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The Burning

Year: 1981
Studio: Miramax
Director: Tony Maylam
Producer: Harvey Weinstein
Writer: Tony Maylam/Harvey Weinstein/Brad Grey
Cast: Brian Matthews, Leah Ayers, Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Ned Eisenberg

Here's an interesting thing about the philosophy of the continuity of self. I feel like the exact person I was back when I found the pornography of the late 70s and early 80s so thrilling, much like the way horror movies from the era so terrified me I sometimes felt like I'd never sleep again.

It's not just that there's much better porn and much scarier horror around now than there was when I was a kid, it's because our experience changes us. The very fact of having grown up means old scary movies have far less effect on me, and I don't think it's even because I've seen so many scary movies since then. It's just that although we feel like the same person in our 40s that we were when we were kids or teenagers, we're far from it.

The thought struck me as I watched The Burning because I remember one single image from the back cover of the VHS release (of a girl with her throat slit and blood pouring out of her mouth and down her front) being so scary to me there was no way I was ever going to watch it.

And I never would have had it not been for a podcast about 80s movies that talked about the most amazing trivia connected with this movie – even more so than it being the feature film debuts of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens.

It was produced and written by a young Brad Grey, the same one who'd end up Chairman of Paramount pictures years later before his death in 2017, and Harvey Weinstein, who'd morph into the last of the old school Hollywood moguls, a man who seems to eat, sleep and dream Oscars and who you wouldn't think would be seen within a hundred miles of cheap 80s slasher pap.

But the reason to muse philsophically about how the effect horror has on me has changed without me realising it is because I watched it and it was all a bit 'meh'. I experienced the same thing a few years back when I finally watched Xtro, which likewise put me off for decades because of a single clip in the 30 second trailer.

You've seen the story in a hundred other slashers of the era and the gore effects are no better than what a film school kid could do with some latex and an iphone nowadays. Coming after Friday the Thirteenth and Halloween, it doesn't even really have its own sense of charm.

But we meet the killer, camp caretaker Cropsy (Lou David) when some camp kids decide to play a prank on him and leave a burning skull full of maggots beside his bed. Cropsy panics when they wake him up, knocking the skull onto the bed and setting the cabin alight, nearly burning himself to death in the process. After a long recovery that leaves him horribly scarred (and an aside of him propositioning and killing a hooker in the big bad city to show us what he's become), he returns to the camp a few years later for a reign of terror over a new crop of kids.

The famous faces represent a group of slasher movie archetypes you'll forget as soon as it's over but there's the upstanding hero, the hunky bully, the misfit nerd, the fast talking huckster, the easy girl who puts it about and everyone else – and they're all horny. They go upriver for a canoeing trip where every turn of the plot is a reason to get them alone so Cropsy can strike, the bodies piling up.

If you're a connoisseur of the genre you'll appreciate the hallmarks The Burning gets right. A good example is the grimy cinematogrpahy that makes even the pristine woods of upstate New York look dingy and filthy – and yes, they did just rub Vaseline around the outside of the lens for Cropsy's POV shots. Another is the eerie synth soundtrack doing its best to sound scary but serving only to make the year it was released unmistakeable decades later.

It did its best to upstage/homage Jason Vorhees by giving Cropsy a cinematic motif (the scene of him standing up in shadow holding his signature garden shears over his head), but it's a second prize winner image in a so-so movie.

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