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Dustin Putman

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The Burning  (1981)
2 Stars
Directed by Tony Maylam.
Cast: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Carrick Glenn, Carolyn Houlihan, Fisher Stevens, Shelley Bruce, Sarah Chodoff, Bonnie Deroski, Holly Hunter, Kevi Kendall, J.R. McKechnie, George Parry, Lou David.
1981 – 91 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for graphic violence, language and sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Right now, he's out there. Watching. Waiting. Don't look; he'll see you.
Don't move; he'll hear you. Don't breathe; you're dead!

The first movie to be distributed by Miramax Films—former head honchos Harvey and Bob Weinstein receive story and screenplay credits—"The Burning" was released in May 1981, a time when the marketplace was being inundated with knockoffs of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th." Though it didn't reach the success hoped for and a planned sequel was never shot, "The Burning" stands up today, twenty-six years later, as one of the more inspired early-'80s slasher pics. It also holds the prestige of marking the first screen appearance of a number of well-known faces, including a pre-bald Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens.

When a cruel but seemingly harmless prank at Camp Blackfoot goes awry, mean groundskeeper Cropsy (Lou David) is left horribly burned and an inch within death. Five years later, healed but horribly disfigured—"Sorry, the skin grafts just didn't take," the doctor tells him—Cropsy is released from St. Catherine's Hospital and heads back to his old stomping ground. Though Camp Blackfoot has since been closed down, Camp Stonewater is located on the other side of the lake, filled with playful teen girls and oversexed boys ripe for the picking. When a group of the campers, headed by counselors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayres), head out on an overnight canoing trip, they become the prime targets for Cropsy's maniacal act of revenge.

It's hard to imagine "The Burning" existing without the inspiration of "Friday the 13th." Both films are set at a summer camp, both involve killers out for vengeance over a tragedy that occurred years before, and both incorporate memorably nasty splatter and make-up effects by Tom Savini the likes of which just don't seem to get used anymore in current films of this ilk. Unlike in "Friday the 13th," though, director Tony Maylam isn't concerned with picking off his entire cast in a race to see how high the body count can go. Oh, there's plenty of deaths at the hands of Cropsy's garden sheers, but Maylam bravely chooses to spare half of the principle cast and treat the story with a modicum of realism. Before he gets to the mayhem, he also takes the time to distinguish the summer camp atmosphere of dinner halls, softball games, outside shower stalls, and gossip sessions in the bunks. Though not everyone is developed as well as they could be, they at least are written as intelligent people. Counselors Todd and Michelle are displayed as responsible in-charge types who still treat their charges as friends and do the sensible thing when disaster strikes.

"The Burning" fulfills most of the requirements of the commonplace slasher film, but also bucks the trend when it comes to the cornerstone belief that sex equals death. Interestingly, one of the first victims is Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), attacked moments after denying the sexual advances of pushy sort-of boyfriend Eddy (Ned Eisenberg). Perhaps it is her nakedness—she has just gone skinny-dipping—that seals her fate. The most memorable set-piece of the picture is a doozy. When their canoes turn up missing, a group of kids agree to row back to camp on a raft to bring assistance. When they spot one of the canoes floating desolately in the distance, they slowly make their way over to it, their laughs and goofing around not preparing them for Cropsy's sudden brutal attack. It's a stylish and frightening sequence, boldly edited and appropriately catching the viewer off-guard.

The performers are well-chosen and diverse—well, as diverse as a group of strictly white kids can be—and their unforced turns are ideal in setting up the raucous milieu of teenagers away from home and attending summer camp. Leah Ayres, who would go on to rack up a load of television credits, is fresh and eye-catching as counselor Michelle. Larry Joshua (2003's "Cradle 2 the Grave") is too old for the role of Glazer, but he's got a great look and the macho bonehead act down pat. Jason Alexander (who, of course, would go on to star in TV's "Seinfeld") stands out even with little to do as wisecracking Dave, an obvious natural even this early on. And, as Tiger, Shelley Bruce (just coming off of the title part in Broadway's "Annie") is a red-haired bottle of peppiness.

As is a customary downfall of low-budgeters of the era, "The Burning" has a few awkward filmmaking moments, including some unfashionable fade-outs between scenes and a few parts where it looks to change from day to night and back again. In a way, this gives it a certain charm. The third act does admittedly drag out a bit too much, but the climactic confrontation with Cropsy in an old mine shaft holds two jump-out-your-seat moments that work like gangbusters. The wrap-up, bringing the legend of Cropsy around full-circle for a new set of campers, sends things out on a satisfying note. "The Burning" has never received the respect or fame of "Friday the 13th," but it is as good as, and maybe a little smarter than, that Sean S. Cunningham original.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman