The Burning

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The Burning (1981) is one of the sleazier summer camp horror films. This infamous entry into that horror sub genre was conceived by the despised Harvey Weinstein as a means to exploit the popularity of Halloween (1978). Despite its release date, The Burning originated at roughly the same time as Friday The 13th (1980) and Madman (1981) which also use a summer camp as the setting for a slasher movie. As is also the case with Madman, The Burning was inspired by the urban legends of Cropsey that are local to upstate New York.

The character of Cropsey in The Burning is a single minded, almost supernatural force of evil akin to Carpenter’s villain Michael Myers. Where The Burning departs from the Halloween blueprint is in providing a motive behind Cropsey’s murders. The opening sequence of The Burning establishes Cropsey as an abusive camp grounds keeper who is terribly burnt when a group of kids pull a hideous prank on him. Cropsey may move and murder like Myers, but he remains a far more human figure.

After this opening sequence the film follows Cropsey’s release from a hospital some years later. Immediately the disfigured Cropsey hires a prostitute only to murder her brutally. This section is a giallo inspired foray meant to convey the psychological deterioration of Cropsey. Cropsey is motivated by a need for revenge, but he is driven by an uncontrollable and violent rage.

This prolonged prelude of two separate sequences before The Burning properly starts doubles down on the narrative methodology of Friday The 13th which only featured one sequence in its preface. The two short narrative sections that set The Burning in motion each draw from a specific horror tradition. The second sequence described above owes as much to Alfred Hitchcock as it does to the giallo films of Argento and Fulci. The first sequence draws on the EC Comic books and the anthology horror films of the sixties and seventies.

This complex of intertextuality opens an aesthetic discourse within the film between differing forms of storytelling. The Burning, based upon an urban legend, finds itself subject to as many variations as there are storytellers. The versatility of these types of stories is precisely the point of director Tony Maylam’s aesthetic decisions in these early sequences and throughout the entirety of the film. The Burning, although written as a quick cash grab, is elevated by this subtle commentary on the very nature of the horror film as a kind of continuation and variation on urban myth making.

After these first two long sequences The Burning becomes the more straightforward summer camp slasher that is synonymous with horror films of the early eighties. The thing that The Burning does differently in the main body of the film is that it puts off re-introducing Cropsey as an antagonist. For about half an hour The Burning plays out as a sleazier version of Meatballs (1979) as the campers bicker, prank, and harass each other all in the pursuit of getting laid.

In the pantheon of classic summer camp slasher movies The Burning stands alongside Friday The 13th and Sleepaway Camp (1983) as the three best and most influential entires of that era. And like these films, The Burning introduced the movie going public to actors who would go on to become household names such as Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander. Yet, for all the stars it introduced and all of Maylam’s clever direction, The Burning will forever be marred by the involvement of Weinstein.