After the success of Halloween, Sean Cunningham—in attempt to recreate that success—directed Friday the 13th. From there, the slasher craze of the early 1980’s was born. Movies like Terror Train, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me and The Prowler were released in rapid succession. The thing that makes The Burning a little different than its contemporaries is that it wasn’t just copying the template of Friday the 13th, no, this one borrowed virtually everything.
This wasn’t just a killer picking off teenagers one by one. It was a killer at a summer camp with a horrible, tragic past. It was, in essence, Friday the 13th done again. For that reason, it’s obvious to assume that The Burning doesn’t work as a film. It shouldn’t work. It was coming out less than a year after Friday the 13th, which was still a huge success at the box office.
The thing that makes The Burning stand out is that it is a more competently made film. It’s better. I’m not saying that The Burning is better than the Friday the 13th franchise as a whole because there are elements and movies in that franchise that really shine. I’m not even saying it’s better than Friday the 13th Part 2. But when comparing The Burning to the film that launched that whole series, it’s The Burning that comes out on top.
Yes, Betsy Palmer is obviously terrific in the film. But she’s only terrific for the amount of time that she’s actually in the movie, and she’s not in it very much. Cunningham made no effort to put her in the film at any other point, there’s no possibility to guess that she’s the killer until she just shows up and basically explains her whole backstory. The worst thing about this is that nobody would have guessed her to be the killer if she had so much as appeared at any other point.
The Burning is operating under the exact same model as Friday the 13th. But it doesn’t have these problems. It fixes these mistakes, and that’s how it beats the quintessential slasher movie at its own game. The opening of The Burning immediately establishes the killer. In fact, we spend nearly twenty minutes learning his backstory and motivation before we move onto the camp and the main cast. This is an interesting way to do things, but it works. Once we’ve established Cropsey, he’s like the bomb under the table that could go off at any moment. We know he’s there, but the characters don’t and that creates tension and suspense.
Each of the characters in the movie has a unique, distinct personality. It even has a much larger cast than Friday the 13th, but it’s hard to lose track of any of the characters. Some of the standouts are Jason Alexander in his first film role, Brian Backer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High as Alfred and Larry Joshua as the irreplaceable Glazer. These characters all have a strong, believable chemistry. One of the best things about The Burning is that it almost works as an ‘80’s teen comedy until the killer shows up. It is a high mark for a slasher movie if you feel like you could watch the kids occupy the screen for an entire feature without wanting to see them get killed off.
Of course, the main attraction of a slasher movie would be the death scenes. They are the highpoint of the original Friday the 13th, in which the effects are put to incredible use thanks to the talents of Tom Savini. Luckily, Savini also did the effects for The Burning and they are just as terrific here. Overall, this is a slightly gorier movie, but the kills are padded out throughout the feature. It takes a long time for characters to actually get killed. But it works. Things build and build and just when you think nothing might actually happen, we get something like the infamous raft sequence.
The Burning does exactly what Friday the 13th did, but it does it a little better, enough to make a difference. Of the two movies, this is the one that comes out on top. It has all the gore that Friday the 13th provides, but it’s better at portraying its killer and it has a more interesting, engaging and funny cast of characters. While it never spawned a franchise and isn’t really seen as one of the most iconic slashers, it has a legacy nonetheless. This was the first movie for Miramax Pictures which was at the time just a name created by screenwriters Bob and Harvey Weinstein to slap on the opening credits. It went on to become a major, major company and the Weinsteins are two of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.