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.