The Burning is a sleek little Friday the 13th clone you just might have missed upon its initial release. Chock full of gory numbers and adhering to a winning 'slasher in the woods' formula, this 1981 splatter gem is sure to please genre aficionados.
Directed by Tony Maylam and showcasing some great splat effects, The Burning was the victim of some sizable trimming at the hands of the censors, most notably the infamous "raft scene."
An effective score by Rick Wakeman, keyboardist for the group Yes, is also a big plus. The cast included future well-known actors such as Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter.
The Weinstein brothers were the creative force behind The Burning. Harvey wrote and produced, while brother Bob co-wrote the screenplay. The two would go on to form Mirimax Pictures.
Cropsy (Lou David) is a caretaker at Camp Blackfoot. Mean-spirited and a heavy drinker, he is despised by the kids at the camp. One day, a group of them decide to play a prank on him.
As he is sleeping, they put a decayed skull by his bed, complete with worms and lit candles inside.
The kids watch through a window as Cropsy wakes up. But the joke goes awry. Their victim is so frightened, he knocks the skull over and sets his bed and himself on fire. The young pranksters can do nothing but watch.
Cropsy is taken to St. Catherine's Hospital for treatment. The burns are so bad, he becomes something of a freak show. Doctors take their co-workers to
Cropsy's room to show them the damage.
One night, the patient suddenly grabs the arm of one of the orderlies and scares the daylights out of him.
Five years later, Cropsy is released...but unfortunately, the skin grafts didn't take. Now out on the streets and looking like your standard giallo killer (black gloves, hat, long trenchcoat), Cropsy picks up a prostitute (played by K.C. Townsend).
They go to her apartment and the woman is able to see just how deformed he is when he steps into the light. The hooker screams - and Crospy picks up a pair of scissors and stabs her, then throws her body out of the window.
Camp Stonewater is filled with kids and their counselors for the summer season. Out for
revenge, Cropsy is lurking.
A pretty young girl named Sally (Carrick Glenn) is taking a shower outside, when she senses someone is watching her. It turns out to be Alfred (Brian Backer), the nerd that everyone likes to pick on.
Sally is furious and calls out for the main counselors, Todd (Brian Mathews), and Michelle (Leah Ayres). They warn Alfred to stay away from her. Sally's boyfriend Glazer (Larry Joshua), the camp punk, physically threatens him.
That evening, while hanging out with the other guys, Alfred sees the charred face of a stranger in the window but nobody believes him.
The next day, some of the campers head out for a three day canoe trip to Devil's Creek. Todd has told them the story of Cropsy at a campfire, and this puts some of the kids on edge.
Meanwhile, Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) and Karen (Carolyn Houlihan) go for a nude swim in the lake.
When Eddy comes on too strong, they get into a fight and Karen storms off. As she looks for her clothing, Karen is killed with a pair of hedge clippers.
With Karen missing, the others also realize that their six canoes are all gone. Todd builds a raft...and a small group heads out to look for them. As they're paddling in the lake, they notice a canoe in the distance.
When they get close to it, a terrifying figure suddenly emerges. It's Cropsy with his hedge clippers, and he kills all five people on the raft. (A truly awesome scene if there ever was one.)
Sally and Glazer are having sex in the woods. When they're done, Glazer goes off to get more wood for a fire. Sally is left alone and is killed. When Glazer returns, he thinks she's sleeping. He slowly approaches her and lifts the blanket up.
Cropsy is underneath and plunges the hedge clippers into Glazer's neck. Alfred has been watching and rushes to tell Todd.
Todd does indeed find the bodies...but Cropsy strikes and knocks him out. The charred killer turns to go after Alfred. Alfred is captured and taken back to an old abandoned house.
Elsewhere, Michelle and a small group of campers are waiting for the raft to return. In the distance, they see it in the water but there's no one visible on it.
Michelle swims out towards it just as Todd shows up to warn them about Cropsy. When she gets to the raft, a severed arm falls out and she sees a mutilated body floating in the water.
She quickly swims back to the others and Todd tells her to call the authorities. The kids are crying and in shock.
Todd picks up an ax and heads out to look for Alfred. He finds the abandoned house. Cropsy comes after him with a torch...and during a struggle, Todd strikes him with the ax. The torch is then turned on Cropsy, setting him on fire once again.
In the final scene, a counselor at a different camp is telling the story to another group of kids. "They never found his body, but his spirit lives..."
The "killer in the woods" is one of our favorite things. And although this is another Friday the 13th variation, The Burning more than delivers the goods.
From the outset, the killing of the hooker sets a pulpy, almost Eurosleaze flavor. But just as quickly, director Tony Maylam effortlessly switches gears to present day Camp Blackfoot, where we're besieged by a posse of realistically irritating, yet strangely likable youths.
There's nothing Shakespearean about The Burning. However, Cropsy's backstory - the reason for his murderous rampage - is as solid and believable as in any other bodycount flick.
Of course, it's the "mass murder" raft carnage you came to see. And that's what you'll get. To the virgin viewer, it's an unexpected, abrupt and quite effective montage of splattery goo. Utilizing quick shot editing, the raft scene showcases the best of Tom Savini's special effects, and make for one of slasherdom's most memorable moments.
In addition to the exceptional visceral effects of that sequence, you may also be struck by the novelty. Indeed, you'd be hardpressed to recall a similar scene in another film where the killer takes out several victims all at once, so quickly, so decisively, and so bloodily.
One of the more unique aspects of The Burning is its charming blend of polish and grit. While the special FX are well done, seamless, and possess a professional sheen, there's also a photorealism at work here. The day lighting is really natural, the sky being overcast most of the time. There's a relaxed, ad hoc tone to the group scenes with the campers; their mischevious banter is grating, juvenile, silly...and real.
Best of all, many of the kids in the film are quite young. Unlike Friday the 13th - in which the murders take place before the arrival of the campers - this one is filled with children who don't look much older than 15. Will the little chicklets prove fodder for the killer? Check this one out and find out.