Friday, March 31, 2017

Like Jerks to the Slaughter - THE BURNING

Sometimes horror can be an archetypal tale of good vs. evil, life vs. death, innocence vs. corruption.  Other times it can be a bunch of asshole kids getting diced up in the woods.  Either sort has its charms, as 1981’s very unhappy camper THE BURNING can attest. 

The Capsule:
In 1970-something, a group of boys at Camp Blackfoot have devised a surefire prank to get back at the cranky groundskeeper, Cropsy (Lou David).  Shockingly, the prank goes wrong and turns Cropsy into a human torch.  Ha, ha, that will teach you to be mean to over-privileged white kids.  Five years of excruciating physical rehabilitation later, the hideously scarred freak is still holding a grudge.  Grabbing a very sturdy pair of garden shears, Cropsy heads back to Camp Stonewater, which is where all the little asshole summer campers moved to after Blackfoot burned down.  There he finds a smorgasbord of self-involved victims to unleash his vengeance on, such as Todd (Brian Matthews), the dreamy camp counselor with a secret; Eddie (Ned Eisenberg), the smooth talking date rapist; Glazer (Larry Joshua), the delinquent, muscle headed date rapist; Alfred (Brian Backer), the socially awkward peeping tom, and plenty of other horrible jerks way too old to be going to summer camp.  Will anyone survive the overnight canoe trip?  Mostly no.

THE BURNING came out in the early days of the slasher genre, and was in the first round of the summer camp bloodbaths.  FRIDAY THE 13th beat it to the punch, but it managed to grab the name Cropsy before MADMAN could use it.  One of Miramax's first films, it features a cast that ranges from “damn, I know I’ve seen that guy before,” to “holy shit, is that Holly Hunter?!”  

This film is so early, in fact, it predates some of the standard kids-die-in-the-woods tropes.  As slashers evolved, it became pretty easy to identify early on who would be the final girl (or less often, guy).  They had some distinctive quirk, something relatable, maybe a bit of a tragic backstory.  You could root for them to survive.   It’s the Laurie Strode model.  The early camp movies were no holds barred, though, because everyone was, to varying degrees, an asshole.  No one stood out.  People became the heroes by default, because everyone else was dead by the end.  

Nowhere is this asshole principle more evident than THE BURNING.  It starts right from the first scene, with the group of brats planning to scare poor, alcoholic Cropsy to death with a fiery, worm covered human skull.  First of all, where the hell did they get a decaying human skull?  Is there a voodoo camp across the river?  Secondly, did the kid who sneaked the flaming skull into Cropsy’s bedroom not notice his shack was stacked high with nothing but bottles of hard liquor, gas cans, and kerosene lanterns?  That is just bad prank planning.  

It doesn’t get any better from there.  All of the main characters are irritating at the very least, and many of them are seriously problematic.  And while they don’t actually rape anyone, Eddie and Glazer come off as super aggressive and predatory.  Both of them look like they just walked off the set of DEATH WISH II.  When the girl who spurned Eddie’s advances goes missing, the camp counselors’ first assumption is that he murdered her.  That is literally the first conclusion they jump to.  Only after they interrogate him do they decide she must have just gone back to camp (to avoid Eddie).   

Glazer is such a malicious meathead that he would be more at home in prison camp than summer camp.  He spends every waking moment being a douchebag and making everyone else's life hell.  He does have a surprising moment of humility, though.  Sally (Carrick Glenn), the girl he’s been relentlessly pressuring for sex the whole movie, finally relents, only to find his lovemaking skills are embarrassingly inadequate.  One would expect the brute to go into a rage at the ridicule, but he becomes sheepishly sensitive, instead.  Almost charming, in a pathetic kind of way.  Just in time for him to get stabbed through his meaty neck.

Normally, Alfred would be the most sympathetic character.  He’s shy, awkward, and constantly being picked on by Glazer.  But the movie even makes it hard to root for him.  For one thing, unless you are an English butler, don’t go by the name Alfred.  More significantly, Al is a creepy little freak.  I have to side with Glazer on that one.  He’s first introduced lurking behind the curtain as Sally takes a shower.  Then he spies on her from the bushes as she makes out with Glazer.  He never says anything to her the entire movie, he just watches her.  Maybe the director didn’t mean for him to come off like a stalker.  The misguided ‘80s tended to portray such behavior as “mischief” or “shenanigans,” rather than “inappropriate” or “a felony” (cough, cough, REVENGE OF THE NERDS).  In any event, Alfred doesn’t come off like a hero.  He spends most of the last act running panicked through the woods with his arms flailing.  

