On paper, 1981’s The Burning is nothing special. After films like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980) and Black Christmas (1974) made the term ‘slasher’ part of common household vernacular, the floodgates began to open. One by one, mysterious masked murderers began hunting young victims in brutal and determined fashion. While the environments, motivation and costuming were always slightly different, the basic premise was often the same. A new template had been forged, and those with foresight saw the consumer intrigue and of course…the revenue potential. Among these cookie-cutter slashers that would come to swamp the early 1980s resides The Burning. Amidst a sea of teenage blood, one-dimensional characters and familiar tropes, it’s easy to assume that this film (loosely based on a New York urban legend) would float alongside the majority of them. However, what The Burning lacks in originality, creativity or wit, it makes up with its characters, cast, special effects and most of all, its score.
Tagline: A legend of terror is no campfire story anymore!
A caretaker at a summer camp is burned when a prank goes tragically wrong. After several years of intensive treatment at hospital, he is released back into society, albeit missing some social skills. What follows is a bloody killing spree with the caretaker making his way back to his old stomping ground to confront one of the youths that accidentally burned him.
Directed by Tony Maylam, The Burning was a group writing and production effort that sadly includes sleazeball and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. Along with his brother Bob, the Weinstein’s had recently formed their new production company Miramax and The Burning was to be its first official production. Early on, The Burning made a bevy of good choices prior to the camera’s starting to roll. For special effects, they went to the master himself, Tom Savini. Turning down the opportunity to work on Friday the 13th Part 2, Savini signed on and would prove to be a hugely valuable asset to the film’s overall success.
When it came to casting, Maylam handled most of the decision making and made sure to cast actors that looked age-appropriate. He also seemed to have a true knack for identifying talent as he cast future megastars Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens in their first big feature film appearances. Of course, that still left the film without a score. At this point in time, both the Weinstein’s and Maylam had years of experience in the field of rock music. The Weinstein’s had been successful show promoters and knew Maylam through his work on various rock documentaries. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Maylam and the production team would reach out to some of their rock world connections for The Burning‘s score. Enter stage left…Rick Wakeman.
A lifelong music lover, English keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman had a proven track record of creative, engaging, unique and successful music collaborations. From 1969-1971 Wakeman played with folk rock band Strawbs as well as providing session work for iconic musicians like David Bowie, T.Rex and Cat Stevens. Then, in late 1971, Wakeman left Strawbs after an offer to join the prog-rock group Yes. Throughout the 1970s Wakeman’s relationship with Yes would ebb and flow, but the band’s success, reputation and prolific output of content undoubtedly brought Wakeman onto the radar of Maylam and the Weinstein’s. For both parties, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Wakeman was on a break from Yes and was relying on his solo career to pay his bills. Therefore, when offered a one and done opportunity to compose a score for The Burning, Wakeman took the job. Despite his hesitancy and lack of faith in the film’s success, it was a job after all. And with that, the production now had score deal with a notable and talented musician.
In nontraditional fashion, the first track we are going to look at is in fact, the last track. For some reason, The Burning has never had a complete soundtrack release. While various versions have selections from the film, there has never been fully inclusive release that includes, for one, the actual Main Title. Therefore, we’ll take a look at the End Title Theme as it is indeed similar to the Main Title sequence and much more readily accessible. Right away, Wakeman’s proficiency and affinity for synths and keyboards is revealed. For interested parties, to achieve such sounds, Wakeman utilized a normal piano, a Prophet 10 synth, Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80 electric piano and a Arp Omni polyphonic analog synth. Layers of these sounds are fused with a haunting and strong melody. Underneath the melancholy tune lies layers of shifting sands. Expertly, these layers sway and build providing a strong and expertly formulated track. Anchored by heartbeat-like bass tones, the track quickly evolves and modulates into a well-rounded sound that could very easily be mistaken for a Goblin track. It is in this moment, the brilliance of Wakeman’s sound in relation to the film is revealed.
For decades, Italian Giallo films had been using maestro’s like Goblin, Fabio Frizzi, Francesco De Masi and Umberto Lenzi to bring unique, funky, prog-infused synth and sounds to their films. At the same time, across the pond, horror film scores began to lean more towards the now infamous and minimalist John Carpenter sound. Synthesizers, effects and electronic sound utilization was all the rage and becoming an ever more prominent trope of the genre. And then there was Rick Wakeman; a man well versed in both worlds. As a talented, prog-rock icon with a strong knowledge base and affinity for the ever-evolving world of synth technology, he seamlessly melds both worlds. Instantly, The Burning is elevated from the seething mass of early 80’s slashers with a unique, cross-cultural sound. Perhaps Cropsy‘s black gloves were even an intentional homage to classic Giallo killers? I’d like to think so.
Throughout much of the film, Wakeman’s understanding of this new sub-genre establishing conventions is clear. Similar to Friday the 13th, much of the film’s score is directly tied to Cropsy himself. Often times there is a pulsating bass layer combined with murky, oscillating tones present only when Cropsy is on the prowl. The rhythmic heartbeat tones remain steady and calm relaying Cropsy‘s focus and determination. (It’s also eerily similar to the yet-to-be-released theme for The Thing) Then, like a tube amp warming up, the ambient cloud of sound builds in tension and intensity. Initially, this shift in volume often sits back in the mix allowing dialogue and action to unfold in front of it while the sound builds beneath, eventually overtaking it. Subconsciously, this device further contributes to the viewers unease and impending sense of dread. While the audience can clearly see Cropsy stalking his prey, his actions remain unpredictable and uncertain.
Along these same lines, Wakeman also takes note and employs the art of deception. Integrating familiar devices like stings, goofy cut-offs, quick edits and the power of Cropsy‘s melodic theme, Wakeman plays with the viewer. Much like the river flowing by Camp Stonewater, the score provides the current, sonically leading the viewer through various cut off channels, meanders and bends. Again, by using these familiar genre techniques, we see Wakeman’s understanding and integration of well-established conventions coupled with his own unique style.
Near the end of the film, when Cropsy‘s presence is no longer in question, Wakeman is able to truly let loose. Take the track Shear Terror for example. Much like a video game, here we are at the final boss fight. Cropsy‘s identity, story, presence and power have been fully revealed to all and the storyline has come back around to the beginning. As the score’s volume increases, the tension and terror is at full capacity. Cropsy‘s rage is fully charged and we hear ascending synth sounds build and climb to a near tipping point. Mirroring the sharpened blade of Cropsy‘s shears, the electronic sounds are sharp, tinny and metallic.
By creating a fog of atmospheric sounds, Wakeman creates an uncomfortable environment that encompasses the viewer while providing no clear direction or outcome. There’s an inherent mystery and unfamiliarity in these man made sounds that contributes to the overall effectiveness of the film. Here in this end scene, our final boy is certainly not innocent by any means. His involvement and connection to Cropsy‘s rage leaves the outcome of his fate uncertain and certainly not guaranteed. The lack of melody and direction in this track also gives no hints, no clues as to what is about to happen and the viewer is left to watch the shocking and dangerous events unfold. Coupled with Savini’s masterful handiwork, this strong and intense final track provides The Burning with a satisfying and gripping final act.
Now, like a lot of die hard Yes fans, Wakeman does not often give his score for The Burning much credit. Perhaps it’s because it’s so different from a lot of his other works, or perhaps it’s because he took a fee over a percentage of the film. Whatever his reasoning for disliking it, The Burning score remains an excellent piece of slasher horror history and provides the film with a final touch of uniqueness. And yet, as previously mentioned, a proper version of the score does not really exist. But don’t despair, there are versions that do exist that still rule. Originally issued on wax in 1981 in the US by Varèse Sarabande, copies are readily available at reasonable prices. And although not all tracks present in the film are on the physical soundtrack, what IS on the soundtrack are four tracks known as The Wakeman Variations. These are expanded, reinterpreted and altered versions of other tracks from The Burning. They provide beautiful listens that are fun, interesting and further satiate fan’s urge for more. So, similar to the film itself, what the soundtrack release lacks, is made up for in other ways.
Then, back in 2016, One Way Static Records released a new version with new artwork. This new reissue brought the film back into the consciousness of many and once again shone a light on the incredible work that Wakeman contributed. Also fairly available at a reasonable price, the vinyl comes in both black and two killer Clear with Orange Haze versions. While officially out of print, they’re not hard to track down courtesy of sites like Discogs. For fans of prog, scores or both, this is a must have addition to any collection and I can’t recommend it enough.
What do you think of The Burning? What are some of your other favorite Rick Wakeman works? Let us know over on Twitter, our subreddit, or at The Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! And if you’re looking for more of horror’s best scores, make sure and check out my other installments of Terror on the Turntable!