Thursday, July 18, 2013

Final Girl Film Club - The Burning

Cody is endeavoring to write about all of the Final Girl Film Club entries he missed over the years. The movies will be covered in the original Film Club order in most cases, while some of the articles will be posted to coincide with certain dates.

The Cropsy Maniac bloodies up the screen.

 "...they say his spirit lives in the forest. This forest. A maniac. A thing no longer human. They say he lives on whatever he can catch, eats them raw, alive maybe. And every year he picks on a summer camp and seeks his revenge for the terrible things those kids did to him. Every year, he kills. Right now, he's out there. Watching. Waiting. So don't look, he'll see you. Don't move, he'll hear you. Don't breathe. You're dead!"

The story of the Cropsy Maniac is an urban legend that has been passed around among the youths of New York state since at least the 1930s. The details weren't consistent, but the various different versions of the tale were effective in creeping out children for several generations.

Among the kids who heard about Cropsy were a pair of brothers named Harvey and Bob Weinstein. They never forgot the story they were told of a summer camp-stalking madman, and when they decided to get into the movie business after having become successful rock concert producers, they decided that the perfect first feature for them to make as film producers would be a cinematic telling of the Cropsy legend. They began developing the idea in the late '70s, and production began just in time to ride the wave of camp and backwoods slashers that were released in the wake of the 1980 success of Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th.

Directed by Tony Maylam, the film begins on a dark night at Camp Blackfoot, where a group of campers are plotting to play a vengeful prank on a man named Cropsy, the camp's caretaker, a mentally and physically abusive alcoholic. They sneak into his shack while he's sleeping, plant something beside his bed, then go outside and pound on the window to wake him up. When Cropsy opens his eyes, he comes face to face with what the kids left by his bed: a disgusting, filthy, rotten human head with worms and maggots crawling on it, lit candles burning in its eye sockets. When I first saw this movie as a child, I was deeply disturbed by this prank, mainly because I wondered how the hell these campers got their hands on a real human skull coated in decaying flesh, but obviously the idea is that they're just damn good at crafting ghoulish sights.

Being faced with the skull understandably sends Cropsy freaking and flailing. He knocks it over, the candles ignite his bed sheets, and the flames are quickly burning out of control. The shack goes up fast, a gas can explodes... Completely engulfed in flames, Cropsy runs screaming from the shack, falling into the nearby lake.

It's the classic '80s slasher trope of beginning the film with a horrific incident that happened years before the present day section of the story, but rather than just jump ahead from there with the set-up that Cropsy's body was never found and he'll someday return for revenge, the film actually follows Cropsy's progress. He is recovered from the water, he is hospitalized, terribly deformed by his burns, although we're not privy to his face for a while. After five years of convalescence, he's released back out into the world... And one of the first things he does is go out to pick up a prostitute. A man's got needs I suppose, he probably didn't get much action in the burn ward, but I do find this sequence to be a bit of an odd choice. When I think of campfire legend maniacs, it never occurs to me that they spend their downtime whoring in the big city.

After the situation goes wrong and Cropsy penetrates the prostitute with scissors, the film finally makes the jump to its present day campground setting. Camp Blackfoot has been defunct since Cropsy's burning, but across the lake from it there's a place called Camp Stonewater, which is open and packed with camping youths and counselors.

Things at Stonewater get off to a promising start as we witness the fun and games going on on the grounds, Maylam showing appreciation for some of the more nubile girls with a slow motion shot of bouncing breasts and closeups of a bikini-clad bottom.

For thirty minutes, the film is almost entirely an examination of the day-to-day lives of people attending and working at Stonewater. Relationship issues, banter between hormone-fuelled jokesters, the experiences of a boy out of place, the exploits of a tough guy Joe Dallesandro clone... But occasionally there are hints that something very bad is brewing on the horizon. P.O.V. shots moving around the edges of the grounds, watching the campers. A stalker clutching a pair of garden shears. A hideous face glimpsed through a window at night.

Eventually, some of the older kids go off on an "overnight", a three day canoe trip on the lake, headed down to Devil's Creek. When they stop on the first night out, counselor Tony decides to tell the kids a campfire story... The story of The Cropsy Maniac... A sadistic camp caretaker, horribly burned during a prank gone wrong, now living in the forest, less than human, killing anyone who crosses his path.

We'll come to find out that Tony was actually one of the campers who was responsible for Cropsy's burning five years before, so given the fact that he shares the story of the time he almost burned a man to death in such a lighthearted manner, Tony is apparently also quite a dick.

Despite the legend claiming that Cropsy is already an established slasher, as far as we know the only person he's ever killed is the prostitute. But at the 49 minute mark, Cropsy begins to make the legend a reality. He sets the overnighters' canoes loose in the lake, trapping them in the woods, and starts knocking them off with his garden shears.

The Burning is one of the most popular films to come out of the '80s slasher boom, it gets mentioned so often that any slasher fan has to seek it out and watch it at least once... But serious slasher fans are the only ones who I would really recommend it to. They sort of have to watch it, but I can't imagine anyone who's not really into this type of movie getting much out of it. I love slasher flicks, but to me The Burning feels strangely empty, I'm never really engaged by what's going on in it. I find that it's kind of dull.

I think The Burning is more notable due to those who were involved in its making than the level of entertainment it provides. This is where the Weinstein powerhouse began. It was edited by Jack Sholder, who would go on to direct films himself, including The Hidden and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. The cast includes future stars and familiar faces like Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Brian Backer. The musical score was composed by Rick Wakeman, off and on keyboardist for Yes, a band that he was not in at the time they gave the world "Owner of a Lonely Heart".

Most notable: the special effects were done by Tom Savini, at the top of his game in these days. Savini was fresh off working on Friday the 13th when he was hired for The Burning, choosing to do it rather than return for Friday the 13th Part 2 (and even if he had done F13 2, the MPAA likely would've kept most his work off the screen). Savini's effects are at the heart of the film's best and most memorable sequence: the famous raft massacre.

Five campers on a raft excitedly row up to one of their lost canoes floating in the water, and as they reach the canoe, Cropsy rises up from within, garden shears in hand. Repeatedly raising the shears above his head to viciously bring it down into the campers' bodies, and in doing so striking the iconic pose that was used in the film's marketing materials, Cropsy makes quick work of the five unlucky youths. It's less than 40 seconds from when the slashing starts to when the screen fades to red, but that 40 seconds of violence is the primary reason why The Burning remains stuck in the collective horror fan consciousness more than thirty years after it came out.

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