Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Burning (...and sexual tensions)


Tony Maylam, USA, 1981

For a certain generation, films such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, “The Evil Dead” and “The Burning” took on mythical status. There was I, at school, getting the low-down on how terrifying these films were from my far cooler pal, a guy who was tall for his age and dressed like a teddy-boy (making him quite the off-beat pal as this was the Eighties, remember) and seemed to have no trouble getting into or hold of 18 rated films. So it was that I first heard of “The Burning”, undoubtedly as we walked to school one morning. He filled me in on the slim storyline and, presumably, the nastier details. The concept of the rampaging burnt-up man certainly lodged in my brain. As this was one of the banned “video nasties”, I do wonder in retrospect how he got to see it. But only this much later in life have I gotten around to watching it myself, during which time I have seen a bundle of other films that have likely given me a near-to-perfect idea of what to expect.

As one of those horrors with a troubled history with the censors, “The Burning” has, if anything, probably increased in its notoriety. Some of this is down to nostalgia: it is indeed of its time and one of those films which contemporary slashers refer back to and copy. “The Burning” itself was already derivative of “Friday the 13th”, which was already derivative of “Halloween”. But there is a straightforward quality to these ‘80s American slashers, an almost low-budget earnestness, that later gave way to trends in irony and recourse to homage. “The Burning” is not devoid of satirical airs and it does possess a couple of iconic qualities and one seminal scene of carnage. It has the fan-favourite “Cropsy” as its killer (played by Lou David): a creepy summercamp janitor and the victim of a teenage prank that goes wrong, leaving him flailing around on fire and a hideously disfigured burns victim, courtesy of make-up celebrity Tom Savini. Its true iconic image is the image of the silhouetted Cropsy holding up the open garden sheers, ready to bring them down on whatever victim lay beneath.

As the modern viewer might expect, there is a lot of tying-in with sex, death and mutilation. As Aurum notes,

"the film is a particularly clear example of the Puritanism of this particular subgenre, since virtually all killings follow various scenes of sex play, and thus can be all too easily read as ‘dire warnings’ or ‘punishments justly deserved'. [1]"

Indeed, Cropsy tends to go manic after foreplay or teenage sex. His first kill is a prostitute who rejects him once she lays eyes on his barely human burned visage (Savini himself says that it is not a realistic portrayal of a burns victim; it is rather a stretched, silly-putty like hall-of-mirrors distortion). Cropsy is effectively rendered impotent, and in rage he murders her with a protracted scissor-slaying. It is as if the worst thing, the very thing that turns him insane with random fury, is not so much his disfigurement but the horror of this impotency.

Next stop: the summer camp, where there is a whole lot of typical machismo, posturing and preening. The girls seem to giggle about sex and flirt in equal measure: perhaps they are meant to be, if you will, reproachable teasers (as Aurum says) but there is a slightly softer and greyer arena of interactions going on; not necessarily due to any superior characterisation and writing, but just a little ambiguity and complexity to the characters work wonders. For example, Glazer the resident bully (Larry Joshua) is himself consistently mocked and rejected and, although arguably close to one, he is not the date-rapist that many of the other guys seem so uniformly close to being. He alone is shown trying to please his girl and appreciate her. When their sex falls short, he simply apologises and doesn’t resort to aggressive insistence on his virility. He’s not a soft romantic but there is the impression that he might have range to mature. By contrast, the other "funny guys" all seem much closer to genuine date-rapists, sly coercers and Nice Guys. The tension around sex and youthful exploration is probably expressed most obviously and sympathetically in the subplot where one girl is simultaneously curious, charmed and afraid of the boy trying to romance her. But it is tough luck because any step towards sex receives a pair of garden sheers. In this way, “The Burning” is one of those films that simultaneously formed and adhered to the slasher conventions and provided the material for endless parodies.

But it is limited to see Cropsy as only a puritanical punisher. He serves as more than just a warning and retribution, for he is also the manifestation of the girls’ fear of painful penetration, of their anxieties about rape and the loss of virginity. In one example, there is a close-up of the girl trying to hold the open sheers blades at bay as Cropsy forces in on her, which is unsettling and clear in its symbolism. Cropsy is the wild, roaming, ugly personification of all the rape tendencies that seem to underlay most of the male student’s interactions with the girls. One might even find a “dire warning” in the fact that “Woodstock” (Fisher Stevens), the character referred to most as a masturbator, has his fingers chopped off. And then there is the backstory of Cropsy: in the fireside version, he was a disliked janitor who followed around a boy with his garden sheers constantly in hand.

