Few genres are as synonymous with the jump scare as horror. Usually the product’s lame when too many burst from the screen, especially when fake-outs are just as quickly found as an actual explosion of carnage. But the reappraised summer camp slasher The Burning (1981) deviates from that sentiment: Here, the jump scares are so ingenious — and executed in a manner that suggests that maybe its makers were cackling while thinking them up — that we’re almost eager to see what the next one will bring. How often do you get a mad slasher bursting out of a canoe to attack helpless teenagers, after all?
The movie’s about the same as both Friday the 13th (1980) and Sleepaway Camp (1983), except this time our reservations don't hold so steadily. Whereas Friday the 13th was witless and no more than the cinematic guidebook to what Randy from Scream (1996) was talking about, and whereas Sleepaway Camp was a hokey, accidentally funny terror train with a plethora of bizarre characters, The Burning is unapologetically fun, the unusual slasher that gets our blood curdling as often as it delivers clichés good for any drinking game.
In it, a summer camp caretaker badly disfigured by a prank gone wrong returns to the latter location after his long hospital stay to enact revenge — even if his targets weren’t directly involved with the accident. His weapon of choice a pair of gleaming garden shears and his garments Grim Reaper-lite — every killer must be distinguishable from one movie to the next — he moves around the encampment with the stealth of Napoleon Solo, making his move just as most of the campers embark on a days-long canoeing trip.
Tension is built by a generous helping of long-winded killer POV shots, and a hodgepodge of teenagers screaming that they think they saw something in the bushes, out the window, etc. The difference between The Burning and its similarly off-brand stalk-and-slash counterparts, though, is that it doesn’t altogether resemble a quickly made bandwagon hop (even though it is). Since its teenagers look like teenagers, all hormonal, fit with zits and lanky limbs that age them down, there’s more fear here. For once, it seems like unlucky teenagers are really getting murdered during what should be a couple weeks of fun in the sun.
Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp practically wanted us to lick our lips whenever someone’s skin was penetrated by a knife, but The Burning, in spite of some terrific gore effects, cares about who lives and who dies. So as soon as its final showdown arrives, we’re primed to see all this mania come to an end. And what a great finale it is — drawn-out and unnerving, we’re surprised to find ourselves sinking into our seats, our bodies curling in terror as we prepare for the worst.
Once you’ve seen one slasher movie you’ve seen them all. But so good is The Burning that you might as well watch this one if unfamiliar with the enduring horror subgenre (though even aficionados will find something to like here). And if The Burning isn’t already a slasher must, consider it even more of an unmissable artifact thanks to its featuring future stars Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and Fisher Stevens in early roles as unhappy campers. B+
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
The Burning October 6, 2017
love those little moments in slasher movies wherein you could hear a pin drop if you tried hard enough. Those moments when defenseless teens wander into eerily black, creaking buildings and, unbeknownst to them, are going to become calfs butchered by the killer waiting inside. Those moments where the silence is deafening and you know something, or someone, is going to pop out from the shadows and turn our blood cold.