Don't go to summer camp. Whatever you do, don't go to summer camp. This is one of the obvious lessons from 1981's The Burning. Co-written and directed by Tony Maylam (with an original story idea by Harvey Weinstein, himself a walking horror film), The Burning is a blistering chainsaw of a film based on the Cropsey urban legend. In case you don't know, the legend of Cropsey, which is detailed wonderfully by documentarians Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio in their film of the same name, claims that an escaped patient from Staten Island's Willowbrook Mental Institution roams around the forests and streets looking for children to kidnap. Sometimes Cropsey has a hook for a hand; sometimes he wields a sharp ax. Either way, old Cropsey is bad news.
Zeman and Brancaccio put forth the idea that Cropsey was based on the real crimes of Andre Rand, a former custodian at Willowbrook who began abducting and murdering little girls in 1972. Rand's last known crime was the murder of Jennifer Schweiger, a young girl with Down syndrome, who was found murdered in 1987. Could Rand be Cropsey's source material? Seems far-fetched given that The Burning was released eight years after Rand's first known crime, which was itself neither a major news story nor something so infamous that it seared itself into the collective memories of hardened New Yorkers.
Back to The Burning. The movie may seem familiar: it tells the tale of a revenge prank gone wrong. Five years prior, a sadistic caretaker named Cropsy (played by Lou David) is accidentally set alight after a few of the kids want to repay him for past abuses. The boys scare Cropsy with a gooey skull with worms crawling around in the empty eye sockets. This causes Cropsy to kick over a gasoline can that is way too close to his bed. A candle from the skull hits the deck, and whoosh go the flames.
Five years later and Cropsy is out of the burn unit. The first thing he does is find a hooker (played by K.C. Townsend). When the working girl gets a load of his messed up mug, Cropsy stabs her in the stomach. Gore wizard Tom Savini does incredible work in The Burning, and the twisting and turning murder of the prostitute is uncomfortably realistic. Cropsy now heads to Camp Stonewater, which is neighbors to the now abandoned Camp Blackfoot where Cropsy used to work. Cropsy begins killing off the campers with his gardening shears. The kills pile up, and Cropsy gets a whole crop of dumb teens when he ambushes their makeshift raft as it floats for the safety of the main camp.
The campers in The Burning do not break any stereotypes whatsoever. There's the rough-and-tumble Brooklynites Glazer (Larry Joshua) and Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), both of whom are rather pushy with women to put it mildly. The requisite geeks abound, especially the nebbish and picked on Alfred (Brian Backer) and the stringbean Woodstock (Fisher Stevens). The glad-handing Dave (Jason Alexander with hair) is there to have fun and buy girlie mags for the boys, while Todd (Brian Matthews) is the rugged and good-looking leader of the male troop. As for the women, they are led by the forceful Michelle (Leah Ayres), supported by the vixen Sally (Carrick Glenn), and undergirded by the shy Karen (Carolyn Houlihan). Of these, Alfred spends most of the picture getting shafted by Glazer, who calls him everything from a creep to a geek. Todd is there to protect little Alfred, but he's hiding a secret of his own. You see, as is revealed at the climax, Todd has a direct connection to the burning of Cropsy back at Camp Blackfoot.
After killing off most of the campers, Cropsy corners Alfred in what appears to be an abandoned house in the middle of the woods (the Cropsey urban legend usually involves an abandoned mental asylum deep in the forest). Todd races to save Alfred. Todd and Alfred square off against Cropsy, whose awful face is revealed for the first time.
Not to fear, The Burning is still an '80s movie after all, so Todd and Alfred make it out ok. As for Cropsy, he takes his own shears to the back and Todd's ax to the forehead. Alfred then seals the entire deal by setting Cropsy on fire...again.
The Burning is often compared to Friday the 13th (1980), the first major slasher film to feature an aggrieved killer rampaging their way through camp counselors. Horror film nerds know that Weinstein (may his anus rot in jail) wrote up the five-page treatment of the film in 1979, well before director Sean Cunningham began working on Friday the 13th. Still, it's hard not to see the similarities. The Burning has a much bigger cast meaning it had more money in production. Also, for some reason that has never been fully explained, The Burning was hit much harder than Friday the 13th by Britain's Video Recordings Act of 1984. Ergo, The Burning was an infamous "video nasty" while Friday the 13th was not. Go figure.
The Burning is one of the best of the original slasher films that helped to inaugurate the sub-genre's boom in the 1980s. With great music and incredible special effects, plus tons of T & A and red paint, it's hard to hate something this groovy.