Saturday, May 21, 2011

Film Review: THE BURNING (1981, Tony Maylam)

Stars: 3.3 of 5.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Brian Matthews (THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS), Leah Ayres (BLOODSPORT, THE PLAYER), Brian Backer (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, THE MONEY PIT), Jason Alexander (SEINFELD, JACOB'S LADDER), Fisher Stevens (SHORT CIRCUIT, MY SCIENCE PROJECT), Lou David (THE LAST DRAGON, THE EXTERMINATOR), Larry Joshua (UNFORGIVEN, SEA OF LOVE), Holly Hunter (CRASH '96, RAISING ARIZONA, THE PIANO). Special makeup effects by Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD, FRIDAY THE 13TH). Music by Rick Wakeman (LISZTOMANIA, CRIMES OF PASSION). Edited by Jack Sholder (director of ALONE IN THE DARK, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE). Co-written by Harvey and Bob Weinstein (it's the first "Miramax" movie) along with director Tony Maylam (SPLIT SECOND, WHITE ROCK), Brad Grey (who later co-produced JUST SHOOT ME and THE SOPRANOS), and Peter Lawrence (THUNDERCATS, HIGH SCORE).
Tag-line: "Today is not Friday the 13th. But if you see this movie alone... you'll never be the same again!"
Best one-liner: "Man, this guy is so burned, he's cooked! A fucking Big Mac, overdone! You know what I mean?"

While summer weather isn't quite yet upon us, I'm going to use the excuse of high, nearly unbearable levels of humidity to leap headlong into "Summer Slasher Season." Today's specimen, THE BURNING, is by no means an upper-tier slasher (like MY BLOODY VALENTINE or SLEEPAWAY CAMP), but it's still a damned enjoyable film, and one which offers early performances from up-and-coming stars (Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, & Holly Hunter), over-the-top gore effects by genre master Tom Savini, and, co-produced and co-written by the burgeoning, wheeling-dealing Weinstein brothers, merits the perhaps dubious honor of being the 4th film ever released by the Miramax Films company.

While the Weinsteins later claimed that their film had been in development longer than FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), THE BURNING is, at best, a cash-in on that earlier film's success (though by no means whatsoever is FRIDAY THE 13TH a paragon of originality). I mean, look at the tag-line for godssakes. Regardless, Tom Savini signed up to sculpt the gore for THE BURNING instead of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 because he thought that the concept of reviving Jason for sequels was senselessly misguided. (That didn't stop him from returning to collect a paycheck and dispatch Crispin Glover in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4, however!)

The plot is about as stock as they come. "It all started with a prank gone wrong!" I suppose you could say that about PROM NIGHT, LEVIATHAN, GHOULIES III, APRIL FOOL'S DAY, etc., etc., but I digress. Anyway, some campers seek revenge on the sadistic groundskeeper, Cropsy.

He accidentally gets set on fire, spills a tub of gasoline that he keeps by his bedside, and dives into the lake in a spectacular display of asbestos-suitery.

We soon learn that Cropsy has survived as the world's most sensitive hospital orderly tells us "Man, this guy is so burned, he's cooked! A fucking Big Mac, overdone! You know what I mean? No way I'd want to be like this freak!" After several years of therapy, Cropsy leaves the burn unit and immediately murders a random hooker, Argento-style. We're talking black gloves, black trench coat, extreme close-ups, and the backwards smash through a plate glass window. The works.

Why he murders this random prostitute remains unclear for the remainder of the film, since the indignities he suffered were at the hands of pranking summer campers, not big city hookers. In fact, the revenge angle isn't even really worked as he seemingly murders campers at random. In retrospect, we are told that pre-burn-victim Cropsy was "really mean."

