The Burning (1981): a rare slasher movie that cares about the characters

29 September, 2016 — by Christopher Ratcliff0

As Arrow Video prepares to release The Burning for the first time uncut on blu-ray, we take a look at the rarely-seen campfire carnage classic.

the-burning 1981cast

I watch 80s slasher movies for the comfort of the predictable.

There’s no other reason why I’d watch any of the Friday the 13th sequels, Sleepaway Camp or The Town that Dreaded Sundown other than it’s 1am, I’m a little drunk and I want to watch a horror movie that’s neither challenging, thoughtful or even particularly scary.

That’s the thing about 80s slasher movies, they’re all so uniformly… well… uniform. Sure the killer may have a different weapon and disguise, and perhaps the location is occasionally not a summer camp. But ultimately the modus operandi is always identical; wronged victim takes revenge on the next generation, plus the characterisation of the soon-to-be-butchered teens is non-existent, the dialogue hokey, and the camerawork is a horrible mixture of flat and soap-operatically soft-focus.

So I know exactly what I’m going to get. 80s slashers are essentially a comfort watch, never truly terrifying nor making me question my own mortality. Instead I just sit and roll my eyes as I watch ‘x’ number of sexy teenagers make terrible decisions and I have another beer.

The Burning however is a little different. Not MASSIVELY different but different enough to separate it from the rest…

I won’t lie though, I initially chose to watch The Burning based on the poster alone.


Despite that semi-naked couple being a terrible likeness and 20 years older than anyone in the actual movie, it’s a real beauty and exactly the kind of thing I’d have seen on a big plastic VHS cover in a video shop in 1982. And then ran out of the shop crying in fear, leaving my mum to rent me Ewoks Caravan of Courage on her own. Although the chances of this happening would fall to zero as the VHS release of The Burning was soon yanked from rental shelves and bundled in with the other 72 banned ‘video nasties‘ along with a host of cannibal movies and, uh, EvilSpeak.

(According to Celestron1980, Thorn-EMI were meant to release a trimmed version passed by the BBFC, but accidentally released the full on gory version and all the tapes were impounded under the Obscene Publications Act. Gutted.)

Made in 1981, The Burning is set in Camp Stonewater and features a large unwieldy cast of teenagers, all of whom are terrorised by a deformed serial killing caretaker with a giant pair of garden shears, seeking revenge for a ‘hilarious prank’ that resulted in him being burnt beyond recognition by another set of campers. Standard stuff.

the burning cropsy with garden shears

But here’s what makes it so different… it gives a shit about the campers. The film takes its time in developing their characters, detailing their relationships with one another and revealing their flaws and strengths, which it makes it genuinely affecting when one of their lives is snipped-short too soon. This is all rudimentary, obvious stuff (good characterisation = good movie, yeah duh) but it’s a rare commodity and makes it far more compelling than its contemporaries..

In fact, I forgot for long stretches of the film that I was watching a horror movie, instead just enjoying some high-spirited hijinks and dialogue that gives the characters a lot more to do than standing and waiting to die.

the burning 1981 cast

Much of this is due to the impressive pedigree of the cast and crew. You may be surprised to learn that this is one of the very first films made by Miramax. It was produced by Bob Weinstein and co-written by Harvey Weinstein, and although there’s no way you can tell that these are the future kings of 90s independent cinema, you can certainly feel a depth of character and wit beyond its tropes.

Also behind the scenes is the only special make-up effects creator you’d recognise on the street, Tom Savini. He’s the master of gore behind Romero’s finest zombie work, and although much of it looks clearly fake to our modern jaded eyes, it’s surprisingly unflinching in its explicitness.

Perhaps its biggest surprise is that Rick Wakeman is responsible for the score. That’s right, Yes’s wizard-like keyboardist and Grumpy Old Men talking head Rick Wakeman scored a video nasty in the 80s. And it’s a cracking soundtrack too, perhaps more frantic and psychedelic than something John Carpenter would compose, but no less fear inducing.

The cast has some wild cards too. The most famous of whom being Holly Hunter, although she barely figures in the action, plus a first appearance from Fisher ‘yes I’m the Indian in Short Circuit please don’t hate me for it’ Stevens, however the most enjoyable presence here is Jason Alexander, who would of course much later play George Costanza, the avatar of Larry David in Seinfeld. He wisecracks, keeps his friends in check and is generally a thoroughly lovely guy to hang out with.

And that’s the best thing about The Burning. Every kid is either lovable, or hateable, or a complicated mixture of both, but at all times they’re believable, and this makes the moments of tension even more fraught. Check out the brilliantly constructed scene where the rescue party paddle their raft towards a previously missing canoe. It’s harrowing, masterful work with a genuinely shocking pay off.

the burning raft scene

Not everything lands as it should. The killer, the horribly disfigured ‘Cropsy’ (based on a genuine upstate New York legend in name alone), is entirely unsympathetic despite being a victim of a horrible prank. The final shot of Cropsy is callously pitiless, especially in the face of a minor plot twist involving ‘the hero’. Also an early murder of a prostitute after Cropsy is released from hospital feels distinctly out of tone (and literally out of place) with the rest of the movie, as it’s clearly only there because otherwise there wouldn’t be any gore in the first third of the movie. Also, for a film called The Burning, there’s very little fire in it, but whatever.

All that aside, The Burning definitely stands out among the other 80s slasher movies (well the ones set in a summer camp anyway), and genuinely out-disembowels Friday the 13th in terms of quality and creativity.

The Burning will be released fully uncut and remastered by Arrow Video on October 10th (steelbook) and December 19th (dual format).

If you can’t wait till then, there’s a preview screening at Picturehouse Central on Friday 30th September.

The Burning (1981): a rare slasher movie that cares about the characters
The Burning (1981): a rare slasher movie that cares about the characters
As Arrow Video prepares to release The Burning for the first time uncut on blu-ray, we take a look at the rarely-seen campfire carnage classic.
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