Movie Discussion: Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981)

  • Monthly Theme: Slashersburningwallpaperv2be
  • The Film: The Burning
  • Country of origin: U.S.A
  • Date of U.S. release: May 8, 1981
  • Studio: Miramax Films & The Cropsy Venture
  • Distributer: Filmways Pictures
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $1.5 million (estimated)
  • Director: Tony Maylam
  • Producers: Harvey Weinstein, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Peter Lawrence & Bob Weinstein
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Harvey Harrison
  • Make-Up/FX: Tom Savini, et al.
  • Music: Rick Wakeman
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Future TV star Jason Alexander. Future Hollywood star Holly Hunter.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “Don’t look, he’ll see you. Don’t breathe, he’ll hear you. Don’t move… you’re dead!”
  • The Lowdown: The Burning isn’t a well-known movie outside of horror movie fandom, but it is often cited as one of the best of the 1980s slasher craze (alongside films like My Bloody ValentineBlack Christmas and Alone in the Dark). It was produced at the same time as Friday the 13th Part 2 in order to cash in on the first Friday the 13th movie’s massive financial success, but it tanked at the box office while Friday the 13th Part 2 went on to make 20 times it’s own budget back. The Burning and Friday the 13th Part 2 have a lot in common, including some identical scenes, but The Burning is different in some essential ways: it’s a gorier movie with much weirder and more shocking death scenes, it’s got a darker ending, and it is set at a camp filled with young kids, unlike the “counselors-only” approach of most all of the Friday the 13th movies. The Burning is much more faithful to the giallo films that inspired the American slasher, especially in the score and the staging of its murders. It also deviates from the classic slasher formula in some cool ways. For instance, there’s no final girl. Instead two guys battle it out with Cropsey in the movie’s climax.

If you haven’t seen The Burning our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: So was The Burning better than the Friday the 13th movies?

Kristine: It was scarier, for sure.

Sean: Was it more entertaining?

Kristine: Hmmm. I don’t know. It was darker and it was just… more. It was Friday the 13th, but amplified. The sex was sexier, the boys were rapey-er, the girls were nudier, the kills were gorier. I don’t know if I am willing to say “better.” I will allow that it was more entertaining.

Sean: You complained about the Friday the 13thmovies being boring in parts. Did The Burning have that problem?

Kristine: Okay, this is totally weird, since the character of Jason is so absurd, but Jason was much more “real” to me then “Cropsy” (we have to discuss that name) and that made a difference to me. But, to answer your question, The Burning moved along at a much faster clip than Friday the 13th.

Sean: So you found Cropsy absurd?

Kristine: I found Jason absurd, yet still somehow real. I never believed Cropsy, but he was still scary. I can’t explain this, it just is. I felt the made-up-ness of Cropsy’s back story so hard.

Sean: What scared you in The Burning?

Kristine: The darkness of The Burning was scary.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Unnamed Female Camper #3 has taken an unexpected jugular gush to the face, leading to a disavowal of the body’s permeability.

Sean: That’s interesting. What was darker?

Kristine: Don’t you agree it’s darker then Friday the 13th?

Sean: I think it’s more brutal and gorier.

Kristine: Okay, well, the obvious answer for me is the raft massacre. That really was a game changer for me. When that happened I was like, okay, this is a different kind of movie we are watching. I felt like Jason just kills and gets on with it, whereas Cropsy wants to inflict pain. He is described anecdotally as a sadist, remember.

Sean: Did the raft sequence shock you?

Kristine: The raft scene totally shocked me, which seems odd since it is a slasher movie. I think the fact that it happens in broad daylight has a lot to do with how shocking it is. All of the Friday the 13th murders are solo, except for the fornicating couple in Part 2.

Sean: It is gonzo ridiculousness, that raft sequence. I think the kids in The Burning feel like kids, too. They seem younger and more like real teens. In the Friday the 13th movies they all seem like they are 27. The performances seem more naturalistic to me, also.

Kristine: Yes. These are all these elements that should have kept them safe – they are young, (some) are innocent, it’s daylight… That scene breaks with slasher conventions which makes it scary, because it is unexpected.

Sean: Good points. When Cropsy springs out of the canoe, did you jump?

Kristine: A little. I was expecting a dead body. Did that scene scare you?

Sean: It didn’t scare me. I jumped up, applauding and yelling “Bravo” in an Italian accent.

Kristine: I mean, another thing was how much that sequence is predicated on the victims seeing Cropsy, whereas Jason’s victim’s rarely see him. Cropsy was just hacking away, not necessarily going for the kill. It was crazy.

