The Burning is often writ­ten off as a Friday The 13th clone.  It is very close to sto­ry­line and set­ting of that film; it even uti­lizes the ser­vices of make­up FX mae­stro Tom Savini. As a result, it has got­ten a bad rap in many gen­re fan cir­cles but don’t let con­ven­tion­al hor­ror crit­ic wis­dom mis­guide you.  The Burning arguably improves on the tem­plate Friday The 13th estab­lished in mul­ti­ple ways — and the result is the best sum­mer camp slash­er flick ever made.

The sto­ry was devised by Harvey and Bob Weinstein — this was the first Miramax pro­duc­tion — and it lifts its vil­lain from a bit of folk­lore told around the camp­fire at Northeastern U.S. sum­mer camps.  Said vil­lain is Cropsy (Lou David), a mean, drunk­en care­tak­er whose poor treat­ment of campers is repaid one night with a prac­ti­cal joke.  The joke goes hay­wire in the worst way and he is set on fire.  He spends five years under­go­ing unsuc­cess­ful oper­a­tions and brood­ing about the brats respon­si­ble for his fate.

Five years lat­er, he is released — and prompt­ly returns to his old stomp­ing grounds to spill some nubile camper blood.  A new camp has risen up, pop­u­lat­ed by a new set of sum­mer camp slash­er arche­types: the hero coun­selor (Brian Matthews), his equal­ly hero­ic girl­friend (Leah Ayres), the mis­fit kid (Brian Backer), the bul­ly (Larry Joshua), the joke­ster (Jason Alexander), etc.  When a canoe trip arrives, it’s the per­fect time for Cropsy to strike — and he starts hack­ing his way through the cast until the sur­vivors fight back.

Detractors might call it an imi­ta­tor but an objec­tive look at The Burning will reveal it’s a bet­ter film than Friday The 13th.  For all its influ­ence, Friday The 13th has aged poor­ly: it has weak writ­ing, most­ly col­or­less per­for­mances and long stretch­es of dull­ness between kills.  If it wasn’t for Tom Savini’s superla­tive effects and a gonzo turn from actress Betsy Palmer, it would be total­ly for­get­table. The Burning man­ages to avoid all those prob­lems.  The sto­ry might be boil­er­plate stuff but then again, the sto­ry is always the sim­plest ele­ment of the slash­er film.  What mat­ters is how the mate­ri­al is exe­cut­ed — and this is where The Burning excels.

For starters, direc­tor Tony Maylam has a flu­id visu­al sense that reflects his train­ing doing con­cert films and doc­u­men­taries — and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher Harvey Harrison, who shot every­thing from Amin: The Rise And Fall to Ken Russell movies, lends a kinet­ic flair to the cam­er­a­work.  Harrison uses Steadicam to excel­lent effect, giv­ing the visu­als the inten­si­ty they need, and cre­ates some daz­zling light­ing in spots: the cop­per mine-set finale is like like some­thing from a Tony Scott movie.  Better yet, Savini’s effects here as metic­u­lous­ly chore­o­graphed, using as much of the actor as pos­si­ble for max­i­mum impact, and Jack Sholder’s edit­ing works with the effects to pre­serve their illu­sion.  The work of all four men is exem­pli­fied in a mul­ti­ple-kill sequence that takes place on the water: the com­bined labors cre­ate what might be the best kill scene in slash­er his­to­ry.

Another unique aspect of The Burning is that it is a “dead teenager” movie where you actu­al­ly like or are at least amused by the teenagers who provide its can­non fod­der.  Matthews and Ayres bring some charm to bland hero arche­types, not to men­tion doing well with the chase-and-run stuff that dom­i­nates the film’s final act, but it is the sup­port­ing play­ers who real­ly shine.  Backer gives a cred­i­ble, moody per­for­mance as the out­cast: he’s in the unique posi­tion of being the “final boy” here and gets put through his paces near the end.  Better yet, Alexander gives an ear­ly dis­play of his comedic charm, mak­ing his char­ac­ter quite pos­si­bly the only gen­uine­ly fun­ny comic relief char­ac­ter in a slash­er, while Joshua brings some sly wit to his lunkhead char­ac­ter.  Even the bit play­ers are impres­sive: Fisher Stevens scores a few fun sce­nes and a young Holly Hunter pops up as one of the third-tier campers.

In short, the less atten­tive might write this film off as a Friday The 13th clone but slash con­nois­seurs know bet­ter: it’s got a bet­ter cast, bet­ter kills, smarter direc­tion, ten times the style and even a killer syn­th score from Rick Wakeman.  Simply put, The Burning is the movie that Friday The 13th wish­es it could be.