts killing teenagers. Todd barely registers and doesn’t become important until the final act. The important campers are shoved off to the side once the action gets going, whether it’s by death or otherwise, in favor of Alfred, who’s too alienating and creepy to win the audience’s sympathies.
The film spends way too long focusing on summer-camp hijinks. That includes the tension between Alfred and camp bully Glazer (Alfred is first seen watching Glazer’s girl Sally shower). There’s also a B-plot involving predictably horny Eddy and his love interest, Karen, who can’t decide whether or not she wants to go steady (read: fuck) Eddy. (Eddy also isn’t particularly likeable, but I can get why he gets frustrated with Karen, who seems to have a habit of changing her mind about going all the way at the last minute.)
There are a lot of fine performances amongst the campers–particularly from 22-year-old Jason “George Costanza” Alexander, who steals every scene he’s in, and an impossibly teenaged Fisher Stevens–but the problem is that most of the campers are fairly thinly drawn (Alexander, Stevens and a few other are memorable because they take on the slack the writing leaves them) and their drama simply isn’t all that interesting. Alfred’s behavior toward Sally could be relatable–he’s simply not sure how to express his apparent sexual desires toward her–but the fact that he’s played by Brian Backer, who was 25 when he made the film and looked it, makes him come off as a peeping Tom.
Then a group of campers gets stranded on a canoeing expedition and Cropsy makes himself known, and it’s standard slasher antics from there. There are some great visuals during this phase of the movie, especially the violent sequences, provided by Tom Savini in his trademark style. Sadly, however, Cropsy doesn’t make much of an impact as a character, and the final showdown between a handful of characters who are hard to care about is a bit limp and dull with an obvious final reveal.
I can see why The Burning has become a bit of a slasher subgenre classic–it’s mostly thanks to Alexander, Stevens, Savini and a cast of attractive (by late-’70s/early-’80s standards, at least) supporting players frolicking in the sun. But for the most part it’s business as usual and nothing more, with little to offer anyone other than diehard slasher devotees.