The Burning (1981)
I’ve heard people call it the best Friday the 13th movie that isn’t a Friday the 13th movie. I suppose it’s a fair comparison to make, given that The Burning was released just as the Friday series was in its wildly-popular infancy, and filmmakers were churning out slasher films like there was no tomorrow, many of which borrowed elements from the first Friday film, among others. However, now that I’ve seen The Burning for myself, I realize that it’s ultimately only on the surface that this film is similar to the aforementioned series. Yes, they’re both about spurned middle-aged camp employees seeking gory vengeance on the bratty kids and horny counselors who ruined their lives years before, but that’s really where the similarities end. The Burning is of a decidedly different breed of horror than the Friday films. And as much as I love the Friday series, I have to say that The Burning has a forthrightness about it that I appreciate; it confronts the viewer with a hint of aggression, while the Friday films merely elbow the viewer and offer a knowing wink. While I guess they’re both fun movies in their own way, they are fun in very different ways.
Maybe it’s overexposure that has diluted the impact of the original Friday the 13th films. In all fairness, the first four films (especially the first two) played it relatively straight, but it’s the increasingly self-aware sequels that, for better or for worse, define the franchise. But even so, the first couple films were only “gritty” by comparison to their successors, and even that would be a stretch. As much as people of the time might have considered Friday the 13th to be a tasteless, trashy bloodbath, it’s really not that bad. And I don’t just mean by today’s standards, but by those of the time as well. In retrospect, Friday the 13th plays out like a gore-ified update on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It’s a basic murder mystery at its core; just one that’s been given a trendy treatment. I don’t mean to knock the Friday films at all; in fact, they’re among my favourites for late-night summertime viewing. All I mean to say is that while Friday the 13th and its sequels may have been the most popular slasher films of the time, as well as the films that people today will recall when they think about 80s horror, those films were not the bloodiest, the scariest, or the most daring. That honour belongs to other films, such as Tony Maylam’s The Burning.
The Burning begins typically enough, with a prank-gone-wrong. When a group of boys attempt to spook the nasty caretaker of their summer camp, they accidentally wind up burning him alive. And five years later he (unsurprisingly) seeks vengeance. What’s interesting right of the bat is that unlike the first Friday film, there is no whodunit element to The Burning. We know immediately who the killer is. His motive is made explicit, as is his eagerness to put it into action. There is no secret surrounding the identity of our assailant (expect for the final reveal in which we get to see his oft-discussed but never seen visage). In this way, the film isn’t so much a relatively innocuous guessing game, but a straight-up showcase for death. Of course, The Burning is not the first and probably not even the best film of this period to follow this formula, as opposed to the more palatable murder mystery. After all, it was no secret that the death scenes were the selling points for all of these films. Still, it can’t be overlooked, as The Burning has a distinctively nasty streak running throughout. For example, near the beginning, the killer (named Cropsy) kills a prostitute for no good reason. And later on, in one of the film’s most notorious (and oddly beloved) scenes, a slew of kids on a raft are slain in a matter of seconds. Though quick, Tom Savini’s gory makeup effects are put to good use.
But it’s not just the arguably mean-spirited gore that sets The Burning apart. It’s the characters. It’s not just the twenty-something counselors who get offed (as in the first Friday), it’s kids as well – kids who, by my approximation, range in age from 13-16. And unlike other films like this, they look it (despite the fact that most of the cast members were in their mid-late twenties). It’s pretty gutsy to kill kids in horror films, especially in such a graphic manner. It’s something that relatively few slashers have attempted, and probably one of the reasons that this film ended up on the infamous “video nasties” list in the UK. As well, these kids are presented as being very sexual. Early on, Alfred, one of the boys, is caught peeping at Sally in the shower (of course, her breasts are shown). Later on, we see him spying on her and her boyfriend, Glazer, making out, and even later, having sex. Although he seems primarily interested in Sally, there’s opportunity for a “queer reading” here that might find a similar (if not a stronger) curiosity with Glazer. In any case, the whole thing results in a presentation of childhood that at once confirms the presumed naivete of pre-teens and teens, but completely disavows their innocence. It’s an uncomfortable view of childhood, but perhaps an appropriate one, at least for the purposes of this film. While most of the characters are archetypes, some are good, some are rotten, and some – even the more significant characters, like Alfred – are decidedly ambiguous. Although many might simply recoil at this combination of gore, sex, and children, I think there’s some room for a deeper analysis here. Granted, it’s nothing particularly profound, but The Burning is simply too deliberate in its execution to be written off as “dumb.”
Additionally, the film makes good use of its summer camp setting. Yes, the summer camp slasher has been done before, obviously, but not like this. The film manages to hold a dark, unsettling cloud over the entire thing, creating a sense of dread as the viewer watches the naively happy campers head directly but unwittingly into all but certain doom. Again, this seems to be a conscious effort by the filmmakers, and you can see evidence of this in scenes such as the raft scene mentioned above. As the raft of kids drifts closer and closer towards the stray canoe, there is no detectable hint of the violence to come, either visually or audibly. But because the scene is drawn out in such a way that you know it’s building up to something. This build up is emphasized in the way the scene is shot, with the canoe looming intimidatingly in the distance. It can’t possibly end well. And it sure doesn’t. Although the film’s final chase scene drags on, the finale is somewhat redeemed through its offering of a few unexpected jolts.
I don’t want to oversell The Burning, nor do I want to give it too much credit. It’s far from perfect, and when held up to scrutiny, many elements will surely fall apart. And on the other hand, when taken at face value, it can be read as a silly, throwaway horror flick. There are definitely horror films that are gorier, scarier, and more transgressive than The Burning in terms of what they dare to expose the viewer too, and the intelligence with which they do it, and The Burning was certainly not the first film to do the things that it does. But as far as mainstream offerings go, this one is a nasty, engaging little gem. Despite the fact that it was indeed a relatively polished studio production, it creates a seedy feel, which is accentuated by the amateurish acting, practical effects, and corny script. It’s certainly not realistic, but like other films of this sort, the apparently low-budget works with it, giving it the same lurid appeal of a pulp novel or an EC comic. Unlike the Friday films, when you’re watching The Burning, you feel like you’re watching something you shouldn’t be. In this way, it’s more akin to the original Sleepaway Camp than Friday the 13th, as Sleepaway Camp (released two years later) also delighted in showing the gruesome deaths of campers in a similar (but definitely more over-the-top) manner, and perhaps even more so than The Burning, teetered on the edge of the bizzare. Although the conclusion, which frames the entire thing as a campfire story itself, adds levity, it’s also very appropriate; all in all, the film has the slightly surreal, nightmarish tone of an old ghost story. You know it’s all in fun, and its technical flaws ensure an awareness of its existence as fiction. And yet there’s something slightly off about it that you can’t quite shake…at least until it’s time for the s’mores, anyway.