Whilst throughout the seventies special makeup effects artists such as Stan Winston and Rick Baker had become renowned for their work, their achievements were still often eclipsed by the recognition that the directors and actors would receive.But that all changed when Tom Savini’s work on Friday the 13th in 1980 transformed him into a pop culture icon. The moment in which he had stabbed an arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat in full view of the audience resulted in every horror filmmaker in town wanting to hire him. Naturally, the producers of the Friday the 13th franchise had begged him to return but, finding the idea of Jason becoming the central character a little ridiculous, he opted to work on the likes of Maniac and The Prowler instead. And when Bob and Harvey Weinstein prepared to shoot the first feature for their newly found production company Miramax, there was only one man to turn to for their effects.
Late one night, the teenagers of Camp Blackfoot decide to take revenge on their nasty caretaker Cropsy (Lou David). Sneaking into his cabin, they place a rotten skull by his bedside with candles burning within the eye sockets. Hiding outside and watching through the window, the prank goes tragically wrong when, waking up to discover a decomposed head, Cropsy panics and accidentally knocks it over, sending the candles onto the bed. The sheets immediately burst into flames and the burning Cropsy screams as he thrashes around inside. Rushed to St. Catherine’s Hospital with severe burns all over his body, even the doctors are disgusted at his condition as Cropsy fights for both his life and sanity.
Five years have passed and he is finally released back into the world. Unfortunately, none of the skin grafts that he was subjected to have worked and he is badly deformed. Choosing to prowl the streets with his features obscured, he follows a prostitute back to her apartment but when she turns on the light she screams. Angered by her response, he brutally stabs her with a pair of scissors. Meanwhile, Camp Blackfoot is still playing host to new groups of kids. Cropsy soon arrives and begins to watch the children from the bushes. The following morning, Sally (Carrick Glenn) is taking an outdoor shower when a figure slowly approaches, lustfully staring at her naked body. Sensing an unwanted presence, she turns around to discover shy oddball Alfred (Brian Backer), but her screams soon attract head counselors, Todd (Brian Mathews) and Michelle (Leah Ayres). Todd, having been troublesome himself when he was younger, denies their request to have him kicked out and instead tries to reason with him.
One person eager to give Alfred a beating is Glazer (Larry Joshua), an aggressive bully who also has a crush on Sally. That evening, Alfred is convinced that he saw a strange face at the window but due to his weirdness no one believes him. Todd shares the story of Cropsy with some of the teenagers, a tale that he is very familiar with as he was one of the kids responsible for the accident. Soon afterwards, some of the campers have arranged for a canoe trip to the nearby Devil’s Creek, but when some of them disappear and their canoes are stolen they begin to panic. After designing a makeshift raft, several of them try to make their way back to the camp but as they pass one of the abandoned canoes, Cropsy suddenly appears and slaughters them all with a pair of gardening shears. He then turns his attention to the remaining kids, hunting them down one-by-one as he claims his bloody revenge.
Comparisons between The Burning and Friday the 13th are unavoidable. Both are set at summer camps, have casts consisting of teenagers and twenty-somethings and boast makeup effects by Savini. But the films themselves are noticeably different. The protagonists in Friday the 13th are made up of a group of counsellors who are helping to prepare the camp in time for its opening, whereas in The Burning the camp is in full swing and is full of both teenagers and young children. The latter is also by far the sleazier of the two, with the camera zooming in on girls as they shower. The violence is also far crueller, with the now-infamous raft scene resulting in the film finding its way onto the ‘video nasty’ list in the UK.
The young cast are surprisingly effective, despite the script allowing little room for characterization. Mathews makes for an impressive hero (filling in for what would usually be the final girl role) whilst Backer gives a creepy performance as the disturbed Alfred. Fisher Stevens, who would later find minor acclaim with his role in the Short Circuit movies, adds likeable support along with future Seinfeld co-star Jason Alexander. The film does have its flaws, however, most notably the script. With too many characters at the camp, it is impossible to get to know each of them intimately as with Friday the 13th, so their deaths fail to make an emotional impact. The film is basically a showcase for Savini’s gruesome effects and, on that note, it succeeds.