Saturday, November 1, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Lighting out for the Territory


THE BURNING

In the spirit of October masquerade fun, now comes the crossover between this here webzone and Brennan Klein's Popcorn Culture, just about the best blog you could ever read, and even better if you're a horror aficionado!  From now till Halloween the early morning of November 2 (oops), I'll be wearing the mask of someone who actually knows shit about the slasher genre, while Brennan will (far more ably) review some spooky 1950s science fiction!  Join us!  Or I'll be forced to use even more exclamation points!

Directed by Tony Maylam
Written by Peter Lawrence, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Tony Maylam
With Brian Matthews (Todd), Leah Ayres (Michelle), Brian Backer (Alfred), Larry Joshua (Glazer), Ned Eisenberg (Eddy), Fisher Stevens (Woodstock), Jason Alexander (!) (Dave), Carrick Glenn (Sally), Carolyn Houlihan (Karen), and Lou David (Cropsy)

Spoiler alert: moderate

"They never found his body, but 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 breathe; he'll hear you. Don't move; you're dead!"

The first draft of The Burning was written in 1979, and its summer camp settingthe most obvious comparison to the film it could be most obviously compared toreally is a coincidence.  But that doesn't mean that The Burning wasn't taking its cues from the most important of all 1980s slashers in rewrites.  However, since the most salient aspect of Friday the 13th is both awesomely stupid and wholly unreproducible, when the Weinsteins undertook to basically remake Friday for Miramax' very first film, with the villain they had to start from scratch.  Of course, what I mean by "scratch" is that they built their screenplay around what I was absolutely sure had to be a preexisting campfire story, told at actual summer camps by actual quasi-abusive counselors.  Guess what?  This is exactly what it was, thus rendering me an awesomely insightful film critic.

That the villain of The Burning was no wholesale innovation on the Weinsteins' part is surely no criticism: what I've learned thanks to this sojourn into the slasher golden age is that the purest joy to be had from them is how much they embody the creepy-crawly tall-tales we told each other when we were kids, as related in about 90 minutes' worth of functional acting, appealing nudity, and impressive violence.  They feel like high school, or at least the kind of idealized high school experience I wish I'd had, where everybody I was jealous of died, or at least I got laid.

The Burning, because it is literally an adaptation of such a modern myth, is completely aware of this.  It reflects its self-knowledge in not one but two campfire tale versions of the very movie we're watching, bookending the last hour of the film.  The first foreshadows the horrors we shall see; the second serves as ritual recitation of the horrors we have.  Yet the writers somehow refrain from the Bullshit Final Jump Scare this structure would practically compel.

Don't worry, kids, all is still right with the world!  For there very much remains a Dumbassed Twist Ending, though thankfully it is not quite so Dumbassed as it easily could've beenso easily that it chills my bones just thinking about it.

The Burning is indeed one of the good ones.  This is promised unmistakably when two key names appear in the opening credits, and we learn with sudden excitement that the gore effects are courtesy maestro Tom Savini, and the score is by Rick Wakeman of motherfucking Yes.  (And do they deliver?  Yes!)

So back to that villain.  We begin, as most of these things apparently do, years ago, with an inciting tragedy motivating the slaying of sexually active people, even though the tragedy only occasionally has anything to do with sex, as it doesn't here.  A conclave of five kids at Camp Blackfoot has finally had it with the violent innuendo of the camp's gross caretaker, Cropsy.  In a turn that would by itself justify the existence of Spencer's Gifts if this item were actually for sale, the boys have acquired a candle shaped like a rotting human skull, complete with worms playing a ferocious game of pinochle on what used to be its snout.

Shut up and take my money.

Because Cropsy is a delirious drunkard, in his fright he kicks the candle onto his bedclothes.  Because Cropsy evidently sleeps in oily rags, he erupts like the finger of YHWH into a column of roiling fire.  Five years and one excelsior flamesuit sequence later, Cropsy is discharged from the burn unit, less an epidermis but with vengeance in his heart.

In its first ten minutes, The Burning has already done what most slashers don't, but perhaps more (like Terror Train) should: given us a villain who deserves his revenge, and Meat who deserve to die.  Shame, then, that The Burning forgets about this immediately.  The first thing Cropsy does is engage a prostitute; it's not clear that when he inevitably kills her it's because she's seen his face and he's sad about it, or because he just needs a warm-up exercise for the campground murder spree to come.  Meanwhile, four of the five kids who took his skin are presumably living normal lives and going unpunished.  Only one of Cropsy's tormentors remains in the seasonal child warehousing industry.  An elementary way to have built tension would've been to have quickly Kill Billed the other four; but I guess The Burning, as a slasher film, was obliged to kill a sex worker instead.

One must accord Cropsy this much: he chooses the right moment to take his hugely indiscriminate revenge.  When we arrive at Camp Stonewater, downriver from Blackfoot, Cropsy is already there, leering just like everyone else at the ridiculous game of Foxy Baseball the female counselors and some of the older girls are playing.  However Cropsy doesn't just start eviscerating the punks with his gardening shears as soon as day-for-night falls.  He waits until they're on a canoe trip downriver, and he can isolate them.  The Burning owes something of a debt to Deliverance along with Friday.

The upshot is that for a solid half hour, perhaps more, we're stuck with the kids and nobody dies.  Turns out this was bog standard stuff, even by 1981, but here it's not a complaint.  The Burning is a feasible 1980s teen sex comedynot a great one, but a watchable one, and this makes it markedly distinct from the lead-up in Friday, which in its lazier scenario sometimes hews closer to a neo-realist film about progerian teenagers than any discernible alternative genre.  That The Burning is genuinely enjoyable in this mode is thanks to one man in particular.  In the next decade, he would shoot to the very pinnacle of sitcom stardom before directing the superb heist-comedy, For Better or Worse, the unjust obscurity of which is an awful indictment of our film culture.  Of course, this man is Jason Alexander.  He is by an insane margin the most talented performer in the main cast, with a jokey patter that is not just funny, but shockingly fully-formedAlexander was only 21.

"We were having a nice conversation.  I mentioned how I liked horse manure."

Our self-evident protagonist, Todd, is portrayed by Brian Matthews.  He is fine, if bland; what he is, above all, is distressingly identical to Jamie Barber, Apollo from Battlestar Galactica.  Fisher Stevens is present in an early role, too, a capable junior partner for Alexander's schtick.  And you'd have no reason to know Ned Eisenberg's name, but his mien made an impression in Last Man Standing, the best Yojimbo of them all.

Holly Hunter is apparently in this movie somewhere, though I didn't notice.  Indeed, the feminine half of The Burning's cast is valuable principally in its collective willingness to be objectified; but that's correct, given that if The Burning were only a passable 1980s teen sex comedy, its title would be Rape Culture: The Motion Picture, because wow.  Behold its veritable smorgasbord of Before Times immorality: there's Eddy, the half-charming but grabby lothario, who'll cry like a baby when his entitlement mentality is challenged; there's Alfred, the peeping tom that almost everybody is unaccountably sympathetic toward, even though he was almost certainly masturbating in the girl's shower; there's Glazer, the worst of the bunch, who in every shot looks like he is just one more "no" away from punching you in the face until you stop resisting; and there's Todd again, the clueless authority figure with the egregious boys-will-be-boys mentality.  And let's not forget Tony Maylam, director, and Harvey Harrison, D.P., who are either forcing us to share their characters' gaze and implicating our own... or they were operating under the assumption that the most cinematic object of all is, in fact, the human ass.

Pictured: the soul of filmmaking.

And yet, once I consider it next to Revenge of the Nerds or Sixteen Candles, at least the former of which features full-bore rape as legitimate seduction while the latter edges uncomfortably toward the same idea, it's practically harmless.  To its credit the film doesn't really like Eddy or Glazer (the repeated, lingering shots of Eddy's implosive tantrum prove this, and its distaste for Glazer, treated as a caveman moron, hardly needs to be established).  Nope, like Alfred, whom it does reserve a few niceties for, The Burning is more interested in eyefucking its women than anything else.  Yet it's still a bit on the perverse end of the spectrum in this regard, too.

