The Burning (1981)

CAUTION: Contains unlicensed film theory

Carol Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws is most famous for drawing our attention to the figure of the Final Girl. Clover had been struck by the way that slasher films, aimed (as she saw it) at an audience of adolescent males and generally regarded as misogynistic, invariably feature a woman as protagonist and survivor. As she puts it, ‘no male character of any stature lives to tell the tale’.

Clover reveals that the viewer’s identification with the characters in films is not as clear-cut as you might think, and neither is sexuality, at least in the horror film’s funhouse hall of mirrors. In fact it is possible (I’m doing it) to ‘read’ the conventional slasher film as a romance between the killer and the Final Girl – you just need to replace sex with killing and the happy ending with death (for the killer) and survival (for the Final Girl).

Looked at that way, and from a male perspective, you get a brutal version of the ‘classic’ scenario in which a young man fucks around (kills wantonly) before being fucked (killed). And when I say ‘being fucked’ I mean, of course, falling in love.

If that sounds far-fetched is it all that different from a conventional romance, which ends with the wedding, or at any rate with the final removal of any impediments to the relationship? The further progress of the relationship, the ‘ups and downs’, are obliterated by the ‘happy ending’, which is like death in that we don’t look beyond it.

For this to work you would have to accept that the young male viewer identifies only with the killer. Clover doesn’t buy this because of the killer’s obvious unsuitability for that role (‘He is commonly masked, fat, deformed, or dressed as a woman.’)

But Clover perhaps fails to appreciate the slippery nature of horror. What if the killer is what the young male secretly fears he could be – sexually dysfunctional, violent, hideous to behold and so on?

The Final Girl can then take on the role of the One True Love, who is there at the end after many trials to save him – by killing him (or at any rate the ‘bad’ part of him).

The identification with the killer is therefore a negative and shadowy one, in keeping with the elusive nature of the killer himself – forever lurking in the shrubbery. At the same time – and the shadowy aspect is equally crucial here – this identification permits the male viewer to wallow in the worst he could be in the understanding that the Final Girl will purge him of those socially undesirable elements.

The true horror, meanwhile, has been ruthlessly cut out. The true horror, for the young male viewer, is the possibility of love, domesticity, commitment. Not that he doesn’t necessarily want these things, but he is not yet willing to face them – it is enough that they are implied, something to fall back on.

This is why there is no complete point of identification for the young male viewer in the film – the last thing the young man wants to see is himself represented as a happy, well-adjusted individual in a relationship of equals.

Men are notoriously unwilling to commit, so here commitment really does equal death. As does maturity. This is why ‘no male character of any stature lives to tell the tale’ – because stature itself is disavowed. Let the woman take care of all that (emotional and practical) stuff.

This is an argument that is based on things that aren’t there, so hard to prove – or indeed disprove.

Superficially there is an obvious romantic slant to films like Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine and Danny Peary in Cult Movies mentions the ‘sexual affinity’ between Laurie and Michael in Halloween. Or look at Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn which has its heroine donning make-up to confront the killer*. Stalking as flirtation, knives as phallic symbols – you know the drill.

But I’m talking about a romance that doesn’t appear on screen because the male half of the ‘couple’ has removed himself from the scenario, sardonically (or warily) substituting a demonic alter ego. If I were a real academic I’d be talking about Lacan by now**.

Still, I like this model. It’s very ‘clean’, all the better to spare the male adolescent any real emotional involvement in this sardonic romance. Women, if they require emotional involvement, can still enjoy it in the vein of a coming-of-age story, or a warning about the general fecklessness of men.

Tony Maylam’s The Burning is not so clean.

In Men Women and Chainsaws it is mentioned only in a footnote. It is an exception, because here there is no Final Girl but a Final Boy. Clover owns that this may uncover the ‘essential maleness of the story’, confirming the Final Girl of most slashers as ‘a boy in drag’.

I’m not sure – neither is she – that this is the case, but I suspect that The Burning‘s twist on the formula (though in fact it was written before Friday the 13themerged) might be revealing in other ways. Certainly it allows for more confusion, and confusion is at the very heart of adolescence.

The first confusion is that between Cropsy, the killer stalking the summer camp, and our Final Boy, a bullied misfit called Alfred (Brian Backer).

At the start he is caught spying on a girl in the shower, a task that one would ordinarily have expected to fall to Cropsy. When discovered he claims that he was only trying to ‘scare’ the girl, but he is immediately identified as a ‘pervert’ and later is suspected of being the killer (the classic POV shot replicating the lurking killer’s gaze is on at least one occasion ‘given’ to Alfred.)

Beyond the numerous killings that take place the emotional thrust of the story – in as much as there is one – is around Alfred establishing himself as ‘normal’. It is Cropsy (Lou David) who must take on the taint of ‘perversion’ (it may or may not be relevant that Harvey Weinstein produced this and came up with the original story) and absolve Alfred. This is accomplished when, at the end, he stabs Cropsy in the back with Cropsy’s own favourite weapon, a pair of shears.

In essence this plays out the scenario I’ve outlined above, making it visible – Alfred throws off his socially undesirable aspects via Cropsy and achieves some kind of ‘stature’. Except that it’s hard to see the adolescent male audience wholeheartedly identifying with Alfred – he is too much of an outsider.

