Burning, The (1981)

The Burning (1981)

If you go down to the woods today… Watch out for Cropsy!

A summer camp caretaker is severely burned and disfigured after a prank on him goes horribly wrong. Five years later, he is released from the hospital and heads back to the summer camp to carry out his bloody revenge.


When I first saw The Burning many years, I wasn’t too impressed and labelled it as a dismal Friday the 13th clone. But I have just completed my university dissertation (or thesis to my American readers) on the representations of masculinity in horror films and chose The Burning as one of my three example films (along with Sleepaway Camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge). Having watched it numerous times over the space of the last year in order to extrapolate as much information as possible, I have grown a fondness for it and now rank it highly amongst the 80s slasher crowd.

The Burning is an early 80s slasher through and through. The light-hearted sense of camp that infiltrated the later years was yet to have taken hold. There are no jokey goings-on here. No one-liner spouting killer. Even the 80s pop culture indications are kept to a minimum. The original wave of slashers played it serious and played it straight with realistic precision. The Burning is dingy, grimy and a little seedy at times, with a sleazy, low-key synth soundtrack to boot. 1981 was a great year for the slasher film and The Burning joined the charge with Halloween II, My Bloody Valentine and The Funhouse to name a few of the sterling efforts released that year.

The Burning follows a standard storyline from the limited pot of the slasher sub-genre:  the victim of a past traumatic event comes back to kill those responsible. It’s the most slender of plots and isn’t even used that well (most of the kids in the camp have no connection to Cropsey and his past). In fact, give or take a little bit at the beginning and the end of the film which attempts to tidy everything up into a neat little package, there is virtually no plot to the film. It’s primary intention is to provide shocking and startling scenes of horror.

Based around the fabled campsite legend of Cropsey, the film plays on those childhood fears of American audiences (as we, in the UK, never had things like summer camp – thankfully!) of something nasty lurking in the woods during summer vacations. The Burning is one of the rare examples of the summer camp slasher in which the camp is actually full of campers! Yes, the sex-crazed counsellors are here too but this is the first time we really get the sense that this is a living, breathing, working camp full of innocent children and this only adds to the sense of terror. The camp hi-jinks take centre stage for the first half of the film, with the usual tropes of campfire tales, bullies and nerds and peeping Toms all in effect. Underneath this joyful abandon and teenage innocence lies the seething rage of Cropsey, all ready to explode in gratuitously gory fashion.

The Burning has established itself as one of the go-to classics of the slasher genre, a benchmark film for its, pardon the pun, cutting edge make-up effects. The much-heralded raft massacre scene, although it would appear physically improbable, manages to land multiple devastating knock-out blows within the space of twenty seconds of screen time. It packs in as many awesome make-up effects as some slashers do in their entirety! Tom Savini’s make-up effects were butchered by the censors back in the day but have been restored in all of their uncut glory. They’re a little on the cheesy side nowadays but you can feel the manifestation of Cropsey’s violence and brutality with each swing or clip of his shears. Rarely have kill scenes appeared so malicious. Sadly, Cropsey’s own appearance is saddled with unnecessary layers of make-up which gives us the impression that there’s no way that a hospital would release him in that condition.

However, The Burning is a little too pre-occupied with shocking its audience with grisly death scenes to remember that we need a reason to care about the characters in order for the violence to work. I’ve never been entirely sure who to root for as the main character, Alfred, is a creepy, voyeuristic teen who’s always hanging around women when they’re getting showered or making out. He’s sharp and abrasive with almost everyone in the film. Glazer, the camp bully, is also an obnoxious asshole who bullies Todd, treats women with contempt and has the dubious distinction of being one of the few men in a slasher film to be told by his girlfriend that sex with him is disappointing. Todd is supposed to be the hero of the piece but gets less screen time than these other two. Surprisingly, the females are all relegated to background duty and make no real impression on the film, which leads me on to my next point.

The main reason I chose to study The Burning for my dissertation was because it is one of only a handful of slashers in which the Final Girl character actually turns out to be a Final Boy. This brings with it a whole raft of disturbing homosexual connotations to the male viewer (please note that the idea of homosexuality isn’t disturbing in itself but rather the challenge that a Final Boy and his relationship to a male killer makes to the heterosexual male viewer – I’ll publish my dissertation on the web site at some point for you to understand!). In fact there is a whole undercurrent of homosexual tension running through The Burning with the weird triangle of male characters all relating to each other in some form. This gives it an edge over its counterparts, adding in a layer of sub-textual meaning to a genre which has always been lambasted for its simplicity.


The Burning has its faults, of which there are many, but if you can stick with the sluggish pace for the first half, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best entries that the slasher sub-genre ever had to offer. Visceral and violent, Cropsey’s sole slasher outing is still as nasty and malicious today as it was in 1981, a fitting testament to one of the genre’s most talked-about films.





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