The Burning (1981)
The Burning (1981)

Genre: Slasher Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.

Release Date: May 8th, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Tony Maylam Actors: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Carrick Glenn, Carolyn Houlihan, Fisher Stevens, Lou David, Shelley Bruce, Sarah Chodoff




t Camp Blackfoot, a fivesome of teenage boys plans the “ultimate” prank against a much-despised caretaker – a sadistic, heavy drunk named Cropsy (Lou David). Late at night, they sneak into his shack to plant a human skull full of worms (with candles in the eye sockets) on the desk right next to his bunk, just to give him a good scare. But the gag goes terribly wrong when their target wakes up, knocks the rotting head into his bed, and lights his leg afire. The situation escalates when a canister of gasoline causes his whole body to become engulfed in flames.

Miraculously, the caretaker survives, undergoing numerous skin grafts in the Burn Unit at St. Catherine’s Hospital. But five years later, there’s simply nothing more the surgeons can do; the hideously disfigured man is sent on his way and told to attempt to adjust to life back in the unkind, insensitive world of normal people. “Try not to blame anyone for what happened. Control your feelings for revenge.” But his first action after being wheeled out of the hospital is to corner a prostitute in her apartment and murder her with a handy pair of scissors.

This first attack demonstrates the limitations and the style of this particular slasher; the murder weapon digs around into soft flesh, blood splatters across a mirror, and lightning bolts flash in the background. Gore effects by Tom Savini are highlighted, though the practical methods harbor a phoniness that both fit with the ‘80s time period and date the picture’s typical visual shortcomings. Additional techniques include sudden loud noises, screams, and jumpy moments – one of which involves a conspicuously naked girl showering.

Later, the vengeful victim stalks Camp Stonewater, brimming with incredibly stereotypical campers. The boys include leader Todd (Brian Matthews) and his pal Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), who have to handle bully Glazer (Larry Joshua), friendless creep Alfred (Brian Backer), the outgoing Dave (Jason Alexander), and goofball Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) – so that supervisor Jeff (Jeff De Hart) doesn’t have to send everyone home. The girls are led by Michelle (Leah Ayres), and include mostly indistinguishable fodder – such as Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), Sally (Carrick Glenn), and Tiger (Shelley Bruce). In casting so many different roles, there’s a surprising amount of character development and time spent attempting to individualize mere eventual victims (for what soon turns into a straightforward slasher). It takes a significant amount of minutes (almost 50) before Cropsy finally slays one of the youths – who jest and play and interact with one another to a monotonous degree.

In fact, it isn’t until a 3-day canoe trip to Devil’s Creek that Cropsy plots a devious game of division and slaughter. Fortunately, he upgrades to larger shears for the murders (though they’re not nearly big enough to do the kind of damage shown). Once these attacks begin, the tone remains dark and severe, straying away from the jokes and levity that plagued the first half (but not the frequent, amateurish fades – as if the filmmakers couldn’t come up with natural transitions between scenes).

Here, the camerawork is also more notable for the various, changing angles that all depict voyeuristic, first-person perspectives to assume the viewpoint of the killer stalking his prey (paralleling Alfred the peeping tom, who spies on all the other campers). Nevertheless, there are still far too many personas, each contributing to delays in the action – which would be welcome in nearly any other genre, but stymie the pacing of a thriller that thrives on shocks and violence. One of the more impressive sequences is a mass slaughter on a raft, yet even this moment is strangely overshadowed by the unbelievable logistics of Cropsy waiting in a lone canoe in the middle of the lake for hours on end. For every effective brutality (along with the drawn-out yet suspenseful finale) there’s an equivalently unsuccessful bit of editing, acting, a musical riff, or interchange, which numbs the execution.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10