Directed by Tony Maylam. US. 1981. R. 91 minutes. Miramax. 35mm.
Fri., April 1, 2016
“Though their tale of summer-camp mayhem was conspicuously beaten to the punch by Paramount’s “Friday the 13th,” the Weinsteins’ real undoing ironically ended up being the zealousness of the MPAA, rapidly becoming sensitive to the genre’s race to the bottom and flexing their muscle in tandem with the rise of America’s moral majority. As a result, some of the wettest moments from “The Burning” ended up on the cutting room floor, leaving behind an unusually long exposition, more than just a few false alarm scares, and a young George Costanza (a.k.a. Jason Alexander) voicing his preoccupation with his bunkmates’ spunk, clearly not yet a master of his domain.
“The Burning” opens with a group of teen boys punking their camp janitor, Cropsy (Lou David), in the middle of the night, placing a flaming skull on the passed-out drunkard’s nightstand and watching him freak out upon waking up. It’s framed as a prank gone wrong, but the skull, having been jarred onto Cropsy’s bed by his flailing legs, lights up the mattress so fast you have to presume the caretaker just spilled an entire fifth of Jim Beam on the sheets before falling asleep. He’s instantly lit ablaze in the confusion and left for dead, but a hospital patches him up with what looks like flesh-colored Bondo and turns him loose to call up, strip down, and rip open the hooker next door.
Not far away, every teen at Camp Anawanna has paired off with their heterosexual counterpart except for open-mouthed shower-peeper Alfred (Brian Backer), who the movie at first seems to be preparing to reveal as either Cropsy’s younger brother, his love child, or his telekinetic avenger. Strapping counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) takes Alfred under his wing, occasionally allowing him enough free reign to wander into the woods and witness Cropsy murdering one of his tormenters with an oversized set of hedge clippers. Is Cropsy doing Alfred a series of favors? Or is he just resolutely butthurt that sexy teens turned his mug into a collapsed blancmange? Damned if the Weinsteins care. Notable mostly for its prime-era Savini bloodshed and a few quick glimpses of a young Holly Hunter (uttering about as many lines of dialogue as won her an Oscar a dozen years later for “The Piano”), returning to “The Burning” three decades later is like contemplating any summer at camp: Peel away your nostalgia, and you’ll be left with 20-second sex bouts and insect bites.” (Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine)