In 2005, Showtime debuted Masters of Horror, an original anthology series of hour long horror films. Famous and emerging horror directors were given the same budget and no restrictions on what they could make their film about. It’s actually pretty amazing that executive producer Mick Garris got some of the greatest horror directors of all time to work on this show.
John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns is one of my favorite horror films. Forget the context of Master of Horror. Cigarette Burns is so well regarded, it actually gets named dropped in other films, like Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made. This is an old-school John Carpenter film that’s only missing the precise widescreen ratio he uses on all his traditional feature films.
This is John Carpenter doing what John Carpenter does best. He takes a simple concept and spins it until you have no idea what could possibly come next. In this case, a rare film dealer is trying to track down an allegedly cursed film. Anyone who watches La Fin Absolue du Monde dies. He travels around the world, interviewing people connected to the film. That’s it. That’s the film.
John Carpenter is one of those directors Masters of Horror had to secure to guarantee the clout of the series. He is an award-winning filmmaker who has earned a level of respect in the industry far beyond most horror/sci-fi directors could ever imagine. He’s the mind behind Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, They Live, and so many more. Carpenter uses static framed shots or very clean Steadicam work to keep the focus on the actors telling his story. He also typically writes and scores his films. He’s considered one of the driving forces behind the innovation and adoption of synthesizers, right up there in significance with Wendy Carlos (The Shining, A Clockwork Orange). There are no accidents in a John Carpenter film because John Carpenter plans for every detail.
Perhaps the most surprising detail in Cigarette Burns is that John Carpenter did not provide the score. His son Cody scored the film and it’s beautiful. It has the signature elements of that John Carpenter style: the fast moving piano melody, persistent layers of low synth, and slight variations in chord and reverberation based on location and characters.
It’s a minimalistic style that allows the dialogue and essential sound effects to be the focus. It’s strange to call the sound of an expandable file folder being passed from one man to another as beautiful, but every detail that enhances the realistic elements of a Carpenter film is important. Things don’t stay grounded in reality too long in his feature films; with only an hour to play with, Cigarette Burns gets five minutes of opening exposition before it escalates like a traditional second act.
The cast of the film is impressive. Norman Reedus stars as Kirby, the man tasked with finding the cursed film. He’s the perfect John Carpenter protagonist. He has a wonderfully reactive presence onscreen. His character is professional while working, but a slight twitch in the jaw or a dart of the eye shows off what he’s really feeling. He’s in every scene of the film and holds his own against the madness that unfolds around him.
Udo Kier has the second largest part as Bellinger, the rare film collector willing to pay anything to get his hands on the cursed film. He’s terrifying. This is a man who gets whatever he wants and takes great pleasure in lauding that privilege over everyone he sees. Kier is so charismatic onscreen that his sudden shifts in demeanor are as shocking as a murder in a slasher film.
Cigarette Burns has one of the largest casts in all of Masters of Horror because of the cocneit of the film. There are, at most, two active participants in any scene in the film. Even if more people are onscreen, only two are talking at any given time. Screenwriters Drew McWeeny and Rebecca Swan set up an expansive world that can be filmed on a tight budget. It’s the perfect playground for John Carpenter to do what he does best.
Cigarette Burns is an incredibly theatrical work in that regard, driven by monologues and characters meeting for the first time. Their only connection is the cursed film. They speak the language of film and film history within their own obsessions. A projectionist defines the significance of a cigarette burn, while a film critic is haunted by the false legacy of the film he had a hand in crafting. Watching La Fin Absolue du Monde straight through may have deadly consequence, but anyone who becomes involved with it will forever be changed.
From conception to screening, Cigarette Burns is a horror film exploring the absolute worst case scenario for a film release. Worse than going over budget. Worse than flopping in theaters. Worse than every critic panning a film so it never even has a shot with audiences. Cigarette Burns imagines a world where the finished product of a big film production can literally destroy the world and anything that stands in its way.
Content warning: nudity, drug use, gore, violence against women, self harm, death by suicide, flashing lights
Up next: S1E09: “Fair-Haired Child,” directed by William Malone.