Among some horror fans, the 1981 film, The Burning, has long had a reputation for being one of the best of the many films to come out of the early 80s slasher boom.
I have to admit that the first time I saw it, my thought process went something like this: Oh great, more campers …. I can’t wait to see all of these people die …. God, these campers are annoying …. Thank God I never went to summer camp …. Wait, is that Jason Alexander …. when is the killer going to show up …. oh hey, that is Jason Alexander …. if I wanted to sit through a bunch of silly summer camp hijinks, I wouldn’t have gone searching for a horror film …. goddammit, was it really necessary for Jason Alexander to moon the camera …. wow, this movie is boring …. I don’t know who said this was scary but seriously …. oh God, now it’s turning into a movie about rafting …. I’ve about had it …. this movie is so bor–OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED! AGCK! THERE GO HIS FINGERS OH MY GOD….
Seriously, The Burning is a film that requires a bit of patience. You got to sit through a lot of silliness before you actually get to the horror but once you do …. oh my God! It’s intense. The killer in The Burning is Cropsy, a former groundskeeper who was set on fire by a bunch of campers years ago. Now, he’s everyone’s worst nightmare — a madman with gardening shears. It takes a while for Cropsy to really get into the spirit of things. In fact, for a good deal of The Burning, no one is even talking about Cropsy, which is always a mistake when you’re trying to make a movie about a killer in the woods. A young camper named Alfred (Brian Backer) keeps thinking that he see Cropsy sneaking around the camp but nobody believes him, largely because Cropsy doesn’t ever do anything to let people know that he’s back and ready to demonstrate how gardening tools can be used as an instrument of revenge.
However, once Cropsy actually gets going, he is terrifying! The Burning is a good example of the type of horror movie that was made before the Nightmare on Elm Street series introduced the idea that killers could not only talk but also tell a lot of corny jokes. Cropsy doesn’t speak. Crospy doesn’t joke. All Cropsy does is kill. What makes Cropsy especially disturbing is that — much like the killer in The Prowler — he seems to get a lot of joy out of killing as brutally as possible. He’s not Jason or Michael, killers who killed because that’s all they knew how to do. Cropsy plots and calculates and hides and is basically everyone’s campfire nightmare come to life.
Now, as I said before, it does take Cropsy a while to get started. And we do end up spending a lot of time watching campers do stupid things. Yes, Jason Alexander is one of the campers. He not only has hair but I think he’s supposed to be a teenager in this film. He was 21 when the film was shot and he looks like he’s about 35. He delivers his lines in such a way that it’s impossible not to think of The Burning as being a lost episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza goes camping. On the plus side, he does get some vaguely funny lines, which is more than his co-stars get.
Speaking of co-stars, keep an eye out for Holly Hunter. She was dating Jason Alexander at the time (as well as rooming with Frances McDormand) and she makes her film debut as one of the campers. She gets one line. “What if they don’t come back?” It’s a good question. What if they don’t? (Cue dramatic music!)
Anyway, The Burning is a slasher film that requires some patience but when it needs to be scary, it gets the job done. (The gore effects are by the one and only Tom Savini and yes, they are shocking and a bit disturbing. If you’ve ever wanted to know what losing four fingers at once would look like, this is the film for you.) It’s a bit too padded for its own good but Cropsy is an effective villain and the movie actually catches you by surprise regarding who survives and who doesn’t. Amazingly, there was never a sequel to The Burning. Personally, I don’t think it’s too late. I want to see Jason Alexander return to the camp and finish Cropsy off, once and for all!