Sean: I love that scene to pieces.

Kristine: But everything in the movie was pumped up. Like, all the guys are rapey-er.

Sean: I just thought Eddy was rapey.

Kristine: Eddy was such a monster. But Glazer was rapey, too.

Sean: I guess Glazer is a bit, but he’s also like kind of tender…

Kristine: Gross. The divide between the attractiveness of the men and the women was… umm… marked. Right? Those gals were gorgeous.

Sean: Todd was a fox, I thought.

Kristine: Fine, one guy was hot.

Sean: The big fat girl who pushes Glazer off the raft is amazing.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Eddy’s autoerotic tendencies have manifested in catastrophic throat piercing.

Kristine: It was interesting that the “final girl” role went to a squirrely perv guy. Can you speak on that?

Sean: You mean Alfred?

Kristine: Yes. Whenever he was on-screen, all I could think of was Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Sean: Yeah, the final battle was Todd & Alfred vs. Cropsy, which is unusual. Two guys vs. the killer is unusual for the climax to a slasher. The genre is so often about pitting femininity against masculine aggression and forcing it to defend itself. But this movie isn’t interested in that.

Kristine: Isn’t this ending slightly homoerotic? I mean, Todd sees himself in Alfred, right?

Sean: Well it was weird because of the similarities between Alfred and Cropsy – both of them outcasts, both of them are “hated” by everyone else. And Alfred seems to have a lot of pent up aggression towards Glazer (which, yes, feels homoerotic to me). But I don’t think Todd sees anything of himself in Alfred.

Kristine: I disagree.

Sean: Do tell.

Kristine: Because Todd was bullied by Cropsy, and Alfred is bullied by Glazer.

Sean: I am not sure how much I accept that Crospey was actually mean in real life before they burned him. I think the story of Cropsy being mean fits the legend after he is burned. But the filmmakers never show him being anything. They just show him asleep and vulnerable in that cold open, which I think undercuts the “legend” of how mean he was and also asks us to sympathize with him and not the kids in that sequence.

Kristine: I think the movie is successful on many levels, but the creation of Cropsy is not one of them. It’s odd, they spent a lot of time on the back story, but it rings false to me, whereas in Friday the 13th they just spew a bunch of unbelievable mythology, but I bought it. Why?

Sean: That is weird.

Kristine: Jason is real and I love him. Cropsy is a lie.

Sean: I completely bought the Cropsy back story. Especially since “Cropsy” is a legit real life urban legend in the Staten Island area.

Kristine: What?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Stop it.

Sean: It’s true.

Kristine: Liar liar, chonies on fire.

Sean: Alfred as a final boy is weird. He is kind of homo. Kind of a perv. Very Jewish in contrast to all the shiksas and gentiles. And genuinely ugly.

Kristine: Def a perv, kind of a homo, def a Jew, not that ugly. Glazer is uglier.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Soul Brother and Whitey are in the grips of tragic sublimation, mistaking their own funkiness for the need to mock the deformed.

Sean: “Not that ugly.” Signed, Kristine. You would have sex with Alfred.

Kristine: You would do Glazer, which is so much worse.

Sean: I’d do Glazer before Alfred in two seconds.

Kristine: You’d do Glazed Donut in two seconds, period.

Sean: At least Glazer has a trashy accent. Todd didn’t get naked, which was dumb.

Kristine: Anyway. Did you like the ladies? I thought this film did more to create relationships between the characters and make us care about them.

Sean: I loved the camaraderie between all the kids. I loved the Woodstock/Dave clique and all the girls were funny and felt real.

Kristine: In Friday the 13ththey just start to die and whatever. In The Burning, they fight together to get out and survive, even before they know what they are fighting against.

Sean: I love Tiger.

Kristine: I hate Tiger. And also that loud girl. But I loved everyone else.

Sean: I think this movie works just as a cheesy 1980s summer camp coming-of-age movie, but with a slasher grafted onto it. It is like Poison Ivy for most of it, and then it’s Friday the 13thon steroids. How could you hate Tiger?

Kristine: I hated her face. It actually has a lot in common with Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that respect… the rapey guys and the superficially world-weary but actually innocent girls. But the slasher elements are very intense.

Sean: Tiger was the awesomest ‘80s baby dyke in America. Did you see Holly Hunter in the girl clique?

Kristine: No. I totally missed Holly and felt ripped off. I found Cropsy’s face reveal to be dumb. And Cropsy’s makeup was Joan Rivers realness.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Todd’s melancholia has driven him to try to take revenge against the lost object of Cropsy’s head.

