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The Burning (1981)
I really wanted to like this film. Of course it's horror, and being a fan, I want to like most horror films. Also, it contains work from two of my favorite artists-make-up/special effects man Tom Savini (responsible for the make-up and effects of quite a few classics of the genre, including Romero's Dawn and Day of the Dead movies, Maniac, Friday the 13th, etc.), and keyboardist/composer Rick Wakeman (famous from the band Yes). In addition to them, one of the writers, Bob Weinstein, has gone on (along with brother Harvey Weinstein, who produced The Burning) to produce everything from The Faculty to Jackie Brown, Scream and Shakespeare in Love (1998 Oscar winner for best picture).
However, The Burning is too often a Friday the 13th spin-off, and at worst, it's a drawn-out summer camp drama. The premise is that a group of mischievous camp boys decide to play a practical joke on a nasty, alcoholic camp maintenance man, Cropsy. While Cropsy is sleeping, they sneak into his cabin and place a fake human skull on the table, first loading it up with candles in the eyes and worms crawling throughout. They scare him too well, as he knocks over the skull and sets himself and the camp on fire ("The Burning"). The rest of the film is basically Cropsy, after his release from a 5-year long hospital stay, heading back to another camp near the site of the first one to take revenge on nasty camp-going kids.
There are good parts - Savini's make-up and effects, when you can see them, seem to be quality work-as you'd expect. On the other hard, the editing in the "scary parts" is so bad that you usually can't see Savini's work very well. Some times directors and editors do this on purpose to cover up for sub-par effects work. I can't imagine that's the case here, though, and one piece of evidence that it's not is that the editing in the tense scenes is bad even when there is no make-up or effects present.
Wakeman's score, though not voluminous, is superb. Unfortunately, I may be basing this more on my familiarity with it as a record (I bought the LP when The Burning was released, even though I didn't see the film at that time). Because I'm already so familiar with it, it's hard for me to judge it properly within the context of the film. It seemed that maybe Wakeman didn't incorporate the score in the film that well. Although the music that's present is great and the cues are dead on, the music appears predictably - Wakeman introduces it whenever a scary or tense scene is present, otherwise there's an odd lack of score (with the exception of the goofy non-Wakeman banjo music during the beginning of the canoe trip).
The setting, in Western New York, is wonderful, and the cinematography of the forest adds much to the atmosphere. Director Tony Maylam does know how to compose effective scenes, but after the thrilling opening, and interesting 5-minute post-title sequence, The Burning gets bogged down in an overlong sequence of scenes establishing the kids at camp. For at least a half-hour, it's like Meatballs without the humor. And once the horror material does return, the editing kills a lot of the good things that Maylam was shooting for.
I like Friday the 13th a lot, as well as the other slasher standard bearers, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and many, if not most of their sequels. But many of the films, such as The Burning, that tried to cash in on one or another of those films and/or tried to reduce them to formula were inferior in quality. Often, I get the feeling that a lot of the blame lies with studio meddling.
Still, The Burning doesn't always sink to using Friday the 13th as a template. It excels when it ignores that precept. One of the best scenes - when a group of campers tries to head back on the self-made raft - is effective largely because it breaks from the formula. But even many of the formulaic scenes are well done, particularly the extended segment preceding the climax. But don't expect to be surprised very often.
Of special note: The Burning features one of the earliest appearances (the first theatrical film) of Jason Alexander. Alexander receives a fair amount of screen time, exhibits his basic "Seinfeld" personality, and is amusing in that he plays a teen at camp who looks to be in at least his mid-20s and is about to start losing his hair.
The Burning is for serious to hardcore horror fans and especially those who must see every slasher flick. It's also worth seeing for fans of the actors and crew, if only as an example of something that's not their best work. Wait for this on cable if possible.
Film debuts all around! Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter all made their first feature film appearances in The Burning