Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (Television)
Starring Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Christopher Redman, Christopher Gauthier, Zara Taylor, Gary Hetherington
Directed by John Carpenter
Airdate: December 16, 2005
Nearing the end of his continent-hopping investigation, a well-paid Kirby Sweetman encounters one last grisly predicament with his latest client. Without going too deep into it, let's just say orbital extraction plays a large part as does the medieval use of a film projector. These acts of bloodshed a case of corrupt celluloid exposure, namely to La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), a film so powerful it introduces chaos into the lives of all those who see - or come in contact - with it. This being the Masters of Horror, are we given a peek at this evil strip of cinema? Of course we are! Unfortunately, it never lives up to the hype. And neither does John Carpenter's potential.
Let's rewind for a second before you start shitting down my neck. Carpenter films course through my friggin' blood like cells of The Thing. The Fog and Christine are forever ingrained in memories of my childhood. Halloween is a classic (natch). Prince of Darkness an overlooked gem. In the Mouth of Madness, in my opinion, is one of the finer horror films of the ‘90s, not to mention Carpenter's last decent film (it's a pity Village of the Damned followed, but whatev). I've even made room in my decrepit, naive heart for Ghosts of Mars and Vampires, two widely reviled Carpenter misfires. We'll toss my devotion to the man on the discussion slab for another day; just know I'm right there with the rest of you Carpenter-philes.
The out-of-this-world Mars being the last we've heard of John, Burns finds him coming down to Earth and getting back to basics. I'm sure all of you want to know up front if Cigarette Burns lures the man back into the fold, i.e. Johnny of olden times. This is the part where I shrug my shoulders and say, "Sort've." If you want to judge his return on the amount of gore, you'll be one chipper beaver eager to get your fur splashed in what this episode has to offer: guts, a beheading, a naked broad coated in the red stuff – uncut, audaciously presented. And Burns is not entirely devoid of the requisite Carpenter humor-served-up-black but if you fear it falls in line with other Masters entries heavy on the guffaws such as Homecoming and Deer Woman, you need not worry. The story is a fairly serious, trippy thriller and if you do find yourself chuckling at any point, it's because writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan are knowingly ribbing you with sly in-jokes only us films geeks will ever get or care for (one of Sweetman's cronies is seen removing the "cigarette burns" out of a reel of Deep Red adding it to his collection in a sizable tome). Or, if you're like me, you could just be rolling in glee over the astonishing amount of grue on display. But back to the question: Is it old school Carpenter? No, and I'll tell ya why in a sec.
Burns can slip somewhere into Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy, the nihilistic trio that began with The Thing, continued into Prince of Darkness and ended with In the Mouth of Madness. In fact, if the latter picture can be seen as part three, then Burns serves as an ideal chapter 3.5 or even a Madness Pt. 2. Both focus on art forms bearing the weight of immense, damaging, influence. In Burns, Sweetman (played by a rather dry Reedus of Blade II and Boondock Saints) is a revival house movie theater owner burdened with his own demons and a large debt to pay. He parallels his work at the theater with procuring hard-to-find film prints for people. Hoping to slip out from under the shadow of a $200,000 obligation, Sweetman takes up a hefty task set before him by the eccentric Bellinger (the always delightful Kier). His new gig? Find the only copy of La Fin Absolue du Monde, a film that premiered at the Sitges Film Festival with disastrous results. Long story short, the audience tore itself apart. Literally. The film was long thought to have been kept under guard by the government and/or destroyed. Bellinger believes otherwise, relying on the word of an "angel" held in his captivity and clipped of its wings. Taking its cue from Madness and Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate, Burns turns to Sweetman's investigation that takes him overseas and introduces us to some quirky and, often deadly, people (such as an obsessed film critic or a buff snuff filmmaker, respectively). As he nears his prize, however, reality increasingly falters testing both his sanity and drive to finish the job.
Kudos to Carpenter for honing in on a relatively well-told, if not overly familiar, story for this latest outing. Traces of the bleak, cynical ideology we've come to recognize and love in his films are inherent in McWeeny and Swan's script making Burns one of this season's finer efforts. Sacrifices were made though. Right off the top, Carpenter's wide scope is severely missing. Good ol' wide lens photography is abandoned perhaps to meet the uniformity of the rest of the series. Visual language be damned, too. There's nothing Carpenter-esque nor really scary about the grotesqueries we witness. Disturbing? Yes, and don't be too surprised if some viewers find a parallel between this episode's abrupt centerpiece beheading and a certain Iraqi insurgent hostage video. On the scary end I, again, just have to shrug my shoulders.
Switching gears, I'd be remiss not to mention the music. Like John Landis tapping his son's talents in the writing department on Deer Woman, Cody Carpenter parks his ass on the piano bench for his old man introducing the genre to his own lyrical, Goblin-inspired piano theme. Good job there, fella.
Cigarette Burns is a film whose parts are greater than the whole. It's refreshing to see Carpenter this enthusiastic about filmmaking again, he just needs to find a better way to mask those scenes he's less excited about, because it's in these moments where Burns slags off. As for La Fin Absolue du Monde itself, I gotta say - it probably should have been something best left unseen. Avoid the abstract film student exercise they opted for and leave it surrounded by an air of unseen mystery. Sledgehammer our senses with that dreadful feeling of the unknown - something Carpenter used to be so good at.