(We are shown no evidence of this, other than the fact that Cropsy had a few bottles of booze in his shack when he was assailed by pranksters.) In any event, the prostitute murder was probably inserted so that A., Savini could play around in the style of Argento (something William Lustig had him doing quite well in MANIAC), and B., so that there'd be some "early in the game" bloodshed. If we take away the hooker killing and split the film in half, we're faced with the following statistic– part 1 possesses 0 murders and 5 fake-outs, and part 2 possesses 8 murders and 0 fake-outs. Clearly, the hooker-murder is necessary. I apologize, Random Hooker (K.C. Townsend), you were simply collateral damage from that eternal tug-o-war between "slasher film murders" and "slasher film fake-outs." It could have easily turned out the other way, with the killer startled and thwarted by, say, a random alley cat leaping on the windowsill or a young street urchin saying "Heya, mister, did you drop this knife?" Ah, well.

Anyway, we soon find ourselves at a nearby summer camp, soon meeting the motley crew of summer camp regulars.

Like– The Bully!

That's Larry Joshua there as the bully, and he really pulls out the stops for this one. His tormentee is Tony-winner and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH player Brian Backer.

There's the likable frat boy-type played by Jason Alexander (with hair!), who's entertaining and engaging even within the constraints of a slasher film role.

On the left is Ned Eisenberg, who plays the smooth-talkin' New York guido-type. Then there's Leah Ayres as our female protagonist,

you may remember her as JCVD's hag– I mean, love-interest in one of the finest movies ever made, BLOODSPORT. KUM-ITE, KUM-ITE, KUM-ITE! Er, what was I saying?

Oh yeah– there's young Fisher Stevens, too! (third from left)

He's hasn't quite hit the ("Sayonara, dicknose!") heights he would achieve as he matured, but he's damn great here as a scrappy l'il prankster, fond of shooting people in the ass with pellets and then, as if to pour salt in the wound by displaying a non-pellet-afflicted ass, mooning them.

Holly Hunter's in there, too, but she's mostly in the background. She has a couple of lines, but the DVD was skipping, so you don't get a screenshot.

Rick Wakeman, formerly of Yes, composes a generally atmospheric synth soundtrack which is occasionally bland, occasionally prefigures the "DUNHD-DUNHD...DUNHD-DUNHD" rumblings from Carpenter's THE THING, and occasionally bursts forth with blasts of intricate, quasi-Classical brilliance. As a fan of Wakeman's solo work (I highly recommend the albums NO EARTHLY CONNECTION and THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY THE VIII for the interested), I would have to say that for the most part he's phoning it in here. Still, it has it's moments.

Savini's gore picks up where FRIDAY THE 13TH left off, more often than not dedicating itself to neck trauma. From a practical standpoint, it's extremely impressive, using optical illusions and well-constructed dummy parts to masterfully deceive the eye. Take that, CGI!

The film also features editing from Jack Sholder (his only editing credit) who also directed 80's horror trashterpieces NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE and ALONE IN THE DARK.

Anyway, I don't really have much more to say. I can't say that it's a film that inspires or a film that sparks the imagination, but I will say that it's a film that kills about 91 minutes and five cans of Schlitz, and I'm pretty sure that's the purpose it was designed for.

Oh, and here's a picture of Cropsy wielding a flamethrower:

A little over three stars.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Good work unearthing this one! I remember a couple of things about "The Burning:" 1) Cropsy was a fantastic name for a slasher movie, er, slasher. 2) Seeing that Rick Wakeman had done the score and wondering if that's what gave Keith Emerson the idea to go that route later (Horror film scores: where prog rock icons go to retire). 3) Wondering where in the world these 80s camper kids get their "prank" ideas, "Hey guys, you know what'd be HILARIOUS? If we went over to Cropsy's and BURNED THE PLACE DOWN!" Geez, whatever happened to toilet paper rolling or egg-tossing? 4) It looked like they could only afford to pay Savini for one gore effects scene (in the boat). And lastly 4) Jason Alexander is impossible to watch in any non-Seinfeld context without thinking he's just a young George Costanza. Anyways, thanks for reminding me of this lesser known work, and I hope you'll be pulling out some more gems soon!

Sean Gill said...

Mike B.,

Thanks for the kind words! I concur that "Cropsy" is a solid name for the slasher. Perhaps if the film had instead been entitled CROPSY or CROPSY'S REVENGE, or something of this nature, it would have been granted a few sequels. Ah, well.