From among the Video Nasties

1981's The Burning holds the distinction of being one of the very first films on the UK's Video Nasties list; but I am not reviewing it because of its notoriety. Nor is it here for its quality, although it's one of the absolute best slasher movies that I've ever seen, probably the very best - not just for its genre, but as a movie - from the first wave of the subgenre that ended around early 1984. And while The Burning was the feature acting debut of no less than three future notables - Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and of all people, Holly Hunter - that's not quite the reason either.

No, I needed something to transition this Summer of Blood from the slasher New Wave that started up in 1996 with Scream back to the genre's low-budget, DIY roots at the turn of the '80s, and The Burning gave me an absolutely irresistible hook to just exactly that. The Burning, you see, was one of the very first movies ever released by Miramax Films, the company that gave us Scream; and The Burning was moreover the first movie ever produced by Harvey Weinstein, the man who probably did the most to revive the slasher genre 15 years later by farming the untested Kevin Williamson and pairing him with wily old veteran Wes Craven. If we abide by the notion that any film with Harvey Weinstein's name on it ends up owing a great deal of its aesthetic value to the producer's input - and there are very few examples to suggest that we oughtn't use that as a guiding principal - you could almost run The Burning and Scream through the Auteur Theory grinder, a study in what happens when one canny producer works with similar material on either side of a successful career, with the attendant ability to pitch money at projects hand over fist.

I'm not going to make that argument; both films at any rate clearly benefit from a strong directorial hand. Yet at the same time, there's little denying that Weinstein is a smart bloke, and when he's not busy chopping foreign movies to bits for their American release, he more often than not has a demonstrated talent for waving his producer wand at just the right spots on any given project to make sure it clicks in all the ways that will make it as successful as possible. Which makes for some fairly tedious Oscar-bait dramas, but works pretty well in a field like horror, where the line between "what makes the audience happy" and "what makes the film work the way it should" is perhaps thinner than anywhere else in cinema. Lo and behold, his instincts as far as regards The Burning went were pretty spot on: while I do not wish to diminish the very certain contributions of director Tony Maylam, whose career has not otherwise included any films of the least note, a very large amount of what makes this particular movie work as well as it does is the result of a savvy producer getting the right people together in the right place. The cast is as strong as any you'll see in an early-'80s slasher film, for a start; the script (with contributions from Harvey's brother Bob, and almost certainly from Harvey himself) is as smart as any script in this genre could possibly hope to be, in every regard save one; and Weinstein, I assume, is the man who hired Tom Savini to do the gore effects. And if you know anything there is to know about low-budget gore films in the late-'70s and early'80s, then you know that Savini is one of the all-time greats at creating plausble, gruesome effects; something he also did the year before for Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th, though where the gore effects are just about the only good thing about that film, they're just one of many ingredients that go to making The Burning such an uncommon success.

So I guess it's about time for a plot synopsis: the movie begins in Camp Blackfoot, which is presumably in western New York, where the film was shot. A group of young teenage campers sit around in the dark of their cabin, plotting a most cutting and wicked practical joke: they're going to take something not described in clear words to the cabin of the camp's caretaker, a much-disliked fellow named Cropsy (Lou David), although what Cropsy did to earn their hatred is never really delved into. Apparently he was just very ill-tempered around the young folk. Eventually, one of the campers sneaks into Cropsy's cabin (it's not the camper who later on turns out to have some greater significance than this one scene, which seems like an odd choice to me), and leaves a gory present on the man's nightstand: a human skull, or maybe just a lamp made to look uncannily like a human skull with maggots and rotting fleshing clinging to it. The boys tap upon the window until Cropsy wakes, seeing the skull and - naturally enough, since I imagine that was the point of the prank - flips his shit. He gets so worked up, in fact, that he manages to knock the thing onto his bedclothes, which go up like a box of dry pine needles, and in no time at all Cropsy's cabin and Cropsy are both covered in hungry flames.

