The Burning: Moralistic, Even by Slasher Movie Standards

09/16/2011 11:23 AM |

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92YTribeca’s “rip-off cinema” series continues this weekend with a Saturday night screening of 1981’s The Burning, directed by Tony Maylam.

Released almost to the day a year after Friday the 13th—and the weekend after Friday the 13th Part 2The Burning is a conspicuous cash-in on the new box-office formula that franchise spawned: in it, the victim of a summer-camp accident—this time a burning, not a drowning!—impossibly survives to wreak vengeance on the kinds of campers who did him in. (The killer’s name, by the way, is Cropsy.) But aesthetically, this cult favorite exhibits more of the flair of Halloween or its underrated sequel, showcasing a refined style—trailing POV shots, stalking tracking shots—that’s more pleasurable than the routine comeuppance the movie metes out to its randy teens. The Burning expertly balances its artful accruals of tension with its copious T&A and adolescent bonhomie.

The high spirits are provided chiefly by a young Jason Alexander, who plays the camp clown. In fact, the movie boasts early appearances by a slew of actors and crew—the Weinstein brothers and Tom Savini; Holly Hunter, Minkowski from Lost and Brian Backer, who would a Tony Award a month later for his performance in Woody Allen’s The Floating Light Bulb. The teens they play are picked off regardless of sexuality—virgins and the promiscuous are killed in kind during a Deliverance-style canoe trip, suggesting that impure thought and deed are of equal moral weight. The first camp victim is killed after declining sex with a fellow camper while skinny dipping—is she killed for her prudishness, or for taking her clothes off outside the confines of marriage? (The latter, presumably; Cropsy’s first victim is a sex worker killed during a visit to the seedier districts of Buffalo.)

But such moralizing may be a red herring; by making its villain a third-degree-burn victim, The Burning suggests vengeance from an object of post-70s America’s subconscious guilt—firebombed Cambodians and napalmed villagers? There is a character named Woodstock, and another who compares summer camp to being in the army. Is The Burning an unrecognized Vietnam allegory? Or is such a metaphor the accidental result of filmmakers just trying to copy someone else’s success?