Psychotronic Ketchup: The Burning (1981)

The Burning
Director: Tony Maylam // 1981
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

Here's a confusing one. This film really isn't as bad as it might seem, given that it is clearly a purposeful member of the post-Mrs. Voorhees "rush to slasher stardom" crowd, and when it sticks to that supposed intent, it delivers fairly well. In fact, there is a particular attack sequence that nearly one-ups, at least in body count and relative savagery, much of what had come before it on the big screen. (Yes... the raft scene.) It hits the marks expected within the genre: disfigured killer bent on revenge -- check! Framing device setting up killer's disfigurement and anger against all nubile teens in sumer camps -- check! Fatally stupid, horny teenagers wandering off on their own and then removing their clothes -- check! The film knows what it needs to do, and for the most part, does it.

That is, it does it when it gets around to it. The film, for a good lengthy while, often feels like a more sensitive sequel to Meatballs -- also a relatively recent hit at the time The Burning was made -- than it does as a fully committed horror movie. After the initial mayhem setting up the killer's hospitalization and his escape and first kill, the film takes an incredibly long time to get to the grim business at hand. A huge portion of the film sticks mainly with the patrons of the camp across the lake from the killer's burned-down camp of origin. And that means normal teenage stuff: flirting, pranking, fighting, bullying, gossiping, skinnydipping... you know, the expected stuff. The film actually seems somewhat reluctant to allow the killer to forge on with his psychotic mission, instead allowing the viewer some time to begin identifying with certain characters, even if their actions are mainly a pack of childhood cliches. Of course, they only seem like cliches to us because most of us experienced a lot of these same feelings and problems, so don't blame the messenger. Fault mankind for falling into these predictable ruts.

So, think F-the-13 crossed with Meatballs, but with Jason Alexander cracking wise instead of Bill Murray. What's that? Did I get your attention? Yes, George Constanza makes his film debut here, sporting real hair and a baby face, reading Playboys in the cabin and throwing his endorsement behind the Masturbation King campaign of an even more baby-faced Fisher Stevens. Yes, pre-Brother from Another Planet, pre-Short Circuit Fisher Stevens, also making his film debut. That Ratner kid from Fast Times plays the main put-upon nerd character here, himself plotting revenge against the camp bully, but there is someone else of major stature here, making her debut as well. It takes a few scenes to get a decent glimpse of her, and she barely has anything to do but sit around in a swimsuit (and always shot from either too far a distant or when she is sitting behind someone else), but there's future Oscar-winner Holly Hunter, six years before Broadcast News and paying her dues. With a handful of other seemingly familiar faces of the era popping up (I guess that I was stumbling across more soap operas at that time than I thought), the film loses focus as a horror film (or even impending horror film, given how laidback it gets), and almost becames nothing more than a stargazing festival. (It might be worth a rental just for this, if you are so inclined.)

This is not the fault of the filmmakers, because none of them were known at the time by anyone except their parents and agents, but even watching the production credits at the beginning takes on this aspect nowadays. The creators and producers of The Burning? Well, it's also the first film credit for Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Likewise, debuting here with a story credit is future Sopranos and Larry Sanders producer Brad Grey. (On a smaller level, Jack Sholder edits the damned thing too.) But I saw this film years ago for one reason only: Tom Savini, still my favorite effects guy, doing his best to keep things bloody even when the film only wants to tease you with shower scenes as much as it wishes to tease its killer with false kill scenarios. Savini gives us a deformed monster, fingers snipped off by sheers, and a handful of OK kills, but because the filmmakers themselves diminish the horrific aspect of the story, there is only so much that his then-groundbreaking work can accomplish. He shocks a little and his artistry shines through, but by the film's resolution, everything comes off as disappointing.

Seeing it now, I am reminded of my exact reaction when I saw it back in the day: a shrug of the shoulders and a barely breathed "Eh..."

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