The Burning (1981)

“I’m sorry: The skin grafts just didn’t take.”

Kyle’s Rating: You will believe a big group of campers can be massacred en masse!

Kyle’s Review: The Burning has tasked me for years. It’s one of those films that gets touted as “One of the, if not THE ultimate slashers of all-time” by a lot of die-hard fans and amateur/web critics (professional critics hate slasher movies, so don’t even bother) and there are so many various edits of The Burning that to finally get your hands on an uncut version is like thinking you just found a forgotten $20 bill in an old jacket, and then realizing it’s actually a $20,000 bill.

I missed out on that feeling for a long time, because I could never ever find this film for myself. Which meant I had to rely on eBay for my Burning fortunes. And finally, after numerous auction attempts, an uncut DVD version was now in my hands. Woo hoo! At last I would know if this was the greatest or just a typical case of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” and/or “slasher movies from the ‘80s were a billion times better than today’s crap” hype.

Happily, it’s a lot more of the former than the latter. The Burning is crazy good. There are a few slow spots, the cast is amateurish at best (there are “big” names but in their film debuts so they weren’t big yet), and in terms of production values this is a slight step above a student film. But these negatives, at least to a horror fan, are completely negligible. Especially when the overall tone and the cast of characters is so uniquely executed. The Burning is unabashedly a rip-off of all summer camp slasher movies, but it’s pretty much the first one I’ve seen that actually delivers a functioning summer camp as the basis and locale. Friday the 13th Part 2 gave us a pre-summer camp with just counselors and Friday the 13th Part 6 brought kids to Camp Crystal Lake, but only as a plot device to put into peril. The Burning is the first slasher I’ve seen where the camp-goers are the complete focus, and it greatly benefits from the realism that brings.

There’s also quite a bit of realism in the various murders, slashings, and conflagrations that go on. Especially in the uncut version. Tom Savini is the master of cinematic carnage; if you don’t know his name by now, you’re not a fan. And if you’re not a fan you may not want to try starting with The Burning, because in addition to being the ultimate camp slasher it has got some pretty bloody effects to sit through. Yep, there is a reason this movie is hard to get a hold of in any kind of unedited form: it’s brutal. Not only is it fairly unpredictable as to who will live and who will die, but some of the murders will totally freak you.

Any discussion of The Burning among those who have seen it will include a mention of “the infamous raft scene;” also for good reason. That part is insane. Allow me to add my voice to those who talk of this scene with amazement: I’ve never seen so many victims taken out so quickly and simultaneously. Truly amazing! If you like that sort of thing.

And these strengths that I’m going on and on about are the highlights, truly. The plot can be guessed at from my “ultimate camp slasher” description. For the lazier reader: basically a group of campers long ago tried to play a practical joke on mean camp caretaker Cropsy, and the joke went wrong. Wrong as in “Cropsy ended up burnt to a crisp and is murderously mad about it five years later.” After a stint in the hospital where attempts at skin grafts failed and a walk down a seedy street to try to pick up a prostitute (you can guess how that goes), Cropsy ends up at the summer camp site of his disfigurement, armed with his rage and a shiny new pair of gardening shears. For the rest of the plot, see: “Ultimate Camp Slasher.”

The Burning is about getting a glimpse at ordinary life at an ordinary summer camp and then seeing what happens when a murderous madman enters the fray. I never went to a summer camp like the one in the movie, so I didn’t mind the slow build-up towards mayhem because it was worth it to get a real idea of what camp was like. Pretty similar to the camp scenes in The Parent Trap actually, albeit with more smoking, dirty magazines, and sex thrown in here. Again, the genuine approach to the camp and its inhabitants as a whole was a huge plus, because the individual characters barely registered. It took a climatic revelation about one character for me to be able to say definitively “oh, that’s ____” (I’ve already forgotten his name). But otherwise, except for initially going “hey, that’s Jason Alexander” or “I think that is Holly Hunter” and “okay, this one guy is a total *******” no one makes much of an impression. You don’t know who the hero or heroine is going to be for quite a long time, and even when the movie ended I wasn’t sure. Oh well. It’s not about the destination. It’s about the bloody journey.

So The Burning is a rare pleasure that I wholeheartedly recommend seeking out if camp slashers are in any way your bag. I’m sure that now I spent the money to find an illicit copy, whatever studio owns the right will release a wham-bam special edition DVD like next month. So you all have got that going for you. But The Burning rules. Brutal, bloody, and needlessly sadistic. Totally worth of the hype, I think. Yeah!

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