Not even dreamy Todd is hero material, because he was one of the little punks who burned up Cropsy in the first place.  Granted, that was five long years ago when he was a foolish kid (and a completely different actor in the flashback).  People can learn from their mistakes.  But during the canoe trip he’s telling ghost stories to the kids around the camp fire, and it’s the goddamned story of Cropsy!  Jesus, what an insensitive dick.  He leaves out the part where he was responsible for ruining the man’s life, of course, and claims that Cropsy has been roaming the woods ever since, mutilating campers rather than getting painful skin grafts at the hospital.  Todd even has Eddie jump out with a mask on cue and scare everyone.  Cropsy was probably watching the whole thing from the trees and thinking, “MOTHER FUCKER!”  He hadn’t even killed any of the campers at that point.  If Cropsy was still on the fence about going on a bloody rampage, that performance sure the hell tipped him over.  Thanks Todd.  

Jason Alexander’s Dave is one of the most upstanding characters in the movie.  That should tell you something.  He’s strictly relegated to second banana status, though. He's mostly there for comic relief and to run a black market, supplying nudie mags to the boys and condoms to Glazer (shudder).  It’s weird, he doesn’t seem to be a counselor, but is way too old to be a sleep away camper.  Does he just like hanging out with a bunch of fifteen year olds?  Maybe he is more unseemly than I thought.

There is one contender for a classic final girl, Todd’s co-counselor and girlfriend, Michelle (Leah Ayres).  She’s no nonsense, shows good judgment, and is responsible.  But she never interacts with the killer because she is busy doing the one things she’s done throughout the movie, taking care of the kids.  She is a legitimately good camp counselor, and she makes it to the end with very little emotional trauma.  Maybe the real key to slashers isn’t sex = death, but poor work ethic = death.

Our ingrained horror assumptions actually work in the movie’s favor for its most memorable scene.  After all the canoes go missing, a bunch of kids are put on a raft to get help from the main camp.  On board is Eddie, Woodstock (a super young Fisher Stevens), a couple of girls, and the kid who looks exactly like Jason Lively from NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, but isn’t.  They see a lone canoe adrift on the water and start paddling for it.  This is where we, the audience go, “Nice try, movie, but we know a jump scare when we see one coming.”  As they get closer to the seemingly empty canoe, the suspenseful music swells, forecasting the danger that is surely about to strike.  We roll our eyes and say, “Come off it, movie, it’s just going to be a duck or something in there.”  They get close enough to peak into the canoe and—surprise, motherfuckers!—Cropsy springs up and completely slaughters everyone on the raft in an orgy of blood spurts and severed fingers.  No jump scare, actual scare scare.  Even on repeated viewings, there is something shocking and transgressive about that scene.  It totally goes against all the rules, because the rules hadn’t been written yet.

Cropsy himself is a wonderfully implausible character, running around unseen in the woods while wearing a full black trench coat and fedora.  His POV shots have the nice touch of being blurry around the edges, as if his corneas were toasted in the fire.  A pair of garden shears seems like an odd choice for a signature weapon, but he uses them with style.  It can impale chests, slash throats, slash craniums (!), chop fingers, decapitate (I think), and pin arms to the wall.  In his hands, it’s a murder multi-tool.

Makeup effects master Tom Savini makes sure all the deaths are gloriously bloody and practical (except maybe for Eddie’s comically long neck).  It even made the British Video Nasties list, which is like a gold star for old school horror fiends.  Savini was rushed when creating Cropsy’s burn scarred face and was not happy with the results.  I think it looks fine, and actor Lou David was certainly pleased, since he uses it as his IMDB photo:
Lou David Picture

It’s certainly better than Brian Matthews’ IMDB photo:
Brian Matthews Picture 

I guess he considers the left elbow and calf to be his best features. 

The movie does fall into a few trusty slasher standards.  There are fake outs, bodies popping up unexpectedly, and of course, plenty of nudity (including a bit of skinny dipping that goes awry).  It also includes the old chestnut of the killer who [spoiler] won’t stay dead.  Alfred stabs Cropsy with his own sheers just before he can flamb√© Todd with a blowtorch (would have served him right).  Just as the survivors are limping away, Cropsy springs back up behind them.  His resurgence doesn’t last long.  Todd splits his face open with an ax, and just to be sure, Alfred sets him on fire. Again.  You’d have to feel sorry for this guy, if he wasn’t responsible for all those senseless killings.  

The movie ends with a new camp counselor telling the updated Cropsy story around a camp fire.  Too soon, dude.  Not cool.

C Chaka

P.S. - For the record, the movie winds up with two final guys, a bunch of final girls, and a final Costanza.  

1 comment:

  1. Final Costanza!! Brilliant! This movie could actually be a great backstory to George with the summer camp stress causing his neurotic temperament and bringing on hair loss in his 20s. It all adds up!