ABCs of Horror: “B” Is for The Burning (1981)

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ABCs of Horror: “B” Is for The Burning (1981)

Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in our previous Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor previous ABCs of Horror entries. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?

The human mind has a tendency to seek out connections and direct links between materials that may in fact be completely unrelated. It’s called apophenia, and it stems from a universal desire to parse and make sense of the world around us. It only makes sense, therefore, that you look at The Burning, see an early 1980s slasher movie set at a summer camp, and assume it’s a direct emulation of the preceding year’s Friday the 13th, or even a full-on clone. In reality, however, The Burning is its own beast—one that was conceived and initiated before Sean Cunningham’s iconic slasher had even hit theaters in the spring of 1980.

It’s a prime example of parallel thinking, in more ways than one—it wasn’t even the only slasher movie adapting the New York urban legend of the Cropsey maniac at the time, in fact. Another film, eventually titled Madman and released in 1982, was simultaneously developing a “Cropsey” story, and The Burning also managed to displace yet another horror film that would have born the same title … a film that was eventually renamed Don’t Go in the House. This is all to say that the early 1980s were a boom period for this sort of parallel horror movie development, with numerous studios and filmmakers piling over each other in an effort to get their slasher stories to market first.

Perhaps as a result of this madcap scramble, The Burning isn’t terribly well known to the rank and file horror fans today, although it’s often held aloft as a classic of the genre by more dedicated slasher geeks. And rightly so—this is an intriguing, unorthodox take on the camp-set slasher, and one that subverts several aspects of the emerging genre in ways you probably wouldn’t expect for 1981. It can boast an unlikely assembly of future stars making their first screen appearances, including Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens, possesses a memorably deranged killer, and a cooly intimidating visual style that takes full advantage of the eerie emptiness of its wooded locale. But more than anything, it’s the presence of special effects maestro Tom Savini that seals the deal, as his FX work gives The Burning several instantly classic sequences of carnage and gore that rank among the genre’s most satisfyingly gross.

“Cropsey,” if you didn’t know, fits the bill of your standard early ‘80s slasher boogeyman. He’s a heavily scarred behemoth, a former summer camp caretaker who was horribly burned in a cruel prank orchestrated by a group of careless teenage campers. And now, he’s back for revenge years later, wielding a pair of oversized gardening shears as his signature weapon. It’s a formula you know like the back of your hand—hulking, mute assailant with a messed-up face, has it out for a bunch of kids. Check and check, sounds like a slasher movie!

And yet, The Burning is also an oddball selection at times, with a few subversions that run counter to our detailed definition of slasher films. For one, there isn’t really a “final girl” in a true sense—there’s a character who certainly seems to fit the bill, but she never actually comes into direct contact with the killer. Rather, it comes down to a final confrontation between Cropsey and two young men, which is almost an unprecedented occurrence for these sorts of movies. And one of them, the constantly peeping Alfred, is exactly the sort of guy you’d expect to get killed off in the first 30 minutes of one of these films, rather than emerge from it triumphant.

Despite that, there’s never any doubt that The Burning is a classic slasher, through and through. Young lovers are punished for their indiscretions, with gardening shears plunged through their bodies and sprays of blood that seem to coat acres of forest. Nebbish dweebs try to score with girls way out of their league. Plot is minimal in the extreme, and the runtime is instead filled with mostly effective sequences of stalking and hunting in the woods, often from the killer’s perspective. It builds to a satisfying conclusion in a very atmospheric and dramatically lit abandoned mining outpost, feeling very much like a sister to the same year’s My Bloody Valentine.

The Burning, though, is ultimately one of those films most remembered decades later for a single scene—an “oh, that movie” sequence that is the reason many slasher geeks still return to it and cite it as a favorite today. Suffice to say, it involves some kids on a raft, a homicidal killer, and some of the most jaw-dropping gore of Tom Savini’s long career. It’s best witnessed in the context of the entire film, as the payoff to a long, tense build … but you can also witness the carnage online, if you simply don’t possess the patience. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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