Sean: Holly Hunter only has like three lines, so it’s easy to miss her. Is The Burning more pro-girl than the Friday the 13thmovies? Or more misogynistic?

Kristine: Hmmm, that’s tough.

Sean: I’m thinking of Karen and her “Full Beaver” moment.

Kristine: Dude, I can’t believe they cut and pasted that skinny dipping scene. Overall, I think it is empathetic to women.

Sean: I thought Alfred stalking Sally in the shower at the beginning was about setting a tone.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Remember how enraged Michelle is?

Kristine: I loved Michelle.

Sean: She’s like, ‘He’s a perverted freak.’

Kristine: He is.

Sean: Michelle is kind of a total feminist. I thought she would be the final girl. But then it all becomes about Todd and his gay psyche.

Kristine: And Todd defended Alfred out of empathy cause he sees himself in Alfred.

Sean: No. Wrong.

Kristine: I think I am right. I liked how Michelle initiated sex with Todd.

Sean: The whole point is that burning Cropsy taught Todd empathy. Cropsy thinks his burning means all those kids are monsters, but Todd is made a better man for it.

Kristine: Hmmm…

Sean: It is a message about how bully jerk kids can learn and become decent men.

Kristine: They are still little fuckers.

Sean: I thought it was noteworthy that Todd didn’t die. I expected him too.

Kristine: Me, too. I thought he would die saving Alfred.

Sean: Yes, right.

Kristine: The scene in the abandoned ruins was too long, I thought.

Sean: But that ending of them roasting Cropsy was so dark.

Kristine: The ending should have been obvious and dumb but it was dark and affecting. Though I wanted Michelle to save Alfred.

Sean: Michelle just goes to get the cops.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: The Nameless Prostitute’s Electra complex has led to her to develop acute psycho-envy.

Kristine: Going to the cops was the smart thing to do.

Sean: But something about the soundtrack cutting out as Cropsy is roasting made me feel implicated.

Kristine: I was moved by Todd putting himself on the line for Alfred. He was prepared to die to save him.

Sean: I think Alfred was homosexually fascinated with Glazer.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: No kid who is being bullied fixates on his bully like that. Following him? He would be avoiding him, not stalking him.

Kristine: When Cropsy was killing Glazer and Alfred was watching, he was definitely titillated, up to a point.

Sean: Alfred is sort of turned on by Glazer’s death.

Kristine: Absolutely, he was. He was orgasmic… Then horrified.

Sean: Cementing the connection between Alfred and Cropsy, not Alfred and Todd. I win. Alfred scaring Sally in the shower was about jealousy of her getting Glazer’s attention. Not about Alfred wanting to see her body. I could not for the life of me understand why Sally was into Glazer.

Kristine: Oh god, me neither. Except for sexual curiosity.

Sean: But I found Karen’s tortured “he scares me but I am compelled to like him” with Eddy to be very real. Her conversation with Michelle was great I thought. I feel like the movie was really honest about the ambivalence and compulsion and scariness of teenage sexuality. In that way, it’s kind of feminist.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: But then the movie is like, look at the slut’s bush. Now watch her be humiliated and murdered. Karen and Sally’s deaths are “main events” in the movie. It tries to have it both ways and it can’t. It winds up being exploitation, but it is shot through with more complexity.

Kristine: And don’t you think that the title also refers to teenage libido?

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Woodstock’s compulsion neurosis that led him to chronic masturbation in unravelled by Cropsy.

Sean: Oh you’re smart. Yes that totally makes sense.

Kristine: I think it is a double meaning for sure.

Sean: There were two scenes that were identical between The Burning and Friday the 13th Part 2. Did you catch them?

Kristine: Okay let me think… Hmmm…. Just tell me.

Sean: The campfire story where someone in a monster mask jumps out.

Kristine: Right, right.

Sean: And the girl who goes skinny dipping and gets her clothes stolen. But the skinny dipping in The Burning ends very differently.

Kristine: I thought Karen trying to find her clothes was scary and I felt her panic. We pointed out that Scott who stole the clothes in Friday the 13th Part 2 was a Jason stand-in, remember.

Sean: I feel like Eddy’s rage at Karen for not putting out felt real. I thought Eddy was a convincing bully, in a way that Scott from Friday the 13th Part 2 wasn’t.

Kristine: I agree that his rage was scary and real. Actually, when he yelled “get the fuck away from me!” it scared me.

Sean: He acts like that because he is being rejected.

Kristine: Have you ever had someone be mad at you for not putting out?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: In high school, being “a tease” was a big deal.