You can't keep an angry bastard down, though, and when the action shifts to a week later, at the hospital where Cropsy's wounds are being treated, he's alive and angry enough to grab at a hapless orderly (Mansoor Najee-ullah), in the shot that sends us into the opening credits, with the implication that Cropsy's gone all murderous rampage on us, although it's immediately clear that he didn't kill anybody in the hospital, so I don't quite understand the dramatic point of that moment, but ANYHOW. It's five years later, and Cropsy, much the worse for his accident, has finally been sent out into the world, where the first thing he does it to butcher a prostitute (K.C. Townsend) with the same garden shears that he'd always used to terrorise the campers.

Elswhere, it's back to the New York woods, and the brand new Camp Stonewater, located just a few miles from the now-abandoned Blackfoot site. Apparently it's some ways into the camping season, because everyone seems to know everybody pretty well by now, and that's just hell on the viewer intent on taking down every name of every character - of which The Burning has an abundance. So the best I can do is to quickly recap the major characters given some kind of reasonable character trait. The first person we meet is Sally (Carrick Glenn), who gets up particularly early of a particular morning to bathe in the open-air shower enclosure before everyone else. Someone is watching her, though; and it turns out to be Alfred (Brian Backer), the designated creepy perv that everyone blames for everything, largely because it seems that he is at fault for everything. At any rate, this is not his first infraction of camp rules and basic decency, for the counselors Todd (Brian Matthews) and Michelle (Leah Ayres) are plainly much closer to the end of their patience with his shenanigans than not.

The rest of the majors are just sort of thrown at us: Glazer (Larry Joshua) is the requisite bully, and he has a thing for Sally; Eddy (Ned Eisenberg) is even hornier than Alfred, and he's the most Noo Yawkish of the campers too boot; the girl he's almost dating, except she's not terribly fond of his crude sexual advances, is Karen (Carolyn Houlihan); Dave (Jason Alexander), Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) and Fish (J.R. McKechnie) are the clutch of misfits that are sort of Alfred's friends; Tiger (Shelley Bruce) is probably the youngest of the older-tier campers that make up the film's cast, and is thus easily distinguished. She's also the first person that the returned and very pissed-off Cropsy stalks with his blurry POV camera and shears, although he spends enough time watching her hunt for a softball that he just barely misses his chance to murder her.

He won't have to wait very long to slake his bloodlust, though. The day he returns is also the day of the long canoe trip downriver that is apparently something you do at summer camp, so a whole chunk of people - everyone I just named, plus several smaller characters (including Holly Hunter as a girl with, if I recall correctly, no lines of dialogue) - are very isolated, deep in the woods. Todd is entertaining everyone at the campfire with The Legend of Cropsy - I'm going to refer back to this point, so mark it - and freaking everyone out quite well, even more so when Eddy jumps out in a scary mask with a knife. That's not entertaining enough for him, so he takes Karen and heads of for some skinny-dipping; skinny-dipping which ends very poorly when he comes on a bit too strong, i.e. attempts to rape her in the lake. She storms off to find her clothes have been scattered about, while he sputters and splashes about angrily. He'll have the last laugh, or something, though: she gets attacked by Cropsy moments after all this has happened, getting her throat slashed up real good in the process.

Karen's absence is quickly noticed; Michelle concludes that she took off in the wee hours of the morning back to the main camp on one of the canoes. But why, then, would she loose all the other canoes as well? Things are not right, and everyone quickly figures it out, though nobody figures out exactly how not right for a while: Eddy and four other campers on a makeshift raft stumble across Cropsy in one of the lost canoes, and while they do, technically, learn what's going on, they don't really end up with much opportunity to share their new-found knowledge. This massacre, by the way, is the chief reason the film made the Nasties list. At any rate, the last half hour of the film proceeds basically the way you'd anticipate. Cropsy sneaks around a-killin' eventually someone learns what's happening, but only after a few more deaths, and thus begins the Final Girl sequence, although in this case it's a Final Boy, and there are a whole lot of people who manage to not be dead at the end.