Keeping track of who is a counselor, who is a kid, and what age anyone is supposed to be is an exercise in deep frustration in The Burning, especially regarding its gals.  These include Michelle (25, so probably 19 in-universe), Karen (likewise), Sally (who has a neoteny to her look that is hard to confidently gauge), and Tiger, a girl with the head of a fetal Jennifer Lawrence placed under a grotesque pageboy wig and attached to a biologically adult body whose backside the costumers have clad in a pair of daisy dukes and which the camera has absolutely zero compunction about ogling.  It's all a little upsettingTom Savini, you've done it again!

Maylam must have grokked the script's potential for ambiguity and discomfort, since he addresses it with his cinema.  The very first shot of gratuitous nudity involves Sally in the shower, beginning with a shot that takes great pains to frame her above the porno line... right before a second shot zooms out, bringing her breasts fully into the picture.  It's a move that isn't just about Carrick Glenn's now-proven capacity to mother the children you'd like her to bear for you (though, like her eyes and jawlinehey, I'm only humanthose mams are heartbreakingly perfect).  This shotlike the pointless shot of Tiger smoking a cigaretteis also a message to the audience: "This person is over 18, which means it's okay that you were staring at her erect nipples during Foxy Baseball.  Please, go nuts."

Tired of our new society's reluctance to permit fully nude teens in movies about transforming toys, "Tony Maylam" is of course just the pseudonym of a time-traveling Michael Bay.  The continuum is under threat.

But it's not for nudity that The Burning has the lure of the once-forbidden.  The uncut version made the Video Nasties list in Britain, thanks largely to one set-piece, an oddity of sorts in the genre: a straight-up massacre.  When the campers lose Karen and all their canoes, Todd deploys his Boy Scout-honed ability to do anything involving nature and oversees the construction of a raft.  Crewed by no fewer than five campers, the raft is sent upriver to acquire more suitable transport.  Cropsy's waiting in clever ambuscade, however, and the five are all butchered in a scene that lasts only moments yet is terrifically gruesome, and ends in a wicked fade to red.  Cropsy sends the bodies back and the discovery kicks the film into its highest gearturns out my personal preference for the genre isn't the Friday-style "ignorance is pot-smoking, Strip Monopoly-playing bliss," but the utter pandemonium of a whole sack of Meat realizing that death is here.  (See also, My Bloody Valentine.)  It all ends in a superlative final sequencea Final Boy sequence, in factin the ruins of Camp Blackfoot, where at last we see Cropsy's face.

It's a corker!

And now the tall tale comes full circle, with the monster destroyed by what made him.

The Burning is pretty far from being any kind of perfect film, but it has a forthright competence in nearly every aspect of its production.  The camerawork is mobile and fundamentally artful (Maylam has a real fondness for lateral tracking shots and zooms of all kinds, and there's a sub-De Palma quality to it); the gore is very good (though rarely, with respect to Savini, is it truly exceptional); Cropsy is a fantastic killer (making even as awkward and repetitive a weapon as garden shears work); the plot and dialogue are pretty flawless (however mean-minded the latter especially can be); and, hey, contrary to whatever hippie crap that last clause was about, there's some awesome full-frontal female nudity in this picture (and I'll say it againin the early 1980s this meant something that today's audience can't understand).  More than anything else, though, is how assuredly The Burning grasps the nature of its own campfire material.  It is scarcely less successful in this regard than My Bloody Valentine itself, the ne plus ultra of the slasher film as urban legend (The Burning does not, however, have a ballad).  No, it's not the great slasher that we saw in Valentine, but The Burning is a highly enjoyable one.  And, as the improved Mirror Universe reiteration of Friday the 13th, it's also an essential one.

On a final note, I've had a blast getting into this whole slasher thing, and I want to thank Brennan for making this possible.  Happy slightly belated Halloween everybody!

I hope you all observed proper jack o'lantern safety techniques.

