The Halloween spookiness continues here at Coffee and Illithids, and what better way is there to celebrate the scariest month of the year than by looking at some of the works of horror’s greatest writers and directors? I recently picked up a copy of the first season of Masters of Horror, an anthology show where each episode is directed by a different famous horror director, including Takashi Miike, Tobe Hooper, and Dario Argento. For my first foray into the series I decided to start with the one I was most excited to check out: John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns.
Cigarette Burns stars Norman Reedus as Kirby, a man who owns a theater and is paid to track down incredibly rare film reels for private collectors. Naturally, he’s hired to track down an incredibly rare film reel for Bellinger, a private collector of extreme cinema (played by real life adorable weirdo, Udo Kier). Kirby dives down the rabbit hole looking for the last remaining print of the infamous French horror film La Fin Absolue Du Monde, a movie so extreme, so disturbing on a fundamental level, that upon viewing it audiences are driven into a bloody, homicidal rage. This extreme reaction is not out of disgust or disdain for the film, but rather from becoming so deeply broken spiritually and emotionally that the only thing they can resort to is depraved acts of violence. Kirby begins connecting the dots and immerses himself into the culture of people who have witnessed La Fin Absolue Du Monde first hand and he begins seeing cigarette burns in real life (it’s the little circle you see in old films in the top right hand corner that signifies that a reel needs to be changed for the film to continue), and as he continues to press onward anyways, he finds himself slowly slipping into a world of madness beyond his control.
I haven’t really kept up with Carpenter’s work in the late ’90s and 2000s, but based on what I’ve heard and what I have actually seen, it was a less than stellar run of movies. To me, Carpenter’s entry into the Masters of Horror anthology is him dusting off his jacket and showing the world he’s still got it. Cigarette Burns has Carpenter’s staples from the ’80s and early ’90s woven into it’s very core. Weird esoteric and spiritual concepts, visceral gore and violence, and just a tinge of Lovecraftian madness all make their way into Cigarette Burns. It honestly feels like a spiritual successor to In the Mouth of Madness, and for me that’s a good thing. It’s got the same weird semi-meta tone of Carpenter’s 1994 love letter to Lovecraft, touching on how the media we consume can hold some sort of power over us and can affect the masses on a primal level, as well as how art can transcend it’s medium and actually possess a spiritual presence or power.
Cigarette Burns is a pretty slow burn (heh) horror story, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. As an audience, we’re constantly told from the start of the film that La Fin Absolue Du Monde creates chaos, violence, and torment in the lives of the people who watch it or seek to understand it, however, Carpenter actually begins showing us soon after. He gives us glimpses into the lives of the broken people who share a past with the film to keep us enticed, and boy does it keep us on the edge of our seat. In fashion with Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness), the tension is ramped up higher and higher and higher before climaxing in a disturbing, violent scene that is built around shock value and provocative imagery. Obviously, we’re not dealing with some pretentious arthouse film, things make sense. No horrific sequences are thrown in just because. They all serve the story, as they should. Carpenter uses all practical effects throughout, and they look amazing. Some of the more fantastical elements look a little dated, but the gritty, simple things (like when we witness a decapitation via machete) look gruesomely realistic. Near the end of Cigarette Burns where we actually get to see certain shots and very, very small fragments of La Fin Absolue Du Monde is an experience in itself. Carpenter did a fantastic job showing only choice snippets of that ungodly film, letting each portion of it punch us in the gut. If he would have just shown any extended portion of it or overused it, it would have diminished in how effective it was at being legitimately unsettling and scary.
The only room for improvement I can think of would be in the acting department. Since this is only my first episode of Masters of Horror, I’m not sure what the tone of the series is going to be. Udo Kier is quirky and bombastic as usual, so I’m not sure if Cigarette Burns was supposed to be sort of like Creepshow in that it is kind of campy on purpose or not. The subject matter and visuals definitely don’t feel that way, so I feel like Kier’s Udocity and Reedus’ kinda choppy acting (fight me Walking Dead fans, Darryl isn’t even a character in the comics) detract from the gravitas of the whole piece. Either way, it’s still a great entry into Carpenter’s filmography, and shows that no matter what his recent output is, he’s still one of the godfathers of modern horror. Cigarette Burns came out just over ten years after what many consider his last great movie and it’s been about a decade since it was released, so here’s hoping Mr. Carpenter will surface again soon to bless us with another horror classic.