The death blow to Cropsy, however, is dealt by Todd (Brian Matthews), hunky and often shirtless camp counselor. Todd is the kind of man the adolescent male might look up to (as Alfred seems to) but still surely too much of an authority figure to encourage straightforward audience identification among teens.

A more plausible candidate might be the wisecracking Dave played by Jason Alexander (later of Seinfeld) but he is too marginal to function in this way. Still, his protective attitude towards Alfred, shared by his friends, perhaps represents the target audience’s likely response to Alfred: sympathetic, but still somewhat guarded.

And then there’s Cropsy.

The film initially risks generating some sympathy for its killer. The ‘burning’ of the title occurs when a prank staged by a group of kids at the summer camp trying to scare Cropsy, the caretaker, goes wrong, and a skull-shaped lantern sets his bedsheets alight. We never see him prior to this incident so we can’t know if the boys’ presentation of him as sadistic is justified or merely the standard demonization of an authority figure.

In any case the burning, like a branding, makes this demonization actual. ‘He’s a monster, man’, says an intern in the hospital frightening a new recruit with the prospect of a glimpse of Cropsy’s hideous visage. Cropsy’s subsequent murder of a prostitute appalled by his scars might confirm the boys’ judgment of him – or it might just be a manifestation of something they have created.

The film’s twist reveals that Todd was one of the kids responsible for the original prank that ‘created’ the monster. This means that his fireside tales about Cropsy, which initially seem like harmless fun to scare the campers, take on a sinister aspect in retrospect – is he really quite as caring and sensitive as he appears?

We can at least say that this gives him a connection with Alfred: they are both heavily involved with Cropsy – Alfred is mistaken for him, Todd helped to make him what he is. This gives them a kind of mysterious bond, forged in guilt, which the climax of the film – where they both confront Cropsy – makes good on.

But could there be another element to this bond? Although Alfred was first spotted spying on a girl in the shower, perhaps his protest that he was ‘just trying to scare her’ was genuine. The girl, Sally (Carrick Glenn) is the girlfriend of Glazer (Larry Joshua), the muscular but idiotic bully who is targeting Alfred – later, Alfred watches them have sex.

It remains quite possible (he is not provided with a girlfriend) that Alfred’s real interest lies in Glazer – it then moves on to Todd, with whom he enjoys his most positive relationship in the film. Captured by Cropsy at the end, Alfred plays the traditional role of the heroine, waiting to be rescued by Todd. Todd is presented as straight (anything else would have been unthinkable at the time) but there is still that ‘bond forged in guilt’ between them. Guilt, at this time, was still a big thing as regards homosexuality.

And look at the title, with its connotations of shame and desire.

Of course, if there were something going on between Todd and Alfred that would be a whole other can of worms: abuse, in fact. But even if the can isn’t opened, that doesn’t mean the worms aren’t there. In horror the worms are always there to some extent – sometimes more visible, sometimes less.

The Burning unleashes uneasy worms of feeling into the Final Girl scenario outlined above by risking emotional involvement for the male viewer, but without providing any clear point of identification.

If Cropsy is what the viewer fears he might be (but derives vicarious enjoyment from) then Todd is what the viewer hopes he might become, the mature hero absent from the standard model – he is in a relationship with Michelle (Leah Ayres), who under other circumstances might have been our Final Girl.

Meanwhile Alfred is a transitional figure, shifting over the course of the film from Cropsy’s shadow into Todd’s, eventually casting off Cropsy’s taint and becoming… well perhaps not quite his own man, but heading in the ‘right’ direction.

At the same time, none of these figures necessarily conform to the roles I’ve assigned them: Cropsy is not wholly unsympathetic, Todd may be a complete sociopath and Alfred could be gay.

This last may not be intentional but in having Alfred demonized as a ‘pervert’ from the start the film seems open to the possibility at least – and in the context of the time and the likely audience, this is how homosexuality would have been seen.

In fact, if we accept that the story of the slasher film is essentially about the young male viewer purging himself of ‘socially undesirable’ elements it seems likely that one of these elements, perhaps even the main one, is homosexuality.

The killers of these films may not usually be gay as such but we can probably assume that this is covered somewhere in their shadowy ‘wrongness’ – certainly if we equate their killings with sexual acts, they translate into a bisexual orgy.

Perhaps this aspect of the scenario accounts for the Final Girl’s more masculine aspects as outlined by Clover – courage, resourcefulness etc. The Final Girl proves ‘strong’ enough to absorb any gay tendencies that might remain in the male viewer after his monstrous alter ego has been destroyed.

However, in The Burning the standard Final Girl ‘romance’ is broken (or not yet fully established), and all this stuff is leaking out, creating a scenario closer to Frankenstein - Todd ‘creates’ the monster (both actually and through story) and Alfred plays out the (homerotic?) tension between them. They are locked together, as though within a single unstable and guilt-ridden identity, and instead of the young male viewer preserving a distance from the material which is purging his forbidden desires, he is thrust into the maelstrom.

Though to be fair he probably won’t even notice, except for experiencing a mild queasiness perfectly appropriate to a horror film. Nevertheless there is a difference: the Final Girl model (barring a sequel) offers the possibility of a clean break with the confusions and trials of adolescence; The Burning suggests that we never quite escape them.

* One of two identical-twin killers, to be strictly accurate.

** Lacan’s ideas about the impossibility of attaining one’s desire and the subject as a void have an obvious bearing on this, but frankly I have neither the patience nor the expertise to go into them. I only do this for fun.

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