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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

The Burning Tony Maylam 1981

Boys will Be Girls...

I'm gonna eat some serious crow here and admit that I had seen about half of The Burning a few years back and couldn't get through it. Granted, I was watching a terrible VHS antiquity that had somehow wormed its way onto the shelf of a musty little video store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where it lay down, exhausted, to die. I can remember squinting at what looked like sea monkeys filmed through chocolate milk, mostly without any sound, and eventually gave up.

Now, having finally gotten me mitts on a decent copy of the film, I am delighted to say that it's phenomenal. As loathe as I am to toss any pearls into the swollen coffers of the bloviated Brothers Weinstein, I gotta hand it to them -- The Burning really stands out as one of the better summer camp slasher movies and even holds some ground in one of the most densely populated horror years in American cinema history. Creepy, violent, and intensely suspenseful, the film stands in the company of groundbreaking horror pics Just Before Dawn and Sleepaway Camp for one very important reason:

the Final Girl... is a Boy.

Some will laugh this off with a haughty, "So's Jamie Lee Curtis!", but we don't take potshots like that here. Do we, Buzz? (shakes head). I thought not. No, here we toil in the tireless pursuit of horror flicks that give us a window into the American mind and how it feels about its men, its women, its children, its housecoats, its razorcocks, and whatever else it may have packed away in the darker corners. We're here as thinking adults, deconstructing a genre that is long-perceived to be masochistic, macho, and singlemindedly heterocentric. We're desperately trying to map our own left-of-center sexual identities onto a form of storytelling that would outwardly seem to mock us -- even punish us -- even as we embrace it. So when a film with this devious of an execution of what at this point in time was becoming an iron-coded genre comes along, we need to celebrate. Yes, folks, that's right: We came for the cause, but we stayed for the ass-shots.

The Burning begins in what now is an almost charmingly old-fashioned way, much like the opening title sequences of Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, only here there is no dog and several teens set a man on fire in his bed. Oops! The man, evil caretaker Cropsy (which to me sounds like a deraged rabbit's name), is understandably taken aback by this particularly potent flavor of wake-up call, and wheels down a hill, flaming like Liberace, into a lake. He is hospitalized and we learn that he has been essentially cooked like a Big Mac (actual quote from the film, folks) and has no hope of recovering his 3 outer layers of skin.

Roll opening titles.

Now THAT's what I call a kickoff! We cut back in, five years later, and Mr. Pomme Frites is released into the world to a chorus of concerned-sounding doctors telling him that his life in the real world will be intolerable but they need the bed. He goes home with a hooker, and in a very disturbing scene that's downright Italian in its presentation of New York as a seething mound of well-oiled perverts, and he kills her with some handy industrial-size scissors that happen to be laying around (Note to prostitute readers: Hi. I'm Buzz, and I'm lonely. What are you wearing? Oh -- try not to leave large, sharp instruments in plain sight if you plan on bringing home men to fuck for money. Just a tip.). Naturally, after this transaction fails, The Burning Man wanders off to find a summer camp, as apparently all the children of Manhattan are sent off the island for the summer and it's easier for him to "blend" out in the woods wearing all-black and leather gloves than it is in Times Square.

Cut to the new crop of victims, which include Seinfeld's Jason Alexander (who horrifyingly enough, looks exactly the same) and Holly Hunter, who appears in about three shots and yells "Todd!" once, despite surviving the entire film. She, too, apparenly drank from the same vial as Alexander, as she looks about half her normal size but otherwise identical to the way she does now. There's also Todd (Brian Matthews, a lithe sort of butch(er) Tommy Tune who went on to do a LOT of soap opera acting), Alfred (Brian Becker, who won a Tony the same year and appeared in the Trifecta of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Money Pit, AND Moving Violations) and Woodstock (a very young Fisher Stevens, who has been in hundreds of films that you've never seen and is best known for playing an Indian guy in Short Circuit. No, he's not Indian. No, we don't know why he was cast.). Oddly enough, there is actual "Character Development" that takes up a good deal of the running time, and guess what? It's not boring! The character bits are mixed in with a few suspense sequences here and there, and I have to say that by the time the shit hits the fan (and does it ever!), you're wincing at the thought of these kids getting it.

