When I began to get seriously interested i horror movies by the mid-1980s and therefore read as many books and magazines on the subject as possible, I often noticed the title “The Burning”. It was often mentioned in Swedish articles as a typical example of a video nasty. But I had no idea what “The Burning” was. I had of course not seen the movie, I couldn’t find any facts in the books I had managed to buy or borrow, but a couple of friends assured me it’s one of the most gruesome ones and people get their fingers cut off with a pair of garden sheers. I actually wrote Gunnel Arrbäck, then head of Statens Biografbyrå — Sweden’s MPAA or BBFC — and asked about “The Burning”. She answered and in a few, short sentences she described the movie’s storyline.
By the end of the decade I finally got hold of the damn movie; I think I borrowed from a friend who later became a famous cartoonist. But by then I had read a lot about it in Phil Hardy’s “The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies” and in Fangoria. I had also gotten hold of the first volumes from the early ’80s of the magazine Scandinavian Film & Video, which sported several ads for “The Burning”. The funniest thing about the movie was the fact that it really was just like Arrbäck’s description, nothing more, nothing less! And I seem to remember I didn’t really like it.
But that was back in the ‘80s.
Now, more than twenty years later, I’ve re-watched “The Burning”. A lot of blood has been spilled since then, I’ve seen hundreds of crappy horror movies, one worse than the other, and these days, I look at slashers from the ‘80s with fresh eyes. I grew tired of them back then, but today I find them rather nice and charming, and being shot on 35mm, they looked like real movies and not like somebody’s home videos.
British director Tony Maylam’s (who later made the Rutger Hauer-actioner “Split Second”) movie is interesting in several ways. “The Burning” is one of Miramax’s first productions — maybe the very first one? — and it actually helped building the Weinstein brothers’ movie empire, in the same way as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” built New Line. Tony Maylam supplied the movies story along with Harvey Weinstein, while Bob Weinstein wrote the screenplay together with another guy. The movie is obviously inspired by “Friday the 13th” (1980), but Harvey Weinstein claims he came up with the plot for “The Burning” a long time before the Friday movie opened. Yeah, sure.
“The Burning” begins at Camp Blackwood, where a couple of young kids plan to play a prank on the very mean gardener Cropsy to frighten him. They don’t do a very good job, though. Sure, the guy gets scared, but he’s also set on fire. He runs around like a human torch, before ending up in hospital.
Several years later, Cropsy is released from the hospital, he’s of course grotesquely disfigured, and if he was mean before, that’s nothing compared to what he’s like now — my, oh, my, boys and girls, is he a mean and evil bastard by now! The first thing he does is using a pair of scissors to stab a hooker to death, and then he heads for the woods – hopefully, there’s people there he can chop up with his trusty garden sheers.
What do you know, he sure is lucky, that Cropsy fellow! He finds a whole gang of so-called young adults in charge of a bunch of little children in a camp. These young adults do what young adults usually do when camping in the American woods. They go swimming, they fool around, they paddle canoes, they fight with the obligatory, bullying quarter back hunk who’s a moron, and they mistake the obligatory geek for being a perv. And bien sûr: they have outdoor sex in the wilderness.
But then comes Cropsy and puts a damper on the mood, and he does so with a vengeance. Enthusiastically, he wields his garden sheers and stab and cut and chop people to death, blood spattering in all directions. Most talked about is the infamous scene in which Cropsy is hidden in a canoe and a couple of unsuspecting young adults paddle up to it on a raft. Cropsy pops up like Jack in the box to perform his gory handiwork. Then there are a few chases, the slaughter continues, until the manliest guy in the gang chops an
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axe in Cropsy’s head. Cropsy dies. The end.
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This summary was rather short — but Gunnel Arrbäck’s was even shorter.
This is of course the same old story one more time. However, the big difference is that “The Burning” is outmost competently made in several ways. The cinematography is much better than average. Jack Sholder, who later directed “The Hidden”, was the editor. Rick Wakeman has composed an electronic, very atmospheric score that reminded me a bit about Italian horror movie music.
The violence is bloodier, rawer and more graphic than in most other slashers of that era; Tom Savini was in charge of the effects. I’m a jaded poor sod myself, but I know of people who still find the massacre on the raft shocking.
Finally I think the acting is better than the usual slasher movie standard. It’s of course also fun to spot then unknown celebrities appearing in “The Burning”. Holly Hunter is supposed to be in there somewhere, but I couldn’t find her. It’s however impossible to avoid a very young Jason Alexander. Yup, George Costanza! With hair! Unfortunately he survives (from what I could tell), it would’ve been more fun if he got butchered in a creative way.
Add to this the fact that the 1980s hasn’t really become the 1980s yet — the girls still look like typical 1970s chicks. All this means that I find “The Burning” totally irresistible and very entertaining. Maybe I like it for nostalgic reasons, but so what. This is one of the best slashers next to “Friday the 13th” parts one and four, and a few others.