Tom Savini’s contributions aside, THE BURNING is notable as the first film ever made by the Weinstein brothers Harvey (who produced) and Bob (who co-scripted), who until then were known as music promoters and B-movie distributors. In a definite sign of things to come Harvey ended up taking the film away from director Tony Maylam and recutting it, resulting in a credit that may be unique in cinema history: “Created by Harvey Weinstein.”
Other noteworthy names credited here include future NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 and THE HIDDEN director Jack Sholder, who edited the film, and a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter in a cast that also includes Fisher Stevens, Ned Eisenberg (of A CIVIL ACTION and MILLION DOLLAR BABY) and Brian Backer (FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH’S Mark Ratner).
One night at Camp Stonewater, a secluded summer camp in upstate New York, some teen miscreants decide to play on a joke on the creepy caretaker Cropsy. The joke goes horribly awry, resulting in Cropsy getting burned horribly. Following a stay in a big city hospital Cropsy assuages his grief by eviscerating a prostitute with a pair of scissors.
Some years later a new crop of teen campers descend upon the site of Cropsy’s burning, as well as the twentyish counselor Todd–who was one of the prank’s leading participants. Much aimless goofing around ensues until several campers paddle out to a remote island. There a nighttime skinny dipping session concludes with a young woman’s throat slashed by Cropsy, who’s graduated from scissors to a pair of shiny gardening shears. He also steals all the canoes, effectively stranding the campers.
The following day several campers head out in a makeshift raft to find the canoes, and are sliced up by Cropsy, hiding in a lone canoe floating in the middle of the lake. Cropsy next gashes a guy and gal having sex before focusing his attention on Todd. The resulting showdown takes place in an abandoned mine, in which the title takes on a very literal hue.
There are some inspired moments to be found here, including a climactic lake-set bit with corpses popping up from under the water and the justly famous canoe massacre. It’s unfortunate that director Tony Maylam (and/or producer Harvey Weinstein) insists on putting the material through a standard eighties slasher movie framework—complete with a shrill and distracting synthesizer score—rather than the more intriguing LORD OF THE FLIES-ish direction it might have followed.
The film is further marred by an overload of annoying fake scares, such as an unseen stalker who turns out to be a horny nerd, a POV shot running down a dock that turns out to be a kid pushing a friend into the water, and someone creeping around a darkened lodge who turns out to be a counselor. More problems? A shot of a silhouetted Cropsy wielding garden shears over his head is impressive, but it’s repeated too often, and the stalk and slash climax, in which we first see the Cropsy’s burned face, is overly drawn-out and predictable.
Where the film unquestionably shines is in the make-up effects by Tom Savini, who reportedly turned down FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2 in favor of THE BURNING, and did some of his finest-ever work in it. So potent are the burnings, throat slashings and finger loppings that the film was initially given an X rating in the US, and categorized as a “Video Nasty” in the UK, surely the highest possible compliment you can bestow upon a slasher flick.
Director: Tony Maylam
Producer (and “Creator”): Harvey Weinstein
Screenplay: Peter Lawrence, Bob Weinstein
Cinematography: Harvey Harrison
Editing: Jack Sholder
Cast: Jean Uband, Michael Cohl, Corky Burger, Brian Matthews, Leah Ayers, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Lou David, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Carrick Glenn, Carolyn Houlihan, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter