The Deepest Cuts is a weekly invitation into some of the sleaziest, goriest, most under-explored corners of horror and cult film online. Every title will be streamable and totally NSFW. Whether it’s a 1960s grindhouse masterpiece, something schlocky from the 90s, or hardcore horror from around the world, these films are guaranteed to shock, disturb, tickle, or generally blow your mind.
The summer camp slasher happens to be one of my favorite sub-subgenres, for a number of reasons: the woods are inherently creepy, particularly after dark; the lone nut seeking bloody vengeance is a great set-up for suspense; and then you’ve got all the sweaty group dynamics that develop among pubescent youths in short shorts, left to their own arts-and-crafts-related devices. And while Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp, just to name the most popular two, are undeniable gems, The Burning gives them both a bloody-good run for their money.
The Burning opens in a flashback: a group of boys are gathered after dark in a cabin full of sleeping bunkmates to plan a devious prank on the camp’s caretaker. Unfortunately, the prank is so successful that the caretaker ends up in the hospital, covered in gruesome burns, suffering and nursing a healthy dose of hate towards the youthful offenders. Cut to the present day and a new batch of barely-clothed campers, who canoe down the local river for an “overnight,” sufficiently distant from civilization to leave them to the whims of the now gardening-shear-wielding maniac stalking the hormone-riddled woods.
The film is structured as a series of buildups to either a shocking reveal or some totally righteous gore. And overarching each of these sequences of tension is the prodding question: when will we see the killer’s fucked up face? This is a distinct departure from the expected twist ending of the sleepaway-camp-style film, in that we know it’s coming – we just can’t wait to see it. Also unique to The Burning is its far more flexible moral approach to the killer’s victim-choices; for example, rather than offing folks just after they partake in illicit acts, one of the first deaths is that of the staunch virgin who refuses to give in to the borderline-rape attempts of teen heartthrob Eddy.
Featuring the brilliant effects work of Tom Savini, known for Dawn of the Dead and Maniac, among others, the death scenes are unflinchingly fleshly and bloody. Savini was poached from the simultaneously-filming Friday the 13th Part II, another fantastic campfire-killer story, by young upstart Harvey Weinstein, an untested producer hoping to cash in on the success of recent low-budget horror classics like Halloween. But Weinstein wasn’t the only newby on set: The Burning features early career performances from Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens, and even George Costanza himself, Jason Alexander – the last of whom plays the “good guy” camper who keeps the peace by purchasing dirty magazines and condoms for his bunkmates.
If the story looks and feels like an urban legend, that’s likely because it was (somewhat) based on the much-mythologized “Cropsy” story popular in New York. It seems that the film only borrowed the legend’s name without bothering to address his “real” backstory, in that Cropsy was supposedly an escaped mental patient who kidnapped and murdered young children. Despite the looseness of The Burning’s interpretation of Cropsy, the name strikes an archetypal chord that adds to the successful creepiness of the film.
But there’s no such thing as a suspenseful movie without an effective soundtrack, and while Weinstein couldn’t top the genius of Carpenter’s synthesizing, The Burning benefits from the stellar compositions of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. With all these names attached to the film, it’s shocking that it isn’t better known. Upon its release The Burning was buried in a veritable glut of horror, but it deserves to be recognized as separate – and often above – its peers.
You can find The Burning streaming free on Youtube.
For more insight into the best (and worst) of cult horror classics, check past editions of The Deepest Cuts here.