Sigh... Another week, another slasher film. You would think I would have grown tired of them by now. Well, I have but there are a few that warrant repeat viewings and Tony Maylam's early slasher entry THE BURNING is one of them. As far as slashers go, this film is a goddamned character study. There are so many characters wandering through the proceedings that it feels like a slasher film via Robert Altman than yet another FRIDAY THE 13TH clone. The attention to characters is both THE BURNING's blessing and it's curse. Because of it, the film feels more mature and a bit more entertaining but it also feels slow and anemic. It almost feels like you're watching a film that started out as a coming-of-age Summer camp movie but later had slasher elements grafted onto it once FRIDAY THE 13TH hit it big at the box office. In other words, it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
Summing the film's plot up is a bit hard as nothing much really happens in it. The gist is that a former caretaker of a Summer camp returns to his old stomping grounds to wreak revenge on all the kiddies because he is pretty pissed off that he was severely burned in a prank gone wrong. While we wait for him to start the slaughter, we're introduced to more than a dozen characters of varying depth and likability, including Alfred, the socially inept nerd who knows something is not quite right. That's pretty much it for the majority of the film. We watch the kids pull pranks, crack jokes, play baseball, take showers... yadda yadda yadda... until the older kids board canoes and make their way downstream for a three-day getaway. That's when things finally start getting bloody as the disfigured Cropsy shows up with a big, sharp pair of garden shears and a serious hankering for some vengeance.
The first hour of THE BURNING is the make-it or break-it segment of the film for slasher fans. Aside from a tacked-on murder of a prostitute - it feels as out of place here as Henry Winkler's death felt in SCREAM - there isn't a single drop of blood spilled. What we have instead is character interaction. I, for one, enjoyed it immensely. All of the kids are energetic and personable - especially Jason Alexander's Dave and Fisher Steven's Woodstock - and the interaction between the characters is easy going and believable. While some characters are more interesting than others - most of the girls are bland and the adult counselors are pretty thin - the majority of the personalities on display are memorable and, more importantly, endearing.
So when the shit starts to hit the fan, the eventual demises of our characters hurt much more. The centerpiece of the film, the famous raft massacre, is so shocking not only because we didn't see it coming but because we have grown to like the characters so much. This is something most slasher film screenwriters and directors don't seem to get. Faceless characters without personalities don't work. They're just lumps of meat. But give us characters we like and care about and the suspense becomes unbearable and the violence more disturbing and traumatic. The raft scene is deservedly famous in the slasher canon precisely because it is so remarkably shocking and it is only shocking because it brings to an end the lives of several main characters we have come to like and care about.
While Tom Savini's make-up effects are a highlight of the film, Tony Maylam's direction is a definite lowlight. Maylam feels fairly comfortable with the set-up but stumbles horribly down the stretch. The ending of the film in particular is a staggering disappointment. It is so jumbled and so disorientating - most of the blame can be laid on an obvious lack of coverage during shooting - that it saps the climax of all it's energy. While it would be somewhat harsh to say the final ten minutes of a film negate the proceeding eighty entirely, I'm not going to deny the rushed, poorly-edited and poorly-filmed ending hurts the film considerably. Quality material like this deserves a much better curtain call than Maylam provided.
But, poor ending aside, THE BURNING remains one of the very best slasher movies ever produced in the 1980s - leagues better than FRIDAY THE 13TH and it's numerous sequels - but it will always be a second-tier film due to some poor direction and a climax that is much more a whimper than a bang.