Just like any successful horror film, the first Friday the 13th brought about a slew of imitators. Not only did the film spawn more than a half dozen sequels in the years that followed, but the early eighties also saw films like Sleepaway Camp and Madman hop on the bandwagon and provide their own spin to the summer camp killer motif. The first of these films, releasing just a week after Friday the 13th Part 2 in 1981, was a bloody thriller that was destined to become a classic called The Burning.
Like many other horror films of the era, The Burning begins with an ill-advised practical joke; a group of boys at Camp Blackfoot break into the cabin of the camp maintenance man, Cropsy (The Last Dragon’s Lou David), and plant a decaying, worm-infested skull next to his bed. When he wakes up and sees it, he is scared so badly that he accidentally starts a fire and is burned horribly. He is taken to a hospital, where his condition terrifies the staff. After five years of rehabilitation, Cropsy is released from the hospital. The first thing he does is find a prostitute to take care of his needs, but she screams when she sees his disfigured form and, out of rage, he kills her. Branded a freak by the fire, Cropsy heads back to the camp to have his revenge on anyone who may be there. Across the lake from Blackfoot, Camp Stonewater is full of teenage victims, and Cropsy begins to pick them off, one by one. The head counselor, Todd (soap opera stud Brian Matthews from “The Young and the Restless” and “Santa Barbara”) is the only one who can save the kids from Cropsy’s vengeance.
The Burning is the first film produced by Miramax’s Harvey and Bob Weinstein (who would go on to be huge Hollywood players with, among countless others, films like Pulp Fiction and Scream). Harvey claimed to have written the story before the release of Friday the 13th in 1980, but Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham beat him to the punch. Nevertheless, Harvey had Bob turn his story into a screenplay and hired director Tony Maylam (Split Second) to fill in the blanks, and the group learned quickly that there was room for more than one camp killer movie in the horror world. While it shares a lot of commonalities with other summer camp films, including a campfire exposition scene that is almost exactly like scenes from both Friday the 13th Part 2 and Madman, The Burning also stands well on its own merits.
It’s common knowledge that a movie is only as good as its antagonist, and the fact is never more evident than when the film is perceived as an imitation of another successful film. Luckily for The Burning, Cropsy is a great villain. Unlike other prank-gone-wrong horror films of the eighties like Prom Night and Terror Train, Cropsy’s identity is known from the very beginning of the film. Without the mystery aspect, The Burning is a pure slasher flick. And the term slasher is very literal; Cropsy’s weapon of choice is a pair of garden shears, and the iconic image from the film is a silhouette of Cropsy, sun behind him with his shears in the air ready to fall on a screaming victim. Cropsy is forged out of the same mold as Jason from Friday the 13th and Madman Marz from Madman, yet he still brings a fresh take to the killer-in-the-woods design.
The list of victims in The Burning includes several names and faces that would go on to much bigger and better things. The boys are led by a pre-“Seinfeld” Jason Alexander, sporting much more hair and less girth than he does in his George Costanza days. The girls’ cabin features a nearly unrecognizable Holly Hunter, long before she was winning Oscars in The Piano. The cast also includes Fisher Stevens before Short Circuit made him a star and Brian Backer before he was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The young ensemble cast in The Burning definitely did not get typecast into becoming horror movie slasher fodder; they broke out to have successful comedic and dramatic careers.
As impressive as the cast list for The Burning is, there is an even more impressive name behind the scenes; the film also features some of the bloodiest, goriest special effects work by makeup master Tom Savini (who did the effects for Friday the 13th as well as for most of zombie godfather George Romero’s films). Savini is credited in The Burning as “Horror Sequence Designer,” which basically means that he directed the blood-and-guts scenes. And they are bloody and gutsy. In one infamous scene, a group of campers take a homemade raft across the lake, only to have Cropsy slaughter the lot of them in a colorful display of screaming kids, spurting blood, and flying appendages. Savini’s special effects are distinct and influential, and The Burning is a classic display of his talents.
In addition to the Weinstein Brothers, Tom Savini, and all of the up-and-coming stars in the cast, there is another legendary name associated with The Burning. The soundtrack was written and recorded by none other than Rick Wakeman, keyboard player for the prog-rock band Yes and composer of the music for Lisztomania and “The Raft” segment from Creepshow 2. Wakeman’s score, like many of the horror soundtracks of the time, is completely electronic, yet is much more layered than the typical moog film score. Wakeman has a real ear for the theatric, and his music for The Burning is great, with or without the accompanying film.
It’s no secret that Friday the 13th is one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and its imitators began popping up immediately after its success. Audiences were lucky that most of them were able to add to the mix rather than just rehash, and The Burning is one of the more effective imitations of the classic film.