Saturday, April 10, 2010

Burn After Bleeding

The funny thing about slashers is their diversity. On the surface level, they’re all much the same: psycho killer from years past seeks his revenge, disembowels nubile teenagers with characteristic edged weapon, Sex=Death, Final Girl sequence, incoherent twist ending, roll credits. Quentin Tarantino originally conceived Death Proof as a straight-up slasher, but realized he couldn’t do that because the formula is so ironclad. And yet, there are surprising disparities among the various films in terms of quality (compare Nightmare on Elm St. vs. Friday the 13th, to say nothing of Freddy vs. Jason), plot details, and even fidelity to the slasher formula.

The Burning, at first glance, is another Friday the 13th clone, with teenagers getting offed at a summer camp, but it’s a very different beast. In the first place, there’s no attempt to hide the killer’s identity. It’s plain from the very beginning that Cropsy, a former camp counselor turned burn victim, is our crazed killer. The film is at pains to keep us from seeing his face, as it was with Pamela Voorhees, but for the very good reason that it doesn’t want to spoil the wonderfully disgusting trauma makeup provided by Tom Savini of Dawn of the Dead/Friday the 13th infamy.

The next break from the slasher mold may not necessarily be a break. There’s been much hand-wringing over the genre’s misogyny, with culture warriors on one side decrying its exploitative sex and violence against women, and on the other side certain feminists (following Carol Clover’s lead) pointing out the subversive sexual politics going on in many of these films, along with the audience identification with a strong, self-sufficient Final Girl who ends up emasculating the almost always male killer. Whether slashers per se are sexist is an open question; The Burning doesn’t get off quite so easily. The first kill of the movie involves the newly recovered Cropsy picking up a Times Square hooker and sticking some shears in her guts. This in itself isn’t any more morally offensive than can be found in any other such movie, but it sticks out badly, mostly for it having nothing to do with what else is going on.

There’s also the presence of not one but TWO sexual encounters that border on assault, and a character with a Peeping Tom tendency. Granted the movie makes it clear the would-be rapists are colossal douchebags who get what’s coming to them (the characterization is actually far above what one usually must settle for in these kinds of flicks), but the scenes are, well, discomfiting. And not only is the creeper one of our Final Boys (another huge departure from the formula), but we learn of his weird proclivities after the camera itself has been ogling one of the female campers in the shower, much like the near-assault during a skinny-dipping scene. It’s nice the film takes time to deal with sexual deviants as opposed to just parading us with T&A, but having both of them together makes for utter confusion.

I’ve mentioned the Final Boy scene, but a Final Boy in itself is just the tip of the iceberg in how far from the norm The Burning goes. Technically, there are two Final Boys, and they aren’t even final: a cohort of campers makes it back to safety (including Jason Alexander’s character—yes, that Jason Alexander—who’s the most likable of the whole bunch and thus ends up a wasted opportunity), and the police show up in a helicopter afterwards. This has the effect of deflating what tension there is in the sequence, but none of that matters for two reasons: 1) the aforementioned makeup job on Cropsy’s face, and 2) his change of weapon from gardening shears to a flamethrower. It’s batshit crazy and receives no explanation at all, but a flamethrower is just what the film needs at that point.

Of course, The Burning is quite a bit better than Jason Voorhees and his ilk. The story’s logic is stretched but never insultingly so. While the acting is kind of campy (yeah, I went there), it’s never dull or flat out bad, and I gotta say, Jason Alexander makes his character, which in lesser hands would quickly become Odious Comic Relief, work. The very ending, I must say, is also actually pretty neat and doesn't pull any stupid sequel set-up shit that happens way too often. On top of these distinctions and its value as a genre curiosity, it’s also of some film history significance: it was Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter’s first film, and one of the first productions of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, founders of Miramax(!). It’s not superb—a lot of the direction is just flat and botches the kills—but it’s far better than most such movies, and worth checking out.

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