Ah, yes, then we get to the meat of it: the raft scene. This is the scene that defines “The Burning”. It is here that the garden sheers are most used and it is the garden sheers that got the film added to the BBFC “video nasties” list during the 1980s. What the BBFC doesn’t tell you is that many of those “video nasties” were also full-on black comedies. “The Burning” is full of humour: black, intentional and unintentional. The summercamp scenario allows the shock-horror gags of Tom Savini’s gory effects work to move through teen comedy conventions. Funnier but arguably less unique than “Sleepaway Camp”, “The Burning” is far more humane and proficient than the “Friday the 13th” series; for example, it seems to have more interest in its characters as actual people). Conversely, Savini doesn’t appear to have much time for the “Friday the 13th” sequels and “The Burning” is certainly better conceived, but it is still b-grade stuff and its reputation rests mostly on those garden sheer killings which are predominantly bundled all into the raft massacre. One can laugh at the idea that Cropsy ~ whose actual size seems to vary from this moment to that, although the intension is surely that he is a big, big guy ~ would lay down in a floating canoe with his sheers, just waiting and hoping that a raft topped with teenagers would bump into him. But the killing are indeed savage, sharply edited and graphically sprayed across the screen. If slasher films rest their worth upon the killings, “The Burning” doesn’t have the bodycount of Jason Vorhees, but the raft slaughter is quite unforgettably vicious. It is true that slasher films seem to represent the meanest self-loathing of young horror fanatics for their own generation, portraying them often as selfish, disdainful and disposable. But those on the raft seem, of all the film’s victims, to be the most sympathetic and the least deserving. That, perhaps, is the greatest perversion. [2]

Another subplot provides Cropsy with further interpretation. There is a close alignment between Cropsy and resident nerd Alfred (Brian Backer) from the moment of the fireside horror-story, which is, of course, the tale of Cropsy. Alfred is apparently bullied and feels friendless, an outsider and alienated. The truth of it is that his dorm colleagues all incorporate and defend him from the main source of trouble, Glazer the bully. Perhaps Alfred’s true source of alienation and sense of inadequacy lays elsewhere. Alfred’s confused association with status, sex and scares is clear from his early attempt to scare a girl in the showers in some muddled plan to scare her, see her, to woo her, and to impress and emulate his peers. All his furious, unresolved and latent desires to resolve his sexuality and punish his perceived persecutors ~ or at least to visit a jealous vengeance upon those that are ostensibly "normal" in a way that he feels he is not ~ all this is manifest in Cropsy too. Cropsy is like Alfred’s retaliation unleashed and uncontrollable. Note how Cropsy incapacitates Alfred rather than kill him off quickly like everyone else (and if we wanted to stretch: is Alfred left-handed? Because if he is, is that his masturbating arm pinned to the wall?). But there is something else that may be at play here, for is it really the girls that makes Alfred feel inadequate? Is it that Alfred may well have a latent crush on the moderately sympathetic camp leader Todd (Brian Matthews), or even Glazer himself? But let’s forget Glazer because he goes having sex with one of the hot girls and has "dead man" plastered all over him. Cropsy disposes of all the competition and leaves only the tale of the Alfred being saved by Todd the camp counsellor and then Alfred saving Todd in return. (In a rarity for slasher plotting, Todd the councellor finds Alfred due to the latter’s screams and howls of horror; no suffering in manly silence for this victim.) Many read slashers as simply misogynist, but in truth they also contain endless male insecurities and desires to protect friends, families, lovers and crushes, not to mention plentiful anxieties over gender, masculinity, femininity and sexuality. Not so much a coming-out pic, then, but lots of repressed sexual rage which Cropsy happily acts out and then goes on to provide a romantic ending of sorts.

“The Burning” is entertaining and undemanding, but it snaps along brusquely, has better than average acting and atmosphere and is no-nonsense slasher fare. It is probably exactly the kind of item that horror’s detractors would wave around as exhibit #151 in the prosecution’s case. It is also exactly the kind of disposable and nasty fun that horror fans run to for undemanding entertainment and, as ever, to work through all those social and personal anxities.

[1] The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, editor Phil Hardy, (Aurum Press, 1993, London), page 346

[2] This perversity - that the ostensibly underserving suffer as much as the ostensibly deserving - feels like something that Rob Zombie was trying to get to with many of his female victims in his version of “Halloween”)

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