Sean: But that’s the doube-edged sword of being a teenaged girl, or at least it was when I was a kid. If she indicates any interest in sex, she is expected to be completely ready to go all the way. It’s literally “virgin/whore.”

Kristine: Exactly. And the ladies in this movie want to explore their sexuality but not necessarily go all the way and they don’t have that option. It sucks.

Sean: Yeah. The fraught trap of teenage sexuality felt real in this movie. Not the porny lie of the Friday the 13thmovies.

Kristine: Agreed. The Burning is bringing teenage realness, and thus the link with Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Sally finds her own repetition compulsion (to continue to seek the attention of demented freaks and glazed donuts) has led to her undoing.

Sean: The Friday the 13th teens are so in charge of their sexuality.

Kristine: But that is a lie.

Sean: It is such a lie.

Kristine: Teens aren’t in charge of shit, let alone their sexuality. That is the last thing they are in control of.

Sean: But the “teens” in the Friday the 13thmovies are like 29 so…

Kristine: Right. That’s one of the reasons the “seduction” scene between Vicky and Mark in Friday the 13th Part 2 is so weird. Kids don’t do that.

Sean: So just fyi, The Burning is a so much like a giallo movie. Especially the score.

Kristine: The score was bombastic.

Sean: It was ‘80s synth realness.

Kristine: The raft realness made me feel… really bad. It reminded me of contemporary horror movies we have watched that make you feel destroyed. I never felt destroyed watching the Friday the 13th movies, even though there were fewer survivors. It’s weird.

Sean: Did you love Woodstock? For some reason I thought you would love Woodstock.

Kristine: Woodstock was fun, but no, I did not feel a particular affinity.

Sean: Well, we talked before in Friday the 13thabout the death of 1960s counterculture in the slasher (with Annie), but then for The Burning to name a character Woodstock and then slaughter him in front of us just makes that subtext into text, right?

Kristine: I didn’t think of Woodstock that way, I thought it was a Peanuts shout out. The realization that Jason Alexander has never actually acted was crazy.

Sean: I thought Jason Alexander was cute in this, all with hair.

Kristine: He was good, but he is just… himself. That is him.

Sean: Did the fat girl pushing Glazer off the raft make you laugh? I wanted that big fat girl to be the final girl.

Kristine: That scene was weird because he is “dating” one of the girls and she later sleeps with him, but I felt like that scene was more then just playing around. I think the ladies really wanted him out of their space and they actually hate him. Glazer is by far the most hated of the kids, not Alfred.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Cropsy finds his own narcissistic need for omnipotence is satisfied by externalizing his death drive.

Sean: Yeah they hate him but Sally wants to fuck him? It is so weird. They talk about “all his muscles lying on top of you” and tease each other about it.

Kristine: Gross. Well, the movie hates him and emasculates him.

Sean: Because he is a two-hitter quitter.

Kristine: A one-pump chump.

Sean: A single-thrust crust.

Kristine: Umm…

Sean: What did you make of Cropsy and the prostitute at the beginning?

Kristine: I thought it was weak. I get that it is establishing him as a bitter, angry psycho, but it kind of works against the whole revenge angle.

Sean: Well, it adds sexual humiliation to his list of grievances.

Kristine: Like, if he’s just mad at the world, why tromp out to the woods?

Sean: There is something similar between him in that scene with the hooker and Eddy/Glazer later in the movie.

Kristine: What did you think about the nurse?

Sean: The black guy?

Kristine: Yes, the soul brother nurse.

Sean: Loved him. I loved how he was all “This is the real deal, nerd!”

Kristine: He’s terrible though, being like “this is the biggest ugliest freak you have ever seen!” He was showing the milquetoast doctor some burnt realness.

Slasher Psychoanalyst Diagnosis: Michelle discovers that the latent content beneath her summer idyll consists of gore-corpses.

Sean: No, I love how a nurse is all hazing a doctor in training. It upsets the class/race dynamic. He’s all “you fucking rich peckerwood… Let me show you the real shit.”

Kristine: “You wanna be a doctor??”

Sean: “C’mon honky!” He was Jimmie Walker from Good Times.

Kristine: So, do you think The Burning is scary?

Sean: Yeah. This and Sleepaway Camp are the quintessential summer camp slashers. None of the Friday the 13thmovies even come close to those, in my opinion.

Kristine: I need to watch Sleepway Camp again… but I am telling you, Angela truly scared me when I saw it as a teenager. Angela is a much better villain than Jason or Cropsy.

