31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #7: The Burning (1981)

Posted: October 7, 2016 in Movie Review
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

7-the-burning-1981

Director: Tony Maylam

Starring: Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayers, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua

After the unexpectedly huge success of “Friday the 13th,” there was a huge mass of slasher films produced to ride its coattails. Some were more successful than others. 1981’s “The Burning” was one of those that got swallowed up in the tidal wave (but would later achieve cult status). It didn’t help matters that it was released only a week after “Friday the 13th Part 2.” But there are two very big things which help “The Burning” stand out from all the other “Friday the 13th” clones: the top notch Tom Savini gore effects, and the multitude of careers which this film helped to get started.

Based on the New York urban legend of “Cropsey,” the film opens with a summer camp prank gone horribly wrong. At Camp Blackfoot, the campers are not especially fond of their caretaker, nicknamed “Cropsy” (Lou David), although we’re not entirely informed as to why. Maybe the guy was a real jerk, or maybe he was misunderstood. What is known is that the kids decided to scare Cropsy by putting a skull candle by his bedside, and then banging on the windows to wake him. The prank backfires when Cropsy frantically pushes away the skull, knocks over a gas can and engulfs both the bed and himself in flames. Cropsy survives only by jumping into a nearby river. Five years later, Cropsy is released from the hospital, encouraged by his doctors to find forgiveness in his heart. Yeah, right! If Cropsy did that, there’d be no movie! Before we even get to the meat of the story, an unsuspecting prostitute becomes Cropsy’s first victim.

The scene shifts to Camp Stonewater, where we find the usual assortment of oversexed teenagers. By this time, Cropsy has become the subject of campfire stories. The main character turns out to be Alfred (Brian Backer), a friendless yet likable wimp who only knows one way of getting the ladies’ attention: the art of pulling pranks. This has the effect of making him seem like a peeping Tom until the situation is explained, and it also draws the wrath of bully Glazer (Larry Joshua). Cropsy has already arrived with a pair of garden shears, his weapon of choice, and narrowly misses killing one of the campers. Late at night, Alfred spots him through a window, but is unable to convince anyone without proof.

Proof starts popping up in the form of dead bodies. Two campers, Eddy and Karen, go for a night of skinny dipping and lovemaking. They only get past the nude swimming before Karen alters the plans by abruptly leaving. When Karen does not return in the morning, Eddy is interrogated. But really, we know it’s Cropsy who is to blame. We see him slit Karen’s throat with the garden shears. Stranger still is the discovery that the canoes have been cut loose. A raft is then constructed so that the canoes can be tracked down and brought back. Boarding the canoe are Eddy, Fish, Marnie, Barbara and Woodstock (Fisher Stevens). In what has to be considered as the film’s most infamous scene, the campers find one of the canoes, only to find Cropsy lying in wait! Swiftly, all five campers are brutally slain with the garden shears.

Up to this point, only Alfred has suspected that anything serious might be wrong. His fears are reinforced when he witnesses firsthand the murders of Sally and (finally!) Glazer. Alfred still can’t get anyone to believe him, not even camp counselor Todd (Brian Matthews). That is, of course, until Todd sees the bodies for himself and is then knocked unconscious by Cropsy, who chases and then captures Alfred.

Counselor Michelle (Leah Ayers) is still worried about the missing Karen, but she finds much bigger problems when the raft with the five dead bodies on it washes up. Todd returns to encourage the survivors to plan for an immediate evacuation before going back to look for Alfred, whom Cropsy has subdued inside a mine shaft. A scuffle ensues which reveals Cropsy’s disfigured face. Todd instantly recognizes him, revealing to us (via flashback) that Todd was one of the kids whose prank left Cropsy in the shape he’s in. Together, Todd and Alfred kill Cropsy, then head back to Michelle, who has called for a police helicopter to bring the survivors to the hospital. And the campfire stories continue…

“The Burning” could’ve easily been just another average, forgettable slasher. But with Tom Savini (“Dawn of the Dead,” “Friday the 13th”) on board to provide all of the bloody makeup, the result is a more graphically violent film than the early 1980s usually provided. The only downside is the use of the garden shears for each kill. Variety is always more visually interesting.

As good as the effects are, it’s the notables among the cast and crew which really adds to the significance of “The Burning.” In addition to Brian Backer, among those making their film debut: actors Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens, and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein (the latter of which co-wrote “The Burning”). It’s easy to tell why Jason Alexander was such a huge hit on TV’s “Seinfeld.” His wisecracking Dave is a real scene-stealer in “The Burning.” For slasher connoisseurs, and even film historians in general, this movie is a definite can’t-miss.

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Comments
  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    It would be fun to play spot the stars in this one!

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