You look at all those ingredients, and one thing is crystal clear: this could be a Friday the 13th movie with hardly any changes. In fact, The Burning bears a truly uncanny number of similarities to Friday the 13th, Part 2: it takes place five years after the event that triggers the plot, the killers are both unstoppable burly men stomping through the woods attacking the population of a new camp built just down the shoreline from the old camp (they're campers here, counselors there), the climax is in the ruins of the old camp. And there's even a single scene, Todd's "let me tell you of Cropsy" campfire story interrupted by an accomplice in a mask with a weapon, that is almost beat-for-beat identical to a scene in F13 2. The damnedest thing is, neither of these movies can be said to be copying the other; if the IMDb is correct, not only were they in production at the same time, but they were released only one week apart in May, 1981 (F13 2 was the first). Must have been something in the water...

The hell of it is, The Burning is just as clearly not a Friday the 13th movie; indeed, I've seen it posited in more than one place online that The Burning is a Friday the 13th movie for people who dearly wish that the Friday the 13th movies were actually, you know, good. An analysis that I am quick to agree with. Every single element of this film is significantly better than in any of the F13 series; except for the score, which was always just about the only good thing in any of those pictures, thanks to Harry Manfredini. And even on that count, the two films are at worst on the same footing: The Burning was scored by Rick Wakeman, keyboardist for Yes, and he granted to the film a certain eerie electronic undertone that's unlike just about any other American horror score from that period that I can think to name.

But everywhere else: ye gods, The Burning looks close to a masterpiece. I wish, maybe, that the characters of the campers had been fleshed out a bit more, but at the very least you can keep track of individuals throughout the whole thing. And that's the only true weak spot in the writing, which boasts one of the most rational narratives in the entire history of the slasher film. There is not one single moment in which a character acts stupidly given the information available to them; when it's clear that things are weird, the people in a position to act on that hunch do what makes the most sense, and everyone is aware that there's a definite physical danger at the earliest moment they could possibly be so aware, and thereupon acts at every moment in the way that would best keep them and everyone else safe. No "I'll be right back" and heading into the dark room in The Burning! Sure, Sex=Death gets a workout, but not exclusively; sex-driven characters live, and the first victim is specifically defined as someone who does not want to have sex, although she did just go skinny-dipping.

Besides that, the way the movie is put together is just a lot better than in your average slasher. There are some unfortunate day-for-night shots, but otherwise Tony Maylam was in peak condition, using the well-worn trick of killer POV with as much flair as it ever was used outside of the truly magnificent opening shot of Halloween. And the Final Boy climax is a real doozy of the form: almost as much an action sequence as it is a horror sequence, involving some really well-paced shots of Cropsy slowly stalking his quarry through rock formations in the wood and the weirdly subterranean foundations of the old camp. Even the "he's not dead yet!" stinger that is completely and in every way predictable works as a genuinely alarming jump scare. Generally speaking, Maylam let the film move slowly, so that it bubbles up to terror, rather than just constantly throwing edged weapons at us, and this makes his film a truly effective horror picture, something that virtually no other slasher film has managed.

Tom Savini I already name-dropped; but why not again? He really is a genius, and if The Burning isn't his best, most imaginative, or most convincing work (how could it be? He did both Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), it's a thrill anyway to see a real artist doing what he does best. Coupled with the way Maylam shot the gore, there's a ugly, vicious edge to The Burning miles absent from any Friday the 13th except the first: the feeling that real death and danger is happening, making the movie much more alarming and thrilling.

So basically, I kind of love it. It's still a slasher; but it's that storied "good slasher that is a good movie made with care by talented people" that I didn't really think had ever existed anywhere in the 1980s. Or maybe I'm just an easy lay. I am still recovering from the I Know What You Did Last Summer films, after all, and what wouldn't be a step up from that? But no, something inside of me assures me: this is the real deal, one of the unexpected horror gems of the 1980s buried inside a formulaic style that did more than anything else ever has to quelch all the real magic out of horror films in the first place.

Body Count: A nice, strong, F13-esque 10, with five of them occurring in a 75-second span (the notorious and brutal raft massacre scene).

Nastiness Rating: 4/5, pretty damn Nasty. It makes you feel the violence, though it doesn't by any means feel cheap about it.