Has the hot weather got you burning for some summer fun? Well playing with fire will certainly get you burned, but watching from a safe distance is a recommended practice. Reversing the dish temperature of revenge, 1981’s The Burning sits viewers around a toasty campfire and tells the tale of an ominous killer who stalks Blackfoot lake. A man who takes pleasure in harming others and was burned alive, returning to the same place to pick off the kids who picked on him. The Burning ignites “When an ill-advised prank misfires, summer camp caretaker Cropsy is committed to hospital with hideous burns. Released after five years, hospital officials warn him not to blame the young campers who caused his disfigurement. But no sooner is Cropsy back on the streets then he’s headed back to camp with a rusty pair of shears in hand, determined to exact his bloody revenge.”
Cropsy’s story may sound familiar as it is based in the New York urban legend, but the mythos is crafted in a more cinematic narrative that joins the slasher league with an agitated villain and gruesome kills. Starring Brian Matthews (Red Nights), Leah Ayers (Bloodsport), Holly Hunter (Thirteen), Ned Eisenbuerg (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), Fisher Stevens (Hackers), Larry Joshua (Dances With Wolves), Brian Backer (Fast Times At Ridgemont High), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), and Lou David (The Gumball Rally), The Burning is a spooky campfire romp worth revisiting during the heat of the summer season or a refreshing first dip into unknown lake territories for first-time viewers. Just remember: He’s out there. Watching. Waiting. Don’t look; he’ll see you. Don’t move; he’ll hear you. Don’t breathe; YOU’RE DEAD!
Scissors Cut Fire
Cropsy might seem like a typical slasher villain as he remains mostly faceless and is the creepy subject of campfire tales. He is human, despite his physical deformities, but his true vulnerability is never revealed and he stands hidden and silent which gives him a mysterious phantom existence. His weapon of choice is a pair of garden shears, a phallic double-bladed tool used to clean up the premises when he acted as caretaker of Camp Blackfoot now used to eliminate those he cuts down as revenge. While he is not a terribly original character, Cropsy is just as menacing as other more popular heavyweight killers like that of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger. His anger and resentment from the jump start catches fire as the bodies around the campground literally pile up.
Despite his sad sympathetic origin story, Cropsy’s relentless predatory bloodbath gives The Burning a slick, enjoyable horror edge filled with old fashioned terror. It would be wrong to judge his composition against other beloved figures as Cropsy brings his own special kind of flame to the genre arena. There may be quintessential slasher tropes running throughout his rampage, from perspective lurking to a surprise spring back to life, but he is stoppable and his end is final… or is it?
“Cropsy’s relentless predatory bloodbath gives The Burning a slick, enjoyable horror edge filled with old fashioned terror.”
Horror composition of the 80’s is distinguished by its now retro score. Those tremendous and memorable synth stings, sounds, and beats define the movement of the scares and the characters as the film progresses. The Burning possesses hot tracks of its own thanks to scoring composer Rick Wakeman, keyboard player of the progressive English rock band Yes. Like the slasher boom era that transpired around The Burning, sound was an important mechanism used to make the presence of the villain known. With appropriately placed stings to enhance the toxicity and charm of Cropsy’s attacks, the campground arena becomes a nostalgic type of setting.
Like other grounds, Camp Blackfoot is a vulnerable spot where coed shenanigans mask the nefarious dangers at play. Released at the same time of Friday The 13th Part 2, The Burning was overlooked by critics and viewers alike at the time of release. It has since gained traction as a cult favorite to be enjoyed along with the Friday the 13th franchise rather than against it. Fans of 80’s horror will appreciate multiple factors of The Burning
Best Served Hot
Bullying plays a central theme through The Burning from the lingering smoke of its premise to the flames of attraction. Cropsy is forever scarred at the hands of a vicious prank carried out by the young campers, turning him into a monster physically and mentally. The tragic results of their actions directly turn out the homicidal consequences of their behavior. As Cropsy leaves the hospital after five years of treatment with a voiceover exposition detailing failed skin grafts, encouragement to not blame the kids, to control his anger and resentment, as well as the push to adjust to a new life from his doctors and therapists. After a disturbing encounter with a sex worker who is disgusted by his appearance, Cropsy is driven to take revenge on the ones who ruined his face and his life.
Just like the villain, Alfred is an oddball camper who is always picked on with no friends. While he is a more sympathetic outcast, his desire to return nefarious behavior and scare others as revenge is a sinister reflection of the bullying suffered by Cropsy. The rejection of outcasts and ignorant views of those who are different is a universal element that still resides within all stages of society today. This style of vengeance fuels many of the typical slasher flicks, especially the particular decade of the 80’s, but the parallels between Alfred and Cropsy give The Burning an extra layer of depth that serves to prove the damaging effects of adolescent bullying can be corrected. Though the characters are not completely fleshed out, we see hero Todd hold onto his autonomy following the incident and a genuine penance in his relationship to Alfred. Rather than perpetuating the cycle of sadism, abuse, and violence, The Burning ultimately holds onto a steady resistance with a simmering moral backbone hidden at the core of its perceived “lowbrow” slasher ambers.
