'80s Slashers: "The Burning," "The Funhouse"

The Burning (1981) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Camp caretaker Cropsey burnt by some punk kids years ago promptly returns to dispatch teens with his handy hedge clippers ... you know the drill. One of the first productions from producer Harvey Weinstein and co-writer Bob Weinstein's Miramax Films, "The Burning" is a typical slasher rehash of "Friday the 13th" (1980) but less shabby than most of its type. In fact, it moves a lot faster than that impressionable Sean S. Cunningham flick and manages some suspense in between the body-count kills. There's one memorably bloody murder sequence in particular. When a bunch of camp canoes get loose on the lake, a group of campers agree to build a raft and collect all the canoes. Approaching a seemingly empty canoe, the scene becomes a surprise attack that catches both the kids and the viewer off-guard. The final confrontation between Cropsey and some survivors in an old mine shaft lags a bit, reliant on flashbacks, but has two jump scares that work as well as any. 

"The Burning" is nothing we haven't seen done more than a hundred times before, maybe even in the same year, but it admits to being campy and cheesy, with Tom Savini's makeup effects and splatter gore part of its low-budget charm. Look for future stars Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter, popping up as campers. A competently made, underlooked genre gem, "The Burning" should delight '80s horror fans with the requisite red stuff and some gratuitous female nudity. 

The Funhouse (1981) 
96 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Following his genre-defining directorial debut, 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Tobe Hooper made a stylish little horror flick called "The Funhouse." Level-headed virgin Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) goes on a first date with filling-station hunk Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), along with her friends Richie (Miles Chapin) and Liz (Largo Woodruff). Against her father's wishes, they have a night out at the traveling carnival. A bag lady mouths impending doom, and what starts as some harmless fun on rides, seeing a fortune teller, and looking at two-headed cows, leads to a night of terror as they (unwisely) spend the whole night in the funhouse. Meanwhile, Amy's practical-joking brother sneaks out and attends the carnival too. Inside the maze of pop-up skeletons and scary monster puppets is a monstrously deformed son of the funhouse barker. They shoulda gone to the movies instead. 

"The Funhouse" isn't just a cheesy slasher flick, but a superior one. Opening with a P.O.V. shower scene is an homage to both 1960's "Psycho" and 1978's "Halloween." There's actual tension and lots of carnie-freak color and atmosphere. Much like Hooper's groundbreaking last effort, the violence here is much more suggestive than explicit, and the pacing is more of a slow-burn. Hooper impresses with two slow crane shots, hovering over the carnival. The characters are even more likable and have more personality than the garden-variety teens of this genre. In her feature debut, Berridge is natural and appealing as Amy, with a loud set of pipes to boot. Had she done more horror films after this, she could've been another Jamie Lee Curtis or Jill Schoelen scream queen.