Friday, September 20, 2019

The Burning / *** (1981)

Is Tony Maylam’s “The Burning” a dead teenager horror film at all, or an ambitious homage to giallo masquerading as a slasher? The possibility occupied my brain while the material on screen lumbered along slowly and conventionally, positioning itself for a checklist of obligatory sequences that we come to expect of genre vehicles. The key difference is slight yet noteworthy: instead of recycling the sort of artificial showmanship that usually informed most of the violence in the early horror franchises, the movie creates a rather convincing aesthetic of gore, right down to the gaping wounds in a neck and the severing of someone’s fingers. The blood, meanwhile, splatters in the same ambitious fashion usually seen in the films of Mario Bava, who often used it more like a substance for a paintbrush. Where does an otherwise aimless descent into superficial formula staples get the gall to be so painstaking about its own visuals? Or the patience, for that matter? Maylam’s benefit may be that he, unlike any number of stand-in cameramen pretending to be legitimate filmmakers in that time, took the time to study up on his peers in order to best them at their own routine.

That does not make his film a masterwork, but a certain admiration for the attempt informs the viewing. The movie utilizes one of the key premises of the time: a crazy madman on the loose in the woods near a camp full of teenagers. Though reportedly written well before the original “Friday the 13th,” some part of me wonders if Cropsey, the man scarred by a horrible prank who survives and vows vengeance on others, is not simply a more elaborate manifestation of Jason Vorhees. Consider that he, like his own relentless peer, never utters a line of dialogue or emotion, as if the past indiscretions have turned him into a thoughtless machine. Like Jason, he also relies specifically on one weapon of choice – in this case, a pair of garden sheers – and is rarely detected by others until it’s too late for them to escape his rage. In some twisted parallel universe, they would be relatives. And though their fascination ends there, it is their method that provides more of the discussion points. Here, in a movie chock-full of hormone-driven adolescents and their long meaningless exchanges, a slasher is allowed to hone is craft into a rather elaborate show of mayhem.

The seeds are planted early on, during a scene in which a cluster of mischievous young men plot to scare a problematic caretaker while he is sleeping in his cabin. The prank goes drastically wrong, resulting in a fire that burns him alive. But when he rums screaming out of his room and tumbls down a nearby embankment towards the river, the witnesses assume death. But is that fact, or just a hopeful assumption? Follow-up scenes indicate his arrival at a hospital, where he is secluded in a burn unit while his ghastly wounds heal. Years pass, skin grafts have not taken, and now Cropsey has been set free to wander the streets again – not as an ordinary man, but as a vessel of all the torment and anger that has festered in private. His first victim is a prostitute; while concealed in the shadows of night, he is invited into her bedroom, where she disrobes before discovering his darker intentions. A knife wound is seen up close in glaring detail, and for a moment there is surprise: the injury looks realistic. So, too, does the woman’s scream emit an honest sense of horror of the moment instead of one of the overzealous wails frequently seen of female victims in these movies. Maylam establishes early on that he has more in mind for his film than just another random pass through the generic chop shop of macabre movie fantasy.

Yet the film is not riddled in wall-to-wall mayhem. In any number of conventional slashers running 91 minutes, the body count typically runs high. “The Burning” contains only 10. The second, a woman running through the woods to escape her predatory suitor, does not occur until the halfway mark; until then, the movie is more concerned with setting the careful pace of its foreboding menace. While Cropsey lurks in shadows and outside windows to spy the activities of his would-be victims, teenagers of all sorts engage in all the expected summer pastimes: swimming, flirting, facing down superficial personal grudges, pretending to seem authoritative, letting obscene jokes loose, and so on. The dead teenager schtick uses these observations to rank the potential dead in order of kill importance, although some turn out to be surprising – including a couple of relatively innocuous faces who are slaughtered aboard a raft, in what can be described as the movie’s most gruesome sequence.

Why merit is this skill when it doesn’t exactly lead to something profound, you ask? Sometimes all you need is a movie to make its pitch, and in a bloody river of 80s formula monotony, this one does a solid job at swimming against the current. There is little in the way of depth or thematic resonance, naturally, and certainly no one is going to keep characters straight when most of them are destined for the cemetery, but Maylam encourages more than just a superficial reaction. His images are grizzly and stylish, and not without some sting. Some of them make no narrative sense – how in the world, for instance, is the killer able to keep himself hidden in a canoe long enough for a raft containing five to get close enough for him to slaughter? – but anyone contemplating logic in a genre bereft of it is only finding a reason to be cynical. As one of the many entries in a crowded imprint of relentless bloodfests that were popular in their time, “The Burning” does the impossible and gives experienced observers an opportunity to be surprised.

Another key distinction. Just as “Friday the 13th” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” became debut launching points for Kevin Bacon and Johnny Depp, respectively, “The Burning” also contains the fresh faces of Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter, who would both go on to become vital figures in their mediums (he as a co-star in “Seinfeld” and she as an actress who would win an Oscar for “The Piano”). “I got paid more than I ever could have imagined working on [the film],” Hunter once said in an interview. “I was making a thousand dollars a week. I could make rent, I didn’t have to wait tables for a while, I got all these new friends and I was kind of a glorified extra. I got my Screen Actors Guild card. So it was fantastic.” Her reflection highlights the underlying dual purpose of horror movies to provide safe launching points for aspiring young faces. The same genre that gave traction to her is the same that gave us James Wan, Dario Argento, Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. “The Burning” may not be in the same class that the greater genre pictures are, but as an experiment of dependable formula it reflects the purity of ambition for new talents that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 1981; Rated R; Running Time: 91 Minutes

Cast:
Brian Matthews: Todd
Leah Ayres: Michelle
Brian Backer: Alfred
Larry Joshua: Glazer
Jason Alexander: Dave
Ned Eisenberg: Eddy

Produced by
Michael Cohl, Andre Djaoui, Dany Ubaud, Jean Ubaud and Harvey WeinsteinDirected by Tony Maylam; Written by Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein, based on the story by Brad Grey, Tony Maylam and Harvey Weinstein

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