Written by: Scott Swann and Drew McWeeny
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Norman Reedus, Colin Foo and Udo Kier
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"We trust filmmakers. We sit in the dark, daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won't go too far..."
Cigarette Burns was the first Masters of Horror episode to ever really grab my attention; for whatever reason (possibly due to a lack of Showtime subscription), I never watched the show when it actually aired. However, seeing as how Cigarette Burns marked the return of John Carpenter after a then-four year absence, it was destined to be the first episode Iíd track down for the eventual DVD release, making it one of the two or three Iíd actually seen before revisiting the series here recently. Anyway, I donít need to rehash my Carpenter adoration (in short, heís God), but even I have to admit that Cigarette Burns didnít leave much of an impression back then, and it still fails to be much more than an especially gory blip in the horror masterís career.
Its hook is nearly perfect: there was once a film that played at Stiges called La fin absolue du monde (The Absolute End of the World) that incited a homicidal riot in the audience. Since then, itís become the stuff of legend, and an enigmatic film collector (Udo Kier) enlists a reparatory theater owner (Norman Reedus) to find it. This sends him down a bloody, twisted rabbit hole thatís full of intrigue and violence.
Mostly violence, Iíd say. Cigarette Burns actually works quite well on the front end, when that intrigue palatably hangs in the air and appeals to the rabid horror fan in all of us. Who wouldnít want to track down a film as infamous as the one presented here? How many of us have tracked down dozens of the most insane and deranged titles weíve come across over the years? Of course, none of us have encountered something like La fin absolue du monde, a film that, as its title suggests, awakens some sort of apocalyptic, violent fervor in anyone who watches it. Thereís a nice sense of propulsion to Reedusís search for this film, even if it is built upon a heap of clichťs (heís got a dark past with a drug addiction and a dead wife and an abrasive father-in-law). Reedus is adept at finding the empathetic humanity in a character youíd otherwise come down on if you read about him in the newspaper; his lost love ends up being central to the story, and he sells it well.
Everything is sold rather well for the low-key, psychologically-driven first half; again, itís nothing particularly fresh, and we can see Reedusís mind being peeled away as he descends into this paper chase that bounces him from one person to another, each more crazy than the last. He even begins to imagine cigarette burns in his mind, and they appear to us, as well, just in case we werenít aware that life is about to imitate art. The first couple of people he encounters, such as the obsessed film critic who has spent 35 years writing one review of the film, are genuinely creepy; again, they sell the apocalyptic nature of this film--I wouldnít so much as touch a splice of its reel. Not Reedus, however--he pushes on, and Cigarette Burns loses its way when he encounters a fellow theater programmer who now believes that murder is an art form after seeing La fin, so he hacks into a taxi driverís neck and severs her head, thus sending the film down a gore-laden path (with some great, gruesome effects). Cigarette Burns is much more fascinating when itís holding back, and it reveals its hand just a bit too quickly; it also eventually reveals the contents of La fin, too, and it ends up resembling something out of Jodorowsky. Itíll leave you wondering how it would drive anyone insane, unless they really had an aversion to avant garde weirdness.
Thereís a notion that something supernatural is actually at work here, obviously. Maybe itís connected to the emaciated albino that Udo Kier (who is as creepy as ever) has chained up in his house; honestly, itís a bit difficult to tell, even though the filmís musing on the transgressive nature of art and how it can penetrate our souls and all that jazz. Carpenter is well suited for all of this; though his films (with the exception of In The Mouth of Madness) havenít been overtly meta-fictional, thereís always been this sort of sly self-awareness and riffing on previous material. Cigarette Burns actually feels like a condensed, more obvious version of In The Mouth of Madness, so itís a bit perfunctory in that regards; whereas that version of the story was much more mind-bending, this one opts for the grand guignol, though it does offer the most glorious method of suicide a cinephile could ever imagine (too bad itíll one day be rendered impossible due to the rise of digital projection).
Like the rest of Carpenterís output for the past decade, Cigarette Burns reveals that he can still put a movie together and brisk through the motions. Itíll still leave you longing for the subdued, creepy Carpenter of your youth, particularly when glimpses of him show up in the early going, with his visuals being accentuated by his own sonís Goblin-inspired score. Still, having seen this twice now, I wonder just what it was that really attracted Carpenter to this script; stuff like this and The Ward both feel like heís just dipping his toes back into the surf. Iím left with the impression that the waterís still fine, but heís just not willing to jump all the way in. Which isnít to say Cigarette Burns is even approaching bad--itís a nice, serviceable episode, and I imagine die-hard Carpenter fans will want it on their shelf. Anchor Bay obliged with a fine DVD package that features a strong presentation and a bunch of extras that include behind-the-scenes and on-set materials, including interviews with Carpenter and Reedus. Carpenter also provides a commentary track, while writers Scott Swan and Drew McWeeny team up for a second track. Despite the robust DVD, save this one for Netflix. I suppose the central irony here is that this episode revolves around a movie that demands to be seen, whereas Cigarette Burns itself is barely a flicker in John Carpenterís storied career. Rent it!
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