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Maylam: The Burning (1981)

The first feature from Miramax Films – and the first screen appearance of Jason Alexander – The Burning tends to get less acclaim than other slasher films of the same era. Presumably, that’s because it draws quite a bit of its inspiration from Friday the 13th and Halloween, which cast pretty long shadows, but The Burning isn’t derivative so much as working within an established genre and innovating from the inside. Like Friday the 13th, it’s set at an American summer camp, five years after a teenage prank brutally burned and disfigured Cropsy, the caretaker. Where Jason and Michael Myers feel rather remote from any kind of human subjectivity, the opening of The Burning – after the prologue – offers a somewhat more sympathetic slasher, with an extended point-of-view sequence depicting Cropsy’s traumatic first few hours after being released from the burns unit, where he’s been holed up for half a decade. Cowering behind his trenchcoat, he’s more or less condemned to voyeurism, watching the world while too afraid to show his face, a situation that quite naturally leads him to the red-light district, where he murders a prostitute in what almost feels like a pre-emptive gesture, an attempt to halt her facial muscles before they can register the full horror of his own. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before we – and Cropsy – return to the camp, where we’re presented with a fairly ugly vision of the adolescents responsible for his plight in the first place. Although they’re undoubtedly charismatic – Jason Alexander is already George in training – they’re much more unlikeable than in Friday the 13th, in a kind of accelerated second-generation slasherscape in which simply being young and beautiful is no longer motivation enough for the bloodbath that’s inevitably going to come. Rather than a bucolic ecosystem of gorgeous teenagers, what ensues is more like a casually pernicious playground that just happens to be set in the middle of woods, free to indulge in all the bullying, hectoring and sexual harassment that wouldn’t fly at school – everything is inflected through rape, with the killer initially mistaken for one of the camp’s resident “prowlers” – and creating a teen drama that works really well on its own terms, even before Cropsy comes to make his mark, which is perhaps why there isn’t a single murder until at least halfway through. What makes the film so powerful, though, is that Cropsy doesn’t disrupt so much as intensify this bullying culture, picking off the vulnerable and victimised kids first, in a series of scenes that are quite traumatic in their sense of gore, full of shears penetrating bodies in all kinds of oblique and contorted angles, eschewing stock and stylised points of entry – neck, chest, back – in favour of a messy realism – lots of scrapes and cuts before the blade finally fits home – that makes this quite emotional for a slasher film as well. While that expertly timed and unusually framed gore is one of the things that distinguishes it from Friday the 13th and Halloween, it doesn’t detract from the unique sense of suspense either, which hinges on most of the murders being committed during the day, while even the night scenes are shot on such a light filter that it still feels like daytime as well, and the obligatory pitch black finale is shot in an abandoned mine in the late afternoon. Whereas Carpenter and Cunningham build everything around the slow but sure onset of evening, Maylam is more interested in daylight creepiness, that eerie moment when the woods get a little too quiet, or when you’re adrift on the middle of a river in the noonday sun with nowhere to hide and no idea who might be scrutinising you from the bank. In that sense, it stands in relation to slasher horror as soleil stands to noir, right down to the score by Rick Wakeman, which manages to blend the sunny and sinister sides of the synthesizer into the perfect complement to this blindingly beautiful vision of horrors hiding in plain sight.

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