The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.
I’ve written a little about this before, but I embraced my love of horror films over the past year or so, especially as the pandemic began. It wasn’t long before Netflix could no longer keep up with my ever-increasing thirst for spooks and scares. This led me to Shudder, a streaming service specializing in horror. And that’s how I stumbled upon The Burning, a curious little slasher from 1981 about a summer camp caretaker named Cropsey (inspired by a real urban legend) who stalks teens with razor-sharp garden shears years after a cruel prank left him horribly burned.
It’s mostly notable for a supporting role by 20-year-old Jason Alexander. But we’ll get to that later.
Before I get started on what I like about The Burning, I need to be clear that it’s not what I would call a good movie. It has some redeeming values that elevate it from being the Friday the 13th ripoff it so clearly is, but I can’t recommend it without some massive qualifications. Like, the size of that hat George Costanza wore in that Seinfeld episode.
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Burning is written by Peter Lawrence and Bob Weinstein, from a story by Brad Grey, director Tony Maylam, and producer Harvey Weinstein, the last of whom is a convicted rapist currently in prison for a well-documented series of sex crimes.
Harvey Weinstein produced decades of classics, and while I don’t think anyone is arguing that we should do away with beloved films like Good Will Hunting and Paddington, their legacies are soured. What makes The Burning harder to reckon with is that Weinstein contributed to its story, one that hinges largely on troublesome sexual antics like a peeping tom and more than one scene of young men coercing young women into sex. It’s not the only film from the same era to age poorly in that regard (one of many reasons why I hate Revenge of the Nerds), but not all of them had creative input from a serial sex offender.
Even beyond The Burning‘s moral failings both on- and off-screen, its appeal is limited. As a general rule, I don’t care for slashers, and The Burning is emblematic of several commonalities I dislike about the sub-genre: predictable structure, over-reliance on shock and gore, and a plot that doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond “it sure would be scary to be stalked by a burn victim with garden shears!”
So why do I have any affection for this movie at all? Some of it comes down to aesthetics. Cropsey’s creature design by famed special effects makeup artist Tom Savini are good and creepy, even if they don’t reach the heights of his classic work on horror essentials like Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.
The score by Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman is pretty cool too. I wouldn’t listen to it again before revisiting his collaborations with David Bowie or Ozzy Osbourne or any number of other artists with whom Wakeman wasn’t working on a horror movie soundtrack, but it lends a legitimacy to the proceedings that other ’80s slashers might not otherwise have.
Beyond aesthetics, I was pleasantly surprised by the commitment to character development, something I often find lacking in slashers. After a bloody prologue for Cropsey’s origin and the titular Burning that turned him into a monster, there aren’t any kills for the next 45 minutes or so. Instead, we get to know the ensemble cast, their relationships, and a decent sense of who they are before the horror begins. From a traditional storytelling perspective, it’s elementary stuff, but there’s a lot to be said for a slasher that at least tries to create characters rather than caricatures.
Mostly, though, I love Jason Alexander’s character, Dave. I don’t say that ironically, and it’s not just that I love Seinfeld and George Costanza, although I did watch The Burning almost entirely for the promise of 20-year-old pre-fame Jason Alexander with a full head of hair. He plays the kind of counselor I always loved as a kid (even if I grew up going to a day camp rather than a summer camp): fiercely protective of his campers, but with a buoyant attitude and a sense of humor.
One might have certain expectations for the chubby comic relief in a slasher, but the key to what makes Dave great is that he’s not the butt of the joke… unless you want to be literal about it, because Jason Alexander does show his bare butt in a scene where he moons a guy. But that’s kind of my point: in most slashers, you’d expect to laugh at a character like Dave. Instead, we laugh with him.
Nonetheless, the writing in The Burning is rather mediocre, so Dave doesn’t say or do anything that, on paper, would be especially funny. But as you know if you’ve watched Seinfeld, or perhaps heard him in voice roles like Harley Quinn‘s Sy Borgman, Jason Alexander is a great comic actor. I can’t say anything he did in The Burning made me laugh, but what’s more important is how his likability shines through in a film where you wouldn’t expect to like anyone.
And hey, look at the guy. Cool, confident Jason Alexander is damn sexy.
Of course, The Burning is a horror film, and Dave ditches the jokiness once he sees his campers and fellow counselors getting chopped up. But the shift feels more real than it otherwise might, because we got to see a multidimensional performance before survival mode kicked in.
Even if you, like me, fall into the Venn Diagram of Seinfeld fans who love horror, The Burning is a hard movie to recommend. There are countless films I’d recommend sooner if you want an actually-good horror film. Heck, it isn’t even the best horror film with Jason Alexander in a supporting role – that would be 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, one of my all-time faves. But if you want something that you don’t have to take seriously, and if you can be forgiving of The Burning‘s many sins, you’ll get a kick out of it.