“The Burning ultimately holds onto a steady resistance with a simmering moral backbone hidden at the core of its perceived “lowbrow” slasher ambers.”
Bullying is not reserved to the weirdos and the untouchables, especially when it comes to the gratuitous nature of 80’s film. Aggression extends to sexual liaisons in The Burning as it does to many slasher films. The young women are consistently pressured and sexualized while the young men poke and jab each other over their sexual excursions. The male gaze is fairly heavy (with a focused dose of bare female feet, I might add) in addition to proportioned nudity as this film fits the grand tradition of 80’s exploitation. Excuses are made for perversion and superficial expectations are voiced between a mix of pornography, masturbation, and contraception throughout both the interactions and dialogue of the campers. Sex, in The Burning’s case, is another clever mode of bullying and a catalyst for Cropsy’s bloody revenge.
The subtext is present and cohesively moves along with the film’s purpose to shock and scare, presenting plenty of targets for mockery, victimization, and treachery. Sexual repression and volatile depiction of human attraction work in a subtle tandem with the monster’s motives. In good fun, tasteless jests, or dangerous aggression, bullying drives the plot forward in a sobering reality producing teasing humor and harsh carnage. The Burning is somewhat set above its slasher counterparts with this deep content, whether it is intentional or not.
Ready, Aim, Fire! (And Run)
There is no expectation to be had short of grand when it comes to special effects done by the “King of Splatter” and “Wizard of Gore” himself, Tom Savini. Adapting some of his previous magic on Friday the 13th and forgoing work on its demanded sequel to apply his talents to The Burning, Savini comments that this underrated summer slasher had a more interesting script and therefore attracted his attention. In addition to scaled jump scares, false scares, and tense build-ups, The Burning racks up an entertaining body count.
Whether singular attacks or an entire raft full of campers, Savini does not disappoint and treat every gash and hack with his touch of authentic slaughter. The shears stabbings are brutal and eerily realistic shown in signature Savini fashion as fingers, necks, heads, and limbs of all sorts are sliced up. It is satisfyingly gory with that perfect 80’s style of artificially red blood that adds color to an already organically striking palette. The infamous shears silhouette is a visually defining moment, giving Cropsy his own personal brand of campground prestige. A fiery final act brings the whole narrative full circle with the same consistent heat that started the forest fire of carnage from the beginning.
“The Burning is a hot gem ready to be mined by those who seek a scary summer lakeside trip.”
Direction has come a long way from the 80’s as far as artistic application goes, but The Burning’s Tony Maylam (Split Second) incorporates a variety of techniques that give his slasher visual flair. The British director known for his rock music documentaries, combines all of the film’s frightening elements from perspective cinematography to dramatic lighting in an effort to hone in on the genre’s noteworthy components. The viewer is often placed in Cropsy’s skewed point of view, brilliantly blurred by the man’s burned face, giving it that classic state of killer voyeurism. Being in Cropsy’s state of being puts the audience in his place, making it a prime point to observe the horror unfold. The first-person scape is used tactfully and then balanced with other various perspectives including camera travels, moving with the subject, and sometimes taking the point of view of other characters.
Just as The Burning dabbles in multiple angles, the contrast of night and day reflects the hidden threat the campers face. A blazing red night sky kicks off Cropsy’s spree that uniquely continues far beyond the darkness of night. Murders occur in broad daylight, a time reserved for fun and innocent activities, emphasizing and grounding the terror in a grossly opposing wholesome aesthetic. The bright and sunny atmosphere is off-putting, but freshly deviates from the standard nighttime prowl. The Burning, while not an extreme experiment in horror chemistry, provides an able hand at striking a match against the necessary elements that melt together as a definitive slasher story.
In a graphic, yet poetic display of incendiary horror, The Burning is a hot gem ready to be mined by those who seek a scary summer lakeside trip.
The campfire tale aura of Cropsy’s demise and return may seem like a mythic whisper, but much of the narrative’s frights flicker in reality. Those who dare to walk Camp Blackfoot under the sun or the moon are in for a good time met with foolhardy gags, peak temperatures, and white-hot wrath. The Burning is currently streaming on Shudder. Don’t forget: He’s waiting…
Are you a fan of The Burning? How does it hold up compared to other 80’s slashers? Is Cropsy’s story scary enough for a summer revisit? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!