Title: The Burning
Year of Release: 1981
Director: Tony Maylam
Length: 91 mins
Starring: Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian B, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexanda
Like The Slayer and the original Evil Dead, this is another film that got caught up in the whole ‘video nasty’ storm of the early eighties. Not that it did The Burning any harm. Quite the opposite, actually. Directed by Englishman Tony Maylam and featuring an original score by Rick Wakeman of Yes fame, it was partially based on the Cropsey Maniac urban legend and produced by Miramax, but let’s not talk about that. Yet.
One night at Camp Blackfoot, some teenaged fun-seeking campers pull a thigh-slappingly funny prank on an alcoholic caretaker named Cropsy (David) by placing a skull next to his bed with candles in the eye sockets and banging on the window to wake him up. Being a bit pissed (the British version, which means ‘drunk’ rather than the American version of pissed – angry – though by this point it’s very possible he’s both) he accidentally knocks the skull onto his bed starting a fire, which soon engulfs both him and his cabin. Still ablaze, the caretaker runs outside and stumbles down an embankment into a river as the boys flee. Years later, the disfigured and vengeful Cropsy is released from an extended stint hospital, where he had also become the butt of jokes (“This guy’s burned so bad he’s cooked. A fucking Big Mac!”) and goes on the warpath with a set of garden shears. Marvellous.
The early eighties were the peak of the slasher film, and The Burning almost got lost in the crush. As slasher films go, it has to rank near the top end of the scale, if only because there have been so many worse ones. The effects are sketchy and it seems formulaic and derivative at times, but the plot has enough about it to it to keep you entertained. Plus there are some textbook jump scares and a kill every ten minutes or so. Which, incidentally, is by design rather than happy accident. It’s also notable for marking the big-screen debuts of Holly Hunter, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1993 for her role in The Piano, Jason Alexanda whose greatest triumph was playing George Castanza in Seinfeld, and Fisher Stevens, who appeared as Ben in the Short Circuit films.
These days, however, The Burning is probably most famous (or infamous) for launching the career of one Harvey Weinstein. In 1980, he was a fresh-faced young concert promoter desperate to break into the movie business. Recognizing the success of low-budget horror films such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), he began swapping horror stories with various acquaintances, including producing partner Michael Cohl. Having heard about the aforementioned Cropsy legend as a youngster, Weinstein sounded out the concept to Cohl, who loved the idea. They roped in Weinstein’s brother, Bob, as a screenwriter and together the trio came up with The Burning. It would be the first film put out by Miramax, the production company named after the Weinstein brother’s parents, Miriam and Max.
In light of the later Weinstein controversy, there are several uncomfortable themes running through The Burning; horny boys forever trying to coerce unwilling girls into having sex with them and voyeurism being just the tip (sorry) of the iceberg. There are more than a few uneasy moments, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, like the camera lingering on a topless girl in the shower far too long and the wholly unnecessary premature ejaculation scene (“I’ll do better next time, baby.”) I don’t know, maybe this movie is just a product of its time. As the cliché goes, things were different then. Sure, you could say Weinstein and his crew were simply portraying teenage life, testosterone-driven urges and all, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s definitely full of creepy vibes and it’s difficult to imagine a world where any of this was ever okay.
The film originally had a vastly different ending, and Maylam has since said that there was talk of a sequel around the time it was wrapping. However, Maylam was weary of being type-cast as a horror director and the disappointing box office performance of the original stalled the sequel’s production. It has since attained cult classic status, but upon release it made back less than half of its $1.5 million budget in the US. It was, however, very popular in Japan, which probably tells its own story.
To create Cropsy’s distorted POV shots, the cinematographer rubbed Vaseline on the outside edges of the camera lens. I bet he didn’t learn that in film school.