Monday, May 2, 2011

The Burning (1981)

by Alec "Just kill me when it's over" Cizak

I realize The Burning has a cult following that adores it. It features good special-effects make-up work by Tom Savini. It’s notable for its cast, which includes Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter (not to mention Brian Backer, who went on to channel Paul Simon and Woody Allen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). The truth of the matter is that it is not a very good slasher. At all. I would go so far as to say that the writers and producers tried to get "clever" with the genre, possibly even attempting to “deconstruct” it while the genre was in its prime.

As much as I loathe and despise “deconstructionism,” I can set my personal feelings aside as “deconstructionism,” with respect to horror films, rarely, if ever, works. While Scream made a lot of money at the box office and started a trend of slick, studio-produced "post-modern" slashers in the late 1990s, purists pretty much agree those movies suck shit out of a donkey’s ass with a straw. Sarah Trencansky backs this view up in her article, “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror.” Trencansky uses a lot of later examples, i.e., A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser, to make the case that 1980s horror movies are subversive in nature (the teenagers representing "the Other") and the polished, nauseating "post-modern" films of the 1990s are more restorative than disruptive of the “dominant culture.” I agree with Trencasky, though I think the movies she’s really talking about, when discussing the 1980s, were made in 1980 and 1981. There are a few examples afterwards, but by 1982, more money is spent in order to make more money and that, by definition, takes the rug out from a low-budget film’s subversive nature. Further, I have a problem including films like A Nightmare on Elm Street in the canon of slasher films because the supernatural element separates those films from the bare-bones model of a human monster stalking young people (and the occasional impotent authority figure).

Okay, so maybe I’m kind of a low-budget snob. A slasher movie, to me, is filmed on a shoe-string budget. It has bare-breasts and buckets of blood. It has a soundtrack that places it firmly in the early 1980s, meaning synthesizers, and lots of ‘em! It appears right in that borderland period between the excessive freedom of the Carter administration and the repressive, deadly clampdown (thank you, The Clash) that occurred when Reagan and Bush took over (remember that Reagan doesn’t take office until 1981, giving the country a year or two to adjust to his oppressive, murderous regime, thus, making the appearance of Rambo and Rocky IV, two films Robert Kolker uses to describe how the clock was suddenly turned back to Cold War paranoia, inevitable; I would go so far as to argue that the “puritanical” aspects of the slasher film were not brought to forefront of the genre until Reagan thoroughly took over--but that’s another article for another time...)

The Burning appears during this time. 1981, which was, in my opinion, the high-point for the slasher genre. The Burning was the first effort by the Weinstein Brothers. That makes quite a bit of sense. They were also responsible for letting Wes Craven unload Scream on a thoroughly impotent 1990s audience of teenagers who had been conditioned to believe that self-consciousness was/is “clever.” It’s not. The Burning proves this.

The film starts off great. A group of teenagers at camp play a horrible prank on the camp’s caretaker. It’s an early example of Reagan-era conformity-fever. The guy is different, so he needs to be punished. The prank--surprise--goes bad, and the weirdo gets engulfed in flames. He survives and is released from the burn ward, horribly disfigured, five years later. In a scene that seems out of place, the pissed off, permanently barbecued caretaker follows a middle-aged hooker up to her room and kills her. Feminist critics have used this scene as an example of the genre’s misogyny towards older women as the hooker looks hideous as she realizes she’s let a freak into her apartment. It’s possible. The truth, I think, is that it’s just a cheap way to set up the reality that the man is going to be a permanent outsider and justifies his exacting revenge on a new batch of campers. Another possibility is that the producers realized how much time passes between the establishment of the campers and the first real killing and stuck the scene in after principal photography wrapped.

What follows is about a forty-five minute rehash of Meatballs. We meet the jokers, the outcast, the suspiciously Aryan-looking bully, the girls, and the camp counselor who--surprise--was one of the little pricks who caused our killer to get burned up five years previous. Noting the obvious ethnic differences between the Ayran bully and the “good” kids and Brian Hacker’s “weirdo” who--gasp--likes to look at naked girls, one begins to suspect the Weinstein brothers are going to use the slasher genre to make a statement about the holocaust. But that would have been too clever (and, I believe, would have fit the film right in with the anti-authoritarian purpose of other slashers being made at the time).

No, instead what follows is just an extended period of character development, which isn’t such a bad thing. It certainly collides with the hypersensitive criticism claiming the victims in slasher films aren’t likeable (that trend, again, evolved with Reagan’s turning the clock back and making individuality a social crime deserving of a machete to the skull). However, the producers simply take too long to get to the slashing. I’m of the Atari generation, so my attention span has not been completely eradicated. I can take story and character development. But in a slasher picture, you need to start carving the kiddies up a whole lot sooner.

When the killing does start, it’s not suspenseful. Tom Savini doesn’t get nearly as gruesome in this one as he does in the (my opinion, folks) vastly superior The Prowler. There is no Final Girl, which I believe takes away one of the genre’s most potent weapons of subversion--the woman who doesn’t need prince charming to save her. Instead, it’s two guys who are symbolically tied to the killer, one being the camp weirdo and the other being the counselor who was partially responsible for the killer’s shish kabob routine in the beginning of the film. There is a long, convoluted chase through what appears to be Civil War ruins (turns out to be a mill or something) and then an anti-climactic face off with the killer.

One element of the film that made me furious was the treatment of sex. While sex in other slashers appears to be “punished,” the kids at least have a good time while they’re doing it. Perhaps foreseeing the repressive Reagan age, the Weinstein brothers decided to make the sex in The Burning unfulfilling. The Aryan bully fails to satisfy his girlfriend and the experience is presented in such a way as to send a repressive message--Don’t have sex, you won’t enjoy it. I’m certain the producers thought they were “deconstructing” the sex in previous slasher films. All they really did was back the status quo, which during Reagan’s regime, was highly represented by the uptight Christian “right.”

That scene alone puts The Burning in the right-wing camp and, by definition, thwarts any other attempt by the film to be radical and subversive. I find it shameful and refuse to recommend this movie to anybody who doesn’t first try to recommend the church to me...


  1. Very good review, Alec. Though I might not go so far as agree with "oppressive, murderous regime." But I too prefer those low budget films to the slick Hollywood offerings.

  2. I enjoyed this review as well, although I haven't seen this film. I got caught up watching 80's slasher films late last year when I was down for the count. It was extremely amusing and fun to rehash the films.

  3. David -- I know, Reagan strikes people differently. I cannot forgive the Iran-Contra scandal or his handling of the AIDS crisis, both of which led to many deaths. Of course, presidents always make decisions that lead to people dying, so one could argue that it isn't fair to single out one president over another.

    Jodi -- Late last year was when I did my 80s slasher rehash. There must have been something in the air!