The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas established the subgenre in 1974, but it took until 1980 for a trickle to turn into a deluge of cheap horror flicks. That year saw the release of Friday the 13th, by almost every measure a far worse film than either of the aforementioned ur-slashers, but one whose brutal non-aesthetic proved infinitely easier to imitate than Tobe Hooper or John Carpenter.
The Burning, released a week after Friday the 13th, Part 2 in May 1981, is thus still in the vanguard of the first wave of the slasher: late enough that it adheres to a recognisable template, early enough that the formula had not yet ossified into the artistic straitjacket the subgenre would be stuck in until A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Of The Burning's heresies, the total lack of a Final Girl is perhaps the most blatant - but I suppose I should start at the beginning. At Camp Blackfoot, some campers decide to play a practical joke on hated caretaker Cropsy (Lou David), but the prank goes horribly wrong, leaving Cropsy disfigured by severe burns. Released from the hospital five years later, Cropsy murders a streetwalker (K.C. Townsend) in an absurdly nasty fashion cut from the film's theatrical version, and disappears into the night.
Meanwhile at another summer camp, Sally (Carrick Glenn) takes a shower, begins to fear that somebody is stalking her, and to her horror discovers... fellow camper Alfred (Brian Backer), who when questioned by counselor Todd (Brian Matthews) claims he was only trying to scare Sally because the other campers bully him. It's an effective false scare, and exceedingly rare in the slasher subgenre in that it develops the characters involved - specifically, that Alfred is an indescribably awful creep. Which is unfortunate since he's the closest to a protagonist The Burning is willing to offer.
Together with his colleague girlfriend Michelle (Leah Ayres), Todd takes a group of campers downriver on canoes for a trip of a few days. The usual summer-camp slasher difficulty of telling apart kids and counselors when all the actors are adults prevails, but the group of campers consists of Alfred and Sally, her dumb bully boyfriend Glazer (Larry Joshua), shy Karen (Carolyn Houlihan), lusty would-be macho Eddy (Ned Eisenberg), Alfred's friends Dave (Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame), Woodstock (Fisher Stevens) and Fish (J.R. McKechnie). And a whole host of lesser campers, one of whom is portrayed by Holly Hunter, who judging by the way that fact is publicised you'd expect to have more than a couple of lines. She does not.
It's a whole lot of expendable meat, and Cropsy begins dispatching his victims brutally and efficiently once the group discover their canoes have been stolen and they're trapped in the wilderness. The Burning easily tops the already outré violence of Friday the 13th, especially in the infamous raft massacre scene (where Cropsy disposes of roughly half the cast in a vicious, surprisingly short sequence). There's a reason the brutality is so effective: special makeup effects maestro Tom Savini, who had contributed more than anybody else to the success of F13, passed on Friday the 13th, Part 2 in favour of this film - and turned in some of his finest work. (In the viciousness arms race, F13 would up the ante in later installments, to ugly results.)
That's not to say The Burning is some sort of spin-off of the F13 franchise. It's got an identity of its own, one that aims a little uncertainly in the direction of art-house hicksploitation darling Deliverance. There's the bluegrass on the soundtrack, unusual in an age in love with synthesizers and disco remixes; there are all the river scenes. Three decades on, the distinctive identity The Burning carves out with its raft massacre and its Final-Girl-less climax helps it stand out in a genre more rigidly dogmatic than your average KJV-Only Independent Fundamental Baptist church.
Above all The Burning benefits from solid craftsmanship. Characters act sensibly in what is a smart film by the low standards of the slasher genre. Produced by Harvey Weinstein and helmed by Tony Maylam (whose career never went anywhere), it's a handsome, well-directed film that uses daylight and sunset where F13 only knew pitch-black (although the film also features the worst obviously-fake 'night-time' scenes until Conan the Barbarian would take that particular crown just a year later). It is, if I may be so bold, kind of a good film. It wouldn't last, of course, but there it is.