Five years after being burned in a prank gone wrong, a disfigured summer camp caretaker called Cropsy (Lou David) takes his revenge at a camp near an abandoned mine, thankfully not called Mine Camp.
1981 slasher The Burning was prosecuted by British censors paranoid about the use of household items as weapons, here featured so prominently it could have been called The Scissoring, which wouldn’t even have been that misleading a title given the amount of gratuitous female nudity. That the BBFC felt the need to shear an infamous 30-second massacre on a raft is testament to the brilliant gore effects of Tom Savini, combined with Tony Maylam’s lurid POV shots and Rick Wakeman’s proggy score to create a great slasher flick that still leaves scars.
Merging the New York urban legend of the Cropsey maniac with the already stale prank-revenge formula of Terror Train (and the first film appearances of Holly Hunter, Fisher Stevens and Jason Alexander), The Burning is more sinister and substantive than the previous year’s Friday the 13th, devoting 50 minutes to its sexual politics before Cropsey starts leaving corpses. Almost a thematic deconstruction of Friday the 13th, this is a film about male violence against women.
The men range from casual voyeurs to borderline rapists, their pushy advances rejected in almost every scene. This does not save the women from Cropsy, breaking Scream‘s first rule of slasher movies by even killing the virginal characters, never mind the fact that it was only boys responsible for the prank. Just as subsequent burns victim Freddy Krueger punishes teenagers for their parents’ crimes, Cropsy kills women for what men did to him. Where Pamela Voorhees targets teens for being sexually active, Cropsy punishes women for being sexually harassed. The male characters direct their anger towards women and Cropsy is no exception, his first victim being a female prostitute.
This has the potential to be one of the genre’s most enduring feminist statements, were it not for the constant leering shots of women’s bodies, not just when they’re skinny-dipping and showering but also when they have the temerity to play sport. What might have been read as disgust and political anger akin to I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left or Black Christmas becomes a pandering exercise in titillation, and one that denies the female characters any chance to fight back.
Things make an uneasy kind of sense when one realises that this was all Harvey Weinstein’s idea, back when he was just starting out as a film producer and sexual predator. Ironically and horribly, that brings The Burning‘s feminist attack on rape culture into cold, hard reality, no longer a question of male complicity but a confirmation of violent misogyny.