Sean: We will re-watch that shit. Will The Burning haunt your dreams?

Kristine: No, it will not. Do you “believe” the character of Cropsy?

Sean: Yes. Especially with the real world connection. Jason Voorhees is ridiculous.

Kristine: Interesting.

Sean: Plus that downward stroke kill with the big shears is sick’ning. Sally fighting with him over the shears is…. indelible.

Kristine: I agree. I loved that she fought but it was tough to watch.

Sean: Is Todd a hot piece?

Kristine: He is good looking but I don’t think he is sexy, so no he’s not a hot piece.

Sean: I want him to punish me.

Kristine:  Well, go lurk around the girl’s showers and he will discipline you.

Sean: Will Todd and Michelle get married?

Kristine: Yes, Todd and Michelle will marry and adopt Tiger.

Sean: Did The Burning capture the feeling of actually being at a summer camp as a kid?

Kristine: Hmmm. Not enough ennui and way to much kid independence, but otherwise, yeah.

Sean: I thought the “mess hall” scenes were all great.

Kristine: Totes.

Sean: With three movies down, how do you feel about the slasher genre as a whole? As a crusty whole?

Kristine: I thought these movies would scare me more than they did. They are more innocent than I thought they would be.

Sean: You are so brave now.

Kristine: I am brave.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: Problematic, but fun as hell.

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

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13 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981)

  1. I always get this one and ‘The Prowler’ (released as ‘Rosemary’s Killer’ down here in Aus) mixed up. I do remember liking them both, and I’m hanging out for a Blu edition of ‘The Burning’. I just watched the raft scene on YouTube – powerful stuff, for a slasher. Was surprised at how ‘real’ it felt – good/natural performances from the teens really added to it.
    Buying HEAPS of discs since discovering your blog!

      1. Been a long time since watching, so can’t be sure! I do remember putting Halloween, The Burning, Black Christmas and The Prowler above all other slashers, though. I’ll be checking it out this week, will let you know what I think of it then, if you like?

          1. Still waiting for a bluray release – these 70’s & 80’s films can look amazing in HD. I did grab Black Christmas on DVD though, which appeared in our letterbox yesterday – apparently the hard to get blu isn’t that much of an upgrade.
            My ‘to watch’ pile is almost as crazy as my ‘to be read’ pile!

  2. I saw “The Burning” on Netflix recently and it blew my mind. I agree, there were some parallels between it and Friday the 13th, but “The Burning” is definitely better in some ways.

    I was heartbroken when Cropsey killed Woodstock…he was a cute kid. Glazer was kind of sexy in a buff, dumb-jock kind of way, although he was a bully. I wasn’t sure what to make of Sally. Was she truly into Glazer or did she have sex with him because he pressured her into it? Alfred was fucking weird. I never understood why he followed Glazer around and spied on Sally. Jason Alexander was almost cute (don’t shoot me) in his younger days when he had hair and was more solid than fat. But I really didn’t need to see his butt in that one scene…yuck!

    When the kids on the raft were paddling towards the canoe, I expected to see Karen’s dead body in it. I was completely unprepared to see Cropsey jump up like some boogeyman and start butchering everybody. My mouth was open the whole time like, WTF dude? Jason Voorhees was hardcore but Cropsey was even more brutal. At least Jason generally killed his victims one at a time. Cropsey was just like, let me finish off all these mofos at once. Poor Woodstock got his freaking hand chopped up like meat. It was crazy.

    And don’t get me started on how Glazer was killed…I felt bad for the poor jerk. Imagine coming back all hot and heavy to be with Sally, and then Cropsey attacks. *shudders* But I do wonder why we don’t see what actually happens to Sally when she is killed?

    1. I totally agree that The Burning is weirder and more effective than Friday the 13th – especially, as you point out, that batshit crazy raft sequence. Love that. Also agree that Woodstock was adorable and it was sad when he died. I think they don’t show exactly what happens during Sally’s kill sequence in order to heighten the tension when Glazer returns to find her there – is she alive? Dead? Is it Cropsey IN the sleeping bag instead of Sally now?

  3. I was never really into the slashers, thus I’ve not necessarily seeked all of them out as a completist. But this movie is important to me because that photo with the cut fingers is indelibly imprinted in my brain. When I was in fifth grade a kid brought a Fangoria (or similar) to school, and I saw the image. Can’t say that I connected the image to the movie till now. The scene in Mad Max II with the boomerang resonated but I knew it could not be it, as it was too late a date.
    I even own the Savini makeup book, but I don’t remember that screen cap being there.