The first reason is that they all look so damned YOUNG! Seriously -- in the Friday the 13th movies, it's usually the counsellors that get it, or at least the older campers. In Scream and the like, the actors are already getting senior citizens bus discounts but are playing teens, making the whole thing totally abstract. But here, these kids really look young, and they're really just out at camp trying to have a good time and not get poison ivy and maybe get lucky or something along the way. So when a maniac with a set of hedge clippers pops out of a canoe and slices an entire raft full of them to bloody bits -- a raft that they built themselves, mind you -- it's pretty damn freaky.

So the teens aren't the typical "disposable" type -- they're not too nasty, they play pranks and laugh, they look out for each other. But one teen is different from the rest, and it's a central plot point: Alfred, the Nerdy Jew. Now, Alfred seems like a decent guy, but he has a problem with the local bully Glazer, probably because he spies on Glazer's girlfriend showering early in the film. Alfred is sort of our "eyes" in the film: he sees stuff that the other kids don't, including early appearances by the Amazing George Foreman Grilled Killer, other kids having sex, and the like. We also get to learn a little more about him than the other kids: for one, he doesn't want to be at the camp, and he views it as being something like the Army. I'm not sure what Army films he's been watching, but I don't recall any of the branches of the armed services featuring Bug Juice and Arts and Crafts. If they did, I may have enlisted by now.

I will say that the other, more sexualized men, are pretty clumsy, if not downright cruel to their lady-friends. The nasty Eddie basically tries to date rape the first girl victim in the lake, leaving her to run around the woods naked in a truly creepy (and nipple-hardening) scene. The cause of pretty much all the friction here is aggressive male sexuality, and Alfred is the only one who wants nothing of it, preferring to creep around in the girls' showers (maybe he ran out of conditioner?) and hang out in the woods alone.

So, warts and all, it looks like Alfred is going to be our familiar. He's a Peeping Tom. Alright, we can deal with it. He kind of gets picked on (at least he says he does; we don't really see much of it other than Glazer's bullying, which the other kids back Alfred up on). Alright. He's unathletic and prone to fits of panic and paranoia. Hey wait a minute... this guy's starting to sound familiar, all right...

Indeed, aside from not having an overt crush on one of the other male characters, Alfred is an almost exact match to me as a teen. Maybe other gay men, as well. Regardless of whether or not he's supposed to be gay, this kind of sympathetic presentation of such an inward, misunderstood, mis-sexualized character is quite startling, especially since the plot soon makes it quite clear that this squirrely little fella is meant to stand in for our beloved Final Girl.

What?! No Final Girl? Are you insane? Well, yes -- it has been pretty much established that you need a Final Girl in your horror film or no one will pay any attention to it, which might explain why a scary, well-constructed film such as this has been fairly well forgotten by just about everyone aside from completist geeks like us. Instead of Jamie Lee Curtis being stalked and terrorized, we get Brian Becker. Instead of Melissa Sue Anderson being cruelly toyed with and made to suffer cruel indignities, we get Brian Becker. Amy Steele? Brian Becker. Neve Campbell? Brian Becker. Jenn-- Brian Becker. P-- Brian Becker. There is No Final Girl, and we just have to deal with it.

After a shitload of campers get sliced and diced on the canoe trip, Todd the counsellor and Michelle, his improbable girlfriend, try to help. This involves Michelle taking the kids back to camp and coming back with the Cavalry, and Todd opening up his shirt and running through the woods with an axe to save Alfred, who is pinned to a wall like Little Nell in an old coal shed, screaming like a woman. Todd has a bit of a clumsy stumble through the shed before getting attacked by CinderFella, but luckily Alfred -- in true Final Girl "got yer back" fashion -- stabs him in the back of the neck and saves the day. Kind of. He comes back, of course, and Todd puts an axe in his head, firmly showing who will be the Butch and who the Bitch later that evening. Michelle probably arrives with the cops and a swarm of choppers, but who cares? This little morality play has been played out, hero and heroine have completed their duties, and we're left to relax and wait for the sequel. It's also interesting to note that Jack Sholder, director of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (aka, The Gayest Horror Film Ever Made), was the editor.

Speaking of sequels, I'm shocked that the Weinsteins haven't taken a crack at mining this real estate for a remake or a sequel, if even just for their direct-to-video market. Well, let's hope that the microscopic soft spot in Bob and Harvey's shared heart hold the rights to The Burning, and their fond memories of their first ever Miramax release will keep it safe from such tampering. In the meantime, track this one down -- it's a must.

Rating (out of 5):