Coincidentally, The Burning was released one day short of what would be the one-year anniversary of Friday the 13th. At first, it seems like a nearly complete rip off the Jason franchise; a masked killer attacking a children’s camp. Yet while Friday the 13th’s story involves a mother avenging the death of her child who was neglected by the counselors’ sexual escapades, The Burning contains a story more along the lines of Scream/Urban Legend/I Know What You Did Last Summer. The custodian of the camp, who supposedly is an abusive alcoholic custodian, is accidentally set on fire during a prank gone wrong and after five years of recovery, returns to the camp for revenge.
First off, compared to the handful of notorious Slasher films – Halloween I and II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream - I think Friday the 13th is pretty terrible. The dialogue and acting is torture to the senses and the theme of irresponsible teenage hormonal overdrive is obnoxiously explicit.
In fact, in the behind the scenes documentary of The Burning, I learned that Tom Savinni considers all of the subsequent Friday the 13th’s after the 1981 version to not be “real” additions since Jason was legitimately killed within the first few minutes of the original film. I agree in some ways, but considering the grasp of the series and what it became - with a remake that ignores the drowning of young Jason altogether - I’d say the first movie of the series doesn’t belong to the rest. There are ELEVEN movies that contain Jason, ten of which contain the infamous mask. So while I’d like to agree with Tom Savinni, I feel he has it backwards. When a remake is better than the original – as the ’09 release was – it proves how comparably bad the original was.
And where Friday the 13th got it wrong, The Burning got it right. First off, the cast is superb, featuring the sickly scrawny Fisher Stevens and hilarious Jason Alexander. These two individuals are part of a five-person group with such a great and realistic dynamic that when the first one of them is murdered, it almost drew a tear. Likewise, the group of girls also have a phenomenal relationship. Unlike Friday the 13th, The Burning doesn’t revolve around the horniness of teenagers in the woods, but rather the friendships between the campers (and their complimentary horniness in the woods). Like most horror films, it has a great amount of exposition that hooks the viewer into empathizing with the characters rather than immediately killing them off.
I’d even say that other than Scream, The Burning best captures teenage personalities, romance and sex better than any other slasher movie. In fact, even if there was no vengeful killer looking in the woods, I think this would have made a great coming of age/summer of love story.
Also, contrary to most Slasher film conventions, approximately half of the group survives in the end. For instance, after the canoes have gone missing, both girls and boys board a homemade raft, and they equally get butchered for doing so. There is no reason some of the people board the raft and others don’t, it is not about who is tough or scared or courageous; it is meaningless. And just when the film seems directed toward establishing a message through revering Aflred (a nerdy kid who is constantly made fun of) as he is about to apparently destroy the killer, the lead counselor, Todd, steps in and lends assistance.
This is not a film about a virgin female who will be the sole survivor in the end. If anything, it is completely absurdist; there is no psychological subtext regarding feminist values or sexual repression, there is no formula as to why some survive and others do not.The only message to be analyzed is the choice of using a summer camp; a location of vast popularity during early 80s horror. But, this is another blog that I’ll probably never write. Or at least until Scary Movie Month '10.