“Slasher movies.” When you read those words just now, you either made a face like you just found cat poop in your cereal, or you felt a warm wave of nostalgia. If you fondly remember the old mom & pop video store down the street, or even if you're just an '80s horror kid at heart, I'm guessing you're probably smiling. It's OK, I totally feel ya. I'm not sure what it is about the sleazy, low-rent look and feel of slasher movies from that era, not to mention their nearly endless repetition of the same old formula, but I still get a big kick out of them – even the ones that I know are crap on a cracker.
Hey, I went to film school, damn it. I acknowledge that cinema can be one of the highest art forms ever invented. But my memory of those carefree summer nights spent rummaging through VHS horror aisles becomes a goofy filter that warps my awareness of quality cinema and makes me watch the unwatchable... and even like it. Some think I should be ashamed; I remember Siskel & Ebert devoting an entire episode of Sneak Previews to slamming the slasher genre for being morally bankrupt. I loved their show, but you know what? I watched that episode with wide-eyed fascination and wrote all the movie titles down for future reference. Now, as a reasonably enlightened adult, I still don't agree with their take on the genre... but that's another story. Let's get to the good stuff: we'll start today with an old favorite, 1981's The Burning.
Friday the 13th is now widely considered a horror classic, and stands up well to criticism over three decades later. Countless new productions, from studios and independents alike, popped up like weeds in the wake of Friday's success, and many of them shamelessly lifted its formula of summer camp teenage body count horror. The Burning is one of the more creative films from this crop, produced by the now-famous Bob and Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures fame. It was shot shortly after Friday the 13th started raking in the bucks, but oddly enough its plot is almost identical to that of Friday the 13th Part 2 (Harvey Weinstein, who co-wrote the script, claims he wrote it even before the first Friday, but I'm dubious). Both involve a horrific tragedy that befell an now-abandoned summer camp on the other side of the lake (in this case, the near-fatal outcome of a prank gone horribly wrong), which becomes a new legend shared around the campfire by young counselors in training. The Burning's boogeyman is the hulking "Cropsy" (a name borrowed from an actual urban legend; there's an entire documentary devoted to it), the camp's former caretaker, now horribly deformed by massive burns and hell-bent on revenge.
In many ways, The Burning is superior to Friday the 13th Part 2; not only is Cropsy far more intimidating than Jason Voorhees (at this stage, Jason was still a scrawny gimp in a burlap hood, whereas Cropsy has almost supernatural strength and agility), but the violence is far more disturbing. The film's real cult reputation began thanks to rumors of gory footage that had been cut from early prints – rumors that turned out to be totally true. The infamous “raft scene” (which landed the film on the UK's “Video Nasties” list) was finally restored for the DVD edition (as well as a Blu-ray from Shout! Factory coming soon, featuring Mondo's supreme cover art), and while it's fairly mild by today's standards, it's still a jarring moment of violence that reinforces the “anyone can die at any time” rule. Also to its credit, the slasher convention of the “Final Girl” gets a gender change that almost never happened this early in the game.
In addition to being the Weinsteins' first feature production, The Burning also features some young stars-to-be in their first screen roles: Seinfeld's Jason Alexander plays a jolly prankster (with hair!), '80s comedy regular Fisher Stevens plays his partner in crime, and if you look carefully, you'll spot Oscar winner Holly Hunter in a couple of scenes. Combine this with some of Tom Savini's best early makeup effects (he did this film instead of Friday the 13th Part 2) and a surreal electronic score by former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and you've got a sweet time capsule of early '80s horror that is still a blast to watch. Stay tuned for more details on that upcoming Blu-ray... and check out the trailer below, where you can hear the obvious voice-over inspiration for Edgar Wright's awesome Grindhouse mock-trailer, Don't!