The Burning (1981)

In a subgenre oft ridiculed for being cyclical and repetitious, The Burning is caught inbetween being refreshing and different and blandly similar to the slasher films that surrounded it. While the film distinguishes itself with stronger cast of characters that transcend the expendable nature of most slasher film casts, it fails to create a gripping mythos or memorable killer.

A summer camp prank gone wrong results in a cantankerous caretaker’s transformation into a hideous burn victim. Years later, his story becomes a tale of legend, spun a bit taller and grander than it happened, but with the gist of the story intact. And it just so happens this gang of goofy, horny adolescence have stumbled into the path of the caretaker who’s now a demented killer.

The setup of the killer proves to be a shortcoming of the film as the killer lacks an iconic persona or an air of mystery. He’s a purely perfunctory killer, existing only to create tension and horror within the plot, almost completely devoid of Freudian undertones, replaced with a simple revenge operandi. His only notable features are his hideous disfiguration and murder weapon: a pair of gardening sheers.

However, the film is constructed well enough to prove effective. Part of this is a result of its deliberate pace as the film is a slow burn. It gives the audience just a few short bursts of violence through the first hour, slowly building suspense and tension until it unleashes the frenzied killings in full force. It’s one of the most restrained and controlled of its kind and even the false scares peppered through the film add to the sense of unease.

One technique it uses to build this effect is an aggressive soundtrack. The dissonant, electronic music draws out these, slow, long builds to the release. In some cases, the music actually serves as a distancing tool, cueing the audience into the impending horror so as not to simply produce cheap jump scares. Other times, it simply toys with the audience, building to a moment and then diffusing the situation entirely.

But what The Burning is most notable for is the strong cast. Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander all made their film debut in The Burning and they’re all solid, like the entire cast. These actors are able to make typically jerky and annoying stereotypes into human and somewhat likable characters.

It’s also unusual that the film doesn’t craft characters that feel cliché or easy. The girls in particular aren’t so slutty, a couple even consistently resisting the advances of the men. It makes the females in the film feel a bit more dignified and a little less objectified than the typical slasher film, even if the camera is a bit leering.

The pleasures The Burning offers are not necessarily the ones most associated with the genre. The killings themselves are okay, it’s the buildup that proves far more gripping. The girls are middling, at best, in their beauty, but they are more interesting characters. Where the film flounders is the entire mythology behind the killings. A better premise, or perhaps simply translating this story into a pre-established slasher franchise, would go a long way in improving the otherwise decent The Burning.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing