The Burning (1981)

Back in the days of VHS rental, The Burning was my holy grail. That’s because its effects were featured in Tom Savini’s book Grande Illusions, his how-to guide to creating the gore he’d so expertly brought to the screen. Like any good little gorehound, I had an autographed, dog-earned, karo-syrup sticky copy (I still have it, barely held together and hidden away in my library) that I paged through nearly every day, wishing I could see The Burning, a movie that had to be completely and utterly awesome.

I built this movie up to the kind of hype that today’s always-on social media Hollywood can only dream of, so it could only be a letdown. And I’m sorry to say that every few years, I try and go back to this movie in the hopes that this will be the viewing that makes me fall in love with the actual film. It’s never really happened. I’m not alone in this — my wife has watched the 2018 Halloween in the double digits, hoping she’ll find the same love for it that she has even for the fifth and sixth installments.

Other than the Savini effects, which live up to every bit of their promise on the black and white pages of his aforementioned book, The Burning is probably most notable for its translation of the Cropsey mythos and for featuring early appearances of Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit and Eugene “The Plague” Belford from Hackers), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) and Holly Hunter (who went on to become an accomplished Academy Award-winning actress in Coen Brothers movies like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona).

The film comes from people who would go on to become Hollywood power players. The screenplay was written by Bob Weinstein (along with Peter Lawrence, who would write for the cartoons Silverhawks and Thundercats), working from a story by producer Harvey Weinstein (yes, the very same), Tony Maylam (who also directed) and Brad Grey (who would go on to be the chairman and CEO for Paramount).

It all came about because Harvey was looking for some way, any way to break into movies. Along with his producing partner Michael Cohl, he knew that low budget horror was a great way to do that. Swapping old horror stories, Weinstein brought the legend of Cropsey that he had heard while camping as a teenager in upstate New York and they kicked off production in 1979 with a five-page treatment called The Cropsey Maniac that predated Friday the 13th. There must have been something in the water in 1980, as while both of these films were in their various stages of production, Joseph Ellison was finishing a film he wanted to call The Burning, yet retitled to be Don’t Go in the House.  Keep in mind that this was the very start of the slasher boom, before films began self-referencing one another to death. It’s just that the archetype of young campers being menaced by a maniac was, believe it or not, an untapped well at one point in time.

That also explains Madman, which was in casting when an actress told that film’s producers that her boyfriend was acting in another movie with the same story called The Burning. As a result, that film was delayed until 1982, when the slasher wave had already started to see lesser returns.

To fund the movie, the Weinsteins formed Miramax, named for their parents. They were able to get around $1.5 million, although the movie did go over budget. Ironically, while the film depicts a monster, perhaps Harvey ended up being the biggest one of them all.

I say this because this film’s production assistant Paula Wachowiak alleged that his predatory ways were already happening on this film. One night when Wachowiak needed Weinstein to sign checks for the accounting department, he answered the door wearing only a towel, which he dropped to reveal himself to her. When she refused his attentions, he allegedly continued to harass her throughout the film’s production.

The one thing you have to give the Miramax guys credit for is that they knew talent. Getting Savini meant an audience of Fangoria nerds — like me — would line up for this film. The special effects auteur had already turned down the second go-round for Jason Vorhees, unable to understand how the character would be able to survive for so long alone in the woods, and spent just three days creating the burn makeup for the villain of this film, basing his look on a homeless burn victim he’d seen walking the streets of his native Pittsburgh.

The story starts at Camp Blackfoot, where campers once pranked the caretaker Cropsey by placing a worm-festooned skull in his bed. This starts a massive fire that engulfs the man, who emerges with third-degree burns over most of his body. According to director Tony Maylam, who also helmed the Rutger Hauer versus Aliens film Split Second, he played this antagonist for most of the film to ensure that his trademark garden shears reflected the light in the right way.

Five years — and many failed skin grafts — later, Cropsey is released from the hospital. One wonders how insurance worked in the 1970’s, because a half-decade of hospital care would cost an astronomical sum today. He hides his scars in a long coat and hat as he walks the streets, ending up in the apartment of a hooker that he dispatches with a pair of Fiskars®.

Grabbing a shiny new set of garden shears, he heads over to Camp Stonewater where he soon makes short work of an entire crew of campers. There’s Sally, Alfred (Brian Backer, Mark “Rat” Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Michelle (Leah Ayers from Bloodsport and the second Marcia Brady for the 1990’s The Bradys series, which took that happy family and placed them into a drama that went face to face with hot button issues with unintentionally hilarious results), Todd (Brian Matthews, who acted in plenty of soap operas before becoming a therapist and running for office in Texas), Tiger, Karen, Fish, Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) and Eddy (Ned Eisenberg, who is Roger Kressler on the Law & Order shows). I nearly forgot Barbara, Dave, Marnie and Sophie.

Actually, take it from me, there are way too many campers here. Luckily, Cropsey is around to wipe them out with his garden shears, which he jams into throats and uses to cut off fingers. The real star of the show here are the Savini effects, as gleaming blades are pushed into teenage flesh, resulting in showers of blood and gore.

Sure, it takes an axe to the face and a flamethrower to kill Cropsey, but his legend continues at the close, as a new group of campers tells his story. There were plans to make a sequel, but the film didn’t do well in its original theater run. After all, it was up against not just Friday the 13th Part 2, but also Happy Birthday to MeFinal ExamGraduation Day and a re-released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

It was distributed by Filmways, which wanted to rename it to Tales Around the Campfire, which is a pretty decent title, but not as great as The Burning.

There was also some great talent behind the scenes. The soundtrack comes from Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman who in addition to being a Freemason and Knight Templar also composed the scores for Crimes of Passion and She. Plus, it was edited by Jack Sholder, who would go on to direct Alone in the Dark, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and The Hidden.

You can get The Burning from Shout! Factory.

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