The Burning (1981)

Gather around the campfire to die!
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The Burning - Gather around the campfire to die!

The Burning is a slasher movie from 1981 that managed to get itself banished to the video nasty list. It fortified the genre but, unfortunately, didn't have the impact it should have for a number of reasons. It is often compared to Friday the 13th and quite rightly so; a group of hormonally charged teenagers at summer camp get stalked by a disfigured summer camp ex-caretaker (by the name of Cropsy) who is out for revenge on the campers that made his job such an unpleasant experience five years previous. The unfortunate bit is that this concept was conceived before Jason was let loose on the cinema goers of the early eighties. The current slasher landscape could have been so very different if Cropsy became the cool kid and Jason was the plagiarist. Another reason was the heavy censorship of the gory scenes and an accidental release of the uncut version into the UK. This accidental release is what managed to get the film branded as a video nasty which made the film less obtainable in the UK at the time and would have had a detrimental impact on the pervasiveness of this title. To add to the gore there is quite a bit of butt and boob on parade (and if you are quick you can snatch a glimpse of snatch) which always riles up the censorshippers. A final reason could be that it's not quite as good as Friday the 13th.

The story is based around an urban legend that was quite popular in New York at the time of making. The Burning was released at the height of the popularity of slashers and helped reinforce the stereotypes of the genre that are seen today. It jumped on the bandwagon but at a time before the bandwagon was really sure of its destination. All the elements expected now are there; teens and their hijinks, a wronged and deformed stalker out for revenge, males who think only with their penises, urban legends and campfire stories, girls and their stupid emotions looking for any opportunity to lather their boobs in public, a weapon of choice for the killer (which in this instance is a set of shears), skinny dipping, numerous false alarms and an eventual bloodbath with an "is he really dead?" near the end. This is all backed up by a cast that probably just missed the cut on the Happy Days audition.

There is a fairly irrelevant kill at the beginning as Cropsy, freshly released from a five year hospital stint, goes and scissors a prostitute in a manner that Ellen DeGeneres would not approve of. He then wanders to a nearby summer camp to perform some fairly misplaced murders to sate his lust for revenge. After the hooker's demise, the next 40 or so minutes is mostly time spent watching near misses and getting to know how shallow the characters really are. Then the killing begins and there are some fairly impressive scenes of violence which more than make up for the failure to create much tension. The most notable (and infamous) being the scene on a raft where the number of happy campers is rapidly reduced. The raft scene is one of the pieces that was severely molested by the censors and the film loses a lot of impact when celluloid is butchered rather than teenagers.

It is a typical stalk and slash with some fruitless attempts at misdirection. There is a point in the film where someone other than Cropsy could fall under suspicion of the killings but it is vague enough to maybe be a script accident rather than intentional deception. It is made clear from the beginning who Cropsy is and what his motivations are. There are no twists that ever endanger this concept. There is a revelation at the end that ties the current slaughter to the initial tragedy but this is quite tenuous and seemingly quite a stroke of luck for our lovable killer.

The Burning is an entertaining way to waste an hour and a half and has some rewatch value for the slaughter scenes. It wasn’t revolutionary, even at the time, but it does deserve a place in horror history simply because it achieves what it set out to achieve in a competent way. It abides by all the rules which have now been cemented into the slasher formalisation and contributed to defining these rules. This hit the screen before slasher films really had to struggle to be original and therefore may seem bland with modern day expectations but at the time it did exactly what the tin led us to expect.
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