The Burning (1981)

“Man, this guy is so burned, he’s cooked! A fucking Big Mac, overdone!” So much for hospital staff sensitivity, that being how an orderly describes the poor burn victim he’s treating at the beginning of this pleasingly typical ‘80s slasher.

Said victim is Cropsy, a mercilessly mean caretaker at Camp Blackfoot who’s set aflame when a prank played by mischievous young campers goes horribly wrong. Burnt to a crisp, it takes Cropsy (wow, that very nearly is ‘Crispy’) five years to leave the hospital he’s recovering in. And when he’s out, he’s got just one thing on his mind. No, not a Happy Meal – revenge.

So far so slasher, but The Burning isn’t quite as cynical as all that. Made just one year after the first Friday The 13th, it’s a blatant cash-in that somehow manages to remain entertaining and inventive. What’s most interesting about The Burning is that it shows us just how early the ‘killer in the woods’ formula was boiled down to its bare essentials. Taking the slasher rules set up in Friday The 13th, The Burning streamlines them into a concentrate that will end up being used by every forest-y slasher thereafter.

We all know those rules. The girls are frigid, giggly teases, the boys randy as dogs in heat. There’s female flesh galore, and the ‘girls who have sex die’ mantra is deployed in full-force (though a few poor girls who tease and don’t put out are tarred with the same bloody brush). Meanwhile the deaths are grisly, graphic and bloody, carried out by a killer wielding a massive pair of gardening shears (this wasn’t branded a ‘video nasty’ for nothing).

What sets The Burning apart from other hack-and-slash murderthons, though, is the time it takes to set things up. After the initial prank-gone-awry, and a brilliantly atmospheric introductory stalk-and-slash, things settle down into effective boo-scare territory. When the slashing finally begins in earnest, it has impact – not least thanks to Tom Savini’s no-holds-barred gore work.

Savvy modern horror audiences won’t have any trouble figuring out who lives and dies (or spotting the slasher steals, such as the Halloween killer POV pinch), but that’s all part of the fun. If your Friday The 13th box set is worn out, The Burning provides a refreshing respite. 3/5

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