Slasher Classics: The Burning (1981)

August 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Home Video

I have a sneaking suspicion that the 80’s may become the biggest gold mine of cult classics in film history. So many movies that were discarded or disowned in the 80’s are seen as classic masterpieces by more and more people. “Howard the Duck” even has its own following. I believe most of this is due to the fact that there is so much more access to media these days, and movies that may have been long forgotten are now being brought back on DVD for cheap, and people are buying. “The Monster Squad”, “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie”, “Teen Witch”, all movies I distinctly remember in my childhood, are now available on DVD. I honestly believed I’d never be able to see the “Top That” sequence or the line “Wolfman’s got nards!”, or even the “We can do anything by working with each other” mind-numbing song from the Garbage Pail Kids. The nostalgia factor lends more to the validity of their cult status than their actual quality. So I guess I have to amend my statement for future generations, because “cult” status seems to gain when more and more years pass. If you don’t think “From Justin to Kelly” will one day be a cult classic as well, you just don’t understand film history.

But perhaps the largest number of these cult classic movies came from the early to mid-80’s, tucked away in the armpit of midsummer doldrums, flamed by critics and disregarded as “gross” and “dead teenager movies” (coined by Roger Ebert). I’m speaking of course about slasher flicks. Beginning with 1960’s “Pyscho”, the most notable and critically acclaimed–the “slasher” flick genre had a boost in the 70’s with “Black Christmas” and “Halloween” and going into the 80’s with a head of steam. I mean how many can I list here for you? “My Bloody Valentine”, “Maniac”, “Sleepaway Camp”, “The Prowler”, and I haven’t even gotten to “Friday the 13th” or “Nightmare on Elm Street”. Of course by the late 80’s, I think people were slashered out, and after Jason had pretty much diced up the city of New York, there were only two other places he hadn’t ventured off into: hell and space. And of course, he does eventually go to both places.

The genre was reawakened by the smart but uneven “Scream” in 1996, a film that was a mockery and an homage to the genre; and really, that’s what we have today in modern slasher horror film. It’s about as cheeky as you get, with homage being paid to “Scream” as much as “Halloween” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. But because we’ve become obsessed with revisioning, remaking, re-sequeling, re-prequeling, and re-imagining every horror film in history (even “Psycho” couldn’t be left alone!), these movies that were so hated when they were first released are looking better and better. Why? Because they were fresh, different, genuinely gory, and hell–most of them were touched by the sacred hands of Tom Savini. What more could you want?

So I bring you now to a movie that lends a lot of its due to the success of “Friday the 13th” because it again is a slasher-camp-movie, about a terrifying burn-faced killer who wields garden shears instead of a knife, and looks kind of like a scarecrow when he rises to kill. The reason I chose “The Burning” is not just because it boasts some of Tom Savini’s best special effects/make-up work, but also because it boasts a very recognizable cast. Of course back then, in 1981, none of these cast members were known for what they are now. But it provides a new angle of nostalgia, and a fun little excursion to see these up and comers.

And who might you ask am I speaking of? Well, if you want to see George Costanza with hair, this is your movie. A much younger Jason Alexander was cast as the boisterous, lovable Bluto-like character. Keep an eye on the skinny one called “Woodstock” too–that’s Fisher Stevens, from the “Short Circuit” movies (as the Indian), and “Hackers” (another cult classic). Jodie Foster also makes a very brief appearance in this movie. Try and pick her out. It’s difficult, but fun in a “Where’s Waldo” way.

Guess who's who!

Guess who's who!

The movie is also produced by the Weinstein brothers, and co-written by Harvey Weinstein. It’s pretty evident these guys were cut out more to be producers than screenwriters, but there is a consistent atmosphere in this movie, thanks to a very complimentary soundtrack by Rick Wakeman (although sometimes sounds suspiciously close to Carpenter’s “Halloween” muzak). The plot centers around an old summer camp caretaker curmudgeon whom the campers derisively call “Cropsy” because of his garden shears fetish. One night some of the kids decide to play a prank on ole’ Cropsy by scaring him with a worm-infested skull. It works, but at a severe cost. Cropsy ends up accidentally lighting himself on fire by being so scared of this thing (that had candles in it), and winds up engulfed in flames. The “legend” goes that he “still haunts the woods”, but there are scenes in the beginning that show a “recovery” for Cropsy, and an inevitable escape from the hospital.

Strike a pose!

Strike a pose!

And now Cropsy wants revenge. Years later, we have our new batch of campers, and all your ducks are in a row: the jealous roid-raged jock, the quiet geek whom people are afraid of, the cheeky smart ass, the girl who is confused about her man, the misfit girl, and the camp counselors. Now everything is set up perfectly. You can pretty much tell who is going to die almost immediately. You will be wrong about a few of them, but the ones you’re right about, you won’t miss. Cropsy stalks and terrorizes, and in one infamous scene, “massacres” his way through this gruesome film, it makes up for the stale dialog and predictable characters. Plus as I said, Jason Alexander with hair. You will marvel throughout the entire movie about that!

The film’s climax is fairly well done, and it’s a fairly satisfying ending. But really, the point of watching this movie now is not to scare you or shock you. We’re 27 years removed from the movie. It shouldn’t give you nightmares…unless perhaps you are a camp counselor, or very easily scared. The point is to enjoy a time when slasher movies were being made because people wanted to give you gore and suspense, and outrageous make up effects. Though this film is a bit marred by the producers’ money-driven agenda, it’s still innocent enough in the twilight of the golden age of the slasher flick that you won’t feel cheated. After all, as I said, anything Tom Savini works on, at least is something watchable.

Did I mention Jason Alexander with hair?