The Burning (1981) Review

The Burning Poster

The Burning was directed by Tony Maylam (The Riddle of the Sands, Split Second), written by Bob Weinstein (Playing for Keeps, co-owner of Miramax) and Peter Lawrence (Terminal Choice, Thundercats), and stars Brian Matthews (Santa Barbara, Red Nights), Leah Ayres (Bloodsport, Edge of the Night), Brian Backer (Moving Violations, Steel and Lace), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, Harley Quinn), Larry Joshua (NYPD Blue, Romeo is Bleeding), Carolyn Houlihan (A Little Sex), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit, The French Dispatch), Ned Eisenberg (Won’t Back Down, Air America), and Lou David (The Last Dragon, Over the Brooklyn Bridge). It follows a group of teens at a summer camp as they’re picked off by a vengeful killer.

The Plot: In the wake of Halloween’s financially successful release, there were bound to be plenty of pale imitators. Friday the 13th showed that anyone could make a buck via the basics, regardless of talent, and the sudden influx of storyless slashers would soon follow.

As things come to a head between Cropsy (David), the caretaker of Camp Blackfoot, and its occupants, the campers decide to play a malicious prank on the unsuspecting man in the middle of the night. It goes terribly wrong as one would expect, leaving time to supposedly heal the wounds that the man sustained in a rather titular event over half a decade ago. To the point, Weinstein and Lawrence shirk off the fluff often associated with the beginning of movies like this and move on to this year’s attendees arriving at camp.

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For the time being, camp counsellors Todd and Michelle (Ayres), along with campers Alfred (Backer), Glazer (Joshua), Dave (Alexander) Karen (Houlihan), Woodstock (Stevens), and Eddy (Eisenberg) partake in the requisite summer camp activities: swimming, baseball, canoeing, campfire stories, and sex. Once Cropsy shows up and takes out his first victim, any semblance of plot goes out the window. Given that The Burning is more of an exercise in genre activity, that’s perfectly fine. The writers never go above and beyond with reveals or raising the stakes, which leaves the story on the back burner (no pun intended) for the remainder of the feature, but the director knew that and acted accordingly.

The Characters: Depth for the characters in these types of movies is necessary, but often a pipe dream for viewers since the writers hardly ever seem to agree. Surprisingly, there’s some development for at least the handful of leading participants and enough personality from the supports to make The Burning interesting, if not particularly great.

Todd is trying to do his job right, guiding them but never lording over them with his orders, which aren’t overly strict or overplayed in a way that would feel over the top; he just wants things at camp to go smoothly and for the campers to have their fun within reason. He’s always able to have fun with the underlings by scaring them with stories and joining in activities, humanizing him not just to the audience, but to the other characters. Between bouts of discipline, he has a slight relationship with Michelle, which is a background aspect of the movie but is at least present to build some character for her by proxy.

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Supporting campers in The Burning are stamped with mini-arcs and filled out with solid performances from many actors who’d go on to show what they could do in much larger productions. Crucially, there’s some sense of camaraderie between most of them. Alfred is a bit off, snooping around and trying to avoid people until Dave and Woodstock reach out to him and bring him into their fold – a huge departure from other movies that would seek to make him a boring red herring. Glazer is the bully to most of the males and is always prowling for pleasure, which sparks some friction between him and Todd, and there are the generic kind-of couples like Eddy and Karen too. It’s all surface-level, but at least just about everyone is identifiable and likable to an extent.

While many 80s slashers tried to make their characters likable, many failed by making the entire roster interchangeably “good” in the sense that everyone acts the same. Thanks to talented performers and some variety between characters, The Burning is one of the few that actually achieved its modest goal.

The Horror: Building a reprieve with the characters helps make Maylam’s film scary, but because of the events that create the antagonist and the way that the director executes his feature, it’s scary regardless of its participants, even if some of the atmospheres is lost between acts.

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Cropsy’s creation is certainly unsettling; added to by the unfortunate series of events that gets him to his position as a killer within The Burning. Evidently, the caretaker wasn’t the most personable of the staff, as he went rough on the campers for having fun. In retaliation, they find an old skull and dress it up with dirt, worms, and fiery eyes, which the sleeping man wakes in fear of and proceeds to knock it over and start a bigger burn than anticipated. The fire spreads and the man runs in a blaze that almost never ends, only for him to find that the resulting skin grafts after the fact didn’t take, leaving him a scarred mess. Horrifying in their own right, these events are underscored by the fact that while a motive was there, everything went wrong, making him an understandable but wholly menacing villain.

Point-of-view shots and some power sources going down are interspersed with the events going on for the next 35 minutes, which do a decent job at reminding the audience that the killer is on the loose, but the movie does go a little too long without returning to the standard it set itself up to, damaging the flow of the picture. Cropsy’s reentrance effectively brings the movie back from a minor slog as the campers’ canoes are removed, leaving them stranded from the rest of the site while some of them go missing, allowing the killer to intimidate and eventually pick off characters.

Said victims are picked off in far better fashion than in many of The Burning’s contemporaries, even if some logic gets lost within the bloodshed. As some of the characters work their way back to the mainland via makeshift raft, Cropsy really comes back to play. With garden shears as his weapon, there are plenty of gruesome kills and injuries to make the gauntlet of torture memorable. From severed fingers, blades in breasts, and a variety of other angles, the charred mess of a man does what other slashers did, but better.

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Scares aren’t consistent throughout the movie, but The Burning has a better atmosphere than most, which is punctuated by some great effects and circuits of horror.

The Technics: Though his traditional film career wasn’t illustrious, Tony Maylam perhaps should have had more chances to work with narratives, as he does well with this outing, as do the other facets of the production.

Maybe it’s just because anything on the screen is actually visible, unlike Friday the 13th, but the setting does get to shine throughout the movie. Although the cinematography is nothing special, it does capture the landscape well with plenty of cabins in view, lake-set setpieces, and mess hall meetings that get the placement of the story right. Broken up by less of a normal score and often more usage of arhythmic beats courtesy of composer Rick Wakeman (Prog rock band Yes, She) and a distinct filter to show Cropsy’s PoV, the movie provides the expected beats of a slasher.

Adding to the impact are effects by Tom Savini (Friday the 13th, Smoke and Mirrors: The Story of Tom Savini) that give The Burning an edge over other horror productions that weren’t lucky enough to have him. While the pacing is too slack for its own good, those waiting for kills and gore will have enough to stick around for once things ramp up.

Not the best 80s slasher but certainly not the worst thanks to solid acting, a frightening and semi-sympathetic antagonist, and above-average direction, The Burning is good genre fare that deserves more credit than its popular brethren.

The Burning is available on Blu-ray and DVD as well as on Digital platforms including Tubi. And if that hasn’t satisfied you’re bloodlust, FilmTagger can suggest a few more titles.

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