Killer: Hollingsworth J. Croppington III, Esq.
Final Girl Boy:  What the hell is this, Evil Dead?  It's Todd, and it strikes me like a diamond bullet that not one of the three slashers presently under review have had a proper Final Girl.
Best Kill:  Cropsy's own poetic death.  Getting pinned with his own shears, taking an ax to the noggin, and getting his corpse burned again is "poetic," right?
Sign of the Times:  Rick Wakeman progging up the joint.
Scariest Moment:  After agreeing to go skinny dipping with him, it looks like Karen might have sex with Eddy.  She doesn't, but the thought of brackish river water with God knows what in it getting jammed up into her vagina and maybe even swallowed by her cervix made me squirm.  That's how you lose a uterus.
Weirdest Moment:  Glazer has been brutishly pursuing Sally for the entire film; after endless wheedling and barely-restrained physical threat has worn her down, she finally (sort of) consents to have sex with him.  However, in an unexpectedly humanistic turn for a slasher film, I mean some straight-up Kurosawa shit, it's Glazer's very vulnerability in the wake of a premature ejaculation that truly earns Sally's real sympathies and affection.  It's even well-acted.  (Incidentally, ain't nothing in The Burning a fraction as absolutely, film-breakingly fucking vile as the suddenly-rapist protagonists in Hidden Fortress.  It's a bad movie, everybody!  Stop venerating it!)
Champion Dialogue:  "Size never stopped Woody!  That's the world bantamweight jerkoff champ over there!  Just stick with me kid, and keep flexing that muscle!"
Body Count:  10, including the killer.

  1. A prostitute is eviscerated by garden shears.
  2. When Karen decides a sexual assault is a good note on which to end her skinny dip, she discovers that her clothes have been taken.  Following the trail of individual garments like a naked Gretel, she finds Cropsy at the end, and has her neck cut by garden shears.
  3. Raft Kill!: Eddy is stabbed in the throat by garden shears.
  4. Raft Kill!: Alan is stabbed in the chest by garden shears.
  5. Raft Kill!:  A presumptively nameless girl is nondescriptly hacked to death by garden shears.
  6. Raft Kill!:  Another presumptively nameless girl is awesomely trepanned by garden shears.
  7. Raft Kill!: Woodstock has the index, middle, and ring fingers of his right hand cut off by garden shears.  One supposes that he realized that his career as a competitive masturbator was over, and thus did nothing to stop the bleeding, eventually dying.
  8. Sally is stabbed with garden shears.
  9. Glazer is stabbed in the throat with garden shears, is lifted bodily as his death nerves twitch, and is slammed into a tree in a very cool POV shot.
  10. Cropsy is stabbed, hacked, and cremated.
TL;DR:  Above average in every respect (plot, characters, camerawork, nudity, kills, monster), The Burning really is Friday the 13th But Better.  It's also totes misogynistic, yet while its backwards attitude toward women does lessen it, it doesn't sink it.
Score:  7/10

The old switcheroo!
Brennan's Cardboard Science:
Invaders From Mars
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them! 

My Census Bloodbath:
My Bloody Valentine
Pieces
The Burning 

6 comments:

  1. You did it! I know I'm not in the clear yet (Them! is on its way within the next... week and a half. Times are tough.) but it's been a lot of fun to both write and read during this crossover! I'm glad you got some enjoyment out of the whole process and even did some extracurricular reading. Also, that's a solid Twitch of the Death Nerve reference you snuck in there (if we ever do this again, there's no way you're escaping that movie).

    I do apologize for improperly fitting the slate with Final Girls (of which there are dozens, if not hundreds in the 1980's, to varying degrees of empowerment), but the most interesting slashers tend to be those that indulge in the formula but break it in a few key areas.

    Happy belated Halloween and may you have a fantastic end of 2014! I can't wait to see the pandemonium of your end-of-year list.

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    Replies
    1. 61 more 2014 features to go before I can claim anything like a comprehensive list. I can't remember if I'm running ahead or behind, viz. last year...

      A lot of the outside materials had final girls, often the same final girl, the scion of Tony Curtis, who never taught his daughter to confirm her kill. (In fairness, this made sense in Prom Night.)

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    2. Also, I'm glad you're back on your Saw kick! You're so mean to poor ol' Leigh Whannel. What'd he do to you, Brennan? Oh, right, he wrote Saw movies.

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    3. Honestly, I liked Insidious. I'm coasting on that so I don't feel so bad for eviscerating the Saw scripts.

      And 61? Good luck man. That's a full time job!

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  2. I just rewatched The Burning for the first time in a couple years, and now I totally understand why you gave it a lower score than I imagined you would. It definitely doesn't hold up quite as well as I imagined in my youthful fervor.

    Side Note: Clear your schedule for October 2015. I'm coming up with a supplementary slate of slashers that'll blow your gourd.

    ReplyDelete