My fascination with summer camp-themed slasher fare stems mostly from two things: my deep-seeded love of all things freaky and frightening, and my tragically unfulfilled childhood desire to attend summer camp (and partly the raging jealousy that boiled inside me every summer when my older brothers were shipped off to camp while I was deemed “too young” to attend). There were a lot of influential horror movies from the monumental ‘80s slasher era that told terrifying, titillating and often tacky tales of young adults venturing out into the deepest, most ominous parts of the woods with a group of friends to get fucked up beyond all recognition. The stripping off of clothes and the revealing of supple young bodies was only the predecessor to the bloody carnage that was about to ensue. I think a lot of horror fans, like I, got an early introduction to our beloved genre by being subjected to iconic genre fare like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp during the impressionable years of our youth—and furthermore, dedicating our adult years to seeking out these titles and others just like them.
These movies are by no means brilliant works of creative, provocative cinematic genius, but they brought a lot of concepts and devices to the horror film chopping block that have stuck around through the proceeding decades and have become some of the most recognized and arguably admirable clichés in the genre. Some of these titles supersede others—offering up awe-inspiring special FX, buckets upon buckets of blood, mind-blowing climactic twists and quirky characters—but the true essence of a superlative summer camp slasher flick is a really bad ass killer. It goes without saying that most die-hard horror fans are suckers for these summer camp slasher flicks. So over the course of the summer, Diabolique will be presenting readers with a comprehensive catalogue of films that fall within that category. By watching these movies, you’ll learn everything you need to know in order to avoid being sliced & diced on those highly anticipated summer camping trips. Boys and girls, I present you with Diabolique’s Camp Carnage!
The Burning (1981)
I am pleased to announce that this week we will be boarding the big yellow bus to Camp Tonawanda, NY to visit my personal favourite summer camp slasher flick, The Burning. We’re heading back to the summer of 1981 to gather around the camp fire and listen to terrifying tales of a grotesque burn victim who lurks around the woods, wreaking vengeance for a prank that went wrong, resulting in his gruesome disfigurement. There are a few noteworthy things about The Burning that I feel are necessary to mention before we jump into the guts of this week’s instalment of CAMP CARNAGE and get to know our old pal Cropsy a bit better.
First and foremost, The Burning was the launching point towards the ample careers in the film industry for the revered Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, later of Miramax Films and The Weinstein Company. So, arguably, without The Burning, the names “Quentin Tarantino”, “Kevin Smith”, “Robert Rodriguez” and “Gus Van Sant” may have waited much longer to enter the cinematic zeitgeist, if at all. Harvey Weinstein is credited as the primary creator behind this macabre slasher opus, having written the original story with assistance from now-Paramount CEO Brad Grey and director Tony Maylam, as well as having produced the film. Bob Weinsten and television screenwriter Peter Lawrence wrote the screenplay. Interestingly enough, although this movie came out a year after Friday the 13th and is often falsely accused of intruding upon the conceptual grounds of Camp Crystal Lake, the original story was actually written prior to the release of Friday the 13th. Fans of horror movies of the summer camp slasher ilk cite Friday the 13th and The Burning as the paramount forefathers of this particular brand of horror—often arguing that one overshadows the other.
Tom Savini (who also created the special FX makeup for Friday the 13th) explains in his “Blood ‘n’ Fire” bonus feature on the new Shout! Factory release of The Burning that he was invited back to Camp Crystal Lake to do the special FX for Friday the 13th Part II. However, he opted out of that opportunity to do the FX for The Burning instead, saying that the idea of a Friday the 13th sequel featuring Jason as the killer was “downright silly” because there never was a Jason; To Savini, Jason drowned in the lake when he was a boy and couldn’t conceivably return. Obviously The Burning had a much more logical plot, with a villain who was very much alive and pissed off for good reason. Sure, mongoloid Jason certainly had a face that only his own mother could love, but Cropsy didn’t even have that going for him—poor guy. To this very day, Jason and Cropsy are still butting hideously deformed heads as they compete to be the ugliest, most bad ass summer camp slasher of the ‘80s. As much wear-and-tear as my “Crystal Lake to Manhattan” box set has experienced, I do feel that The Burning tops Friday the 13th by a hair. And I think my choice mostly has to do with Cropsy being such a grotesque villain—one who was hated by campers even prior to his accident—and the glorious raft massacre, naturally. I won’t spoil it for those who shamefully haven’t seen The Burning, but I will say that it features some of the most eye-pleasing cut-throat effects from the early days of gore guru Savini’s career. Apparently, Savini half-assed a lot of it, according to testimonies from some of the crew members that were interviewed, but fortunately, it’s all very fun and cringe-worthy.
The birth of Cropsy takes place five years prior to the summer camp adventures of Tonawanda that ensue during most of The Burning’s running time. Late one night, some pranksters sneak into the cabin of the miserable, old, kid-hating camp janitor. Their plan: to scare the crap out of old Cropsy by placing a rotting old maggot-covered skull with candle flames for eyes on his bedside table. The execution takes a turn for the worst when Cropsy awakens from his slumber, knocking the skull onto his bed and engulfing himself in flames, which leads to his horrid disfigurement. Five years later, Cropsy is released from an institution, understandably pretty bitter about the whole ordeal, so he returns to his old mopping grounds for some sweet revenge. Upon his return, Cropsy retires his old mop and replaces it with one of the most uniquely intimidating weapons ever used in a horror movie—garden shears; like a pair of razor sharp, mammoth-sized scissors— and all the better to pick a whole new slew of snot-nosed teenagers off with! Trust me when I say that the shears fail to disappoint…
The Burning, like every other summer slasher movie of the ‘80s, doesn’t veer far from campground boundaries. It stays true to all of the elements that fans of the subgenre are all too familiar with yet continue to love unconditionally. It was, however, the first movie of its time to utilize the mutilated-monster-of-a-man out for revenge trope—within the confines of the summer camp slasher vein. As we all know, the introduction of Jason Voorhees came in the wake of his mommy dearest’s killing spree, not even donning his trademark hockey mask until three films in. So Kudos goes to the Cropsy killer for trimming down the hedges along the path that the other grotesque maniacs of the ‘80s sliced and diced upon.
Several of the first-time actors who played campers in The Burning went on to become acclaimed Hollywood stars, including Holly Hunter (Crash, Raising Arizona), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld, Pretty Woman), and Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit, Hackers). Much of the production crew also went on to establish reputable careers for themselves in the film and television industry; obviously the Weinstein brothers and Tom Savini, as well as film editor Jack Sholder (who directed The Hidden and Nightmare on Elm Street: Part II) and co-producer Corky Burger (co-founder of Miramax Films).
As I mentioned in my introduction, I can honestly say that The Burning is my favorite addition to the summer camp slasher movie catalog. Aside from how much significance it holds in the horror genre, it also just so happens to be an exceptionally entertaining hunk of genre fare. When Shout! Factory announced that they’d be revamping The Burning and releasing it in with a bloody raft-load of bonus features, zealous Cropsy fans raised their hedge clippers in joy. That combo pack was released on May 21st this year, and as promised, boasts a comprehensive index of excellent bonus material—including interviews with Savini, Sholder, Cropsy portrayer Lou David, and lead scream queen Leah Ayres. There’s also some awesome behind-the-scenes footage and other features that I won’t ruin in case you haven’t already feasted your eyes upon them. Shout! Factory’s release of The Burning is a gem worth adding any horror fan’s collection.
– By Lacey Paige
Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter @LaceyPaige88