Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
Cast: Norman Reedus (as Kirby); Colin Foo (as Fung); Udo Kier (as Bellinger); Christopher Redman (as Willowy Being); Chris Gauthier (as Timpson); Zara Taylor (as Annie)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #5
I felt a need to revisit Masters of Horror. Having only seen the first season years ago when it first came out, I remember the initial anticipation and public response of the episodes, a project which immediately stood out. It was a tantalising premise. Mick Garris, of many a Stephen King adaptation, produced an anthology series with no restrictions in content and some of the greatest horror film directors at the helm of individual episodes - John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon - alongside new talents of that period like Lucky McKee to Takashi Miike. The result was a lot more complicated in result after one other season and an unofficial third called Fear Itself for another channel, but Season 1 of Masters of Horror itself was a curious creation, not just in the episodes themselves but at least one major controversy that questioned its original premise. In the UK, just for our American cousins who may be confused how these reviews will be orders, there was a very different order for the episodes from the initial (ill advised) attempt to release two episodes at a time on 2 disc DVD sets released separately, and then even in the two part season box sets, John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns the first of the episodes.
It itself was likely chosen as the first episode to release as it caught horror fans' interest immediately. The last major production before Cigarette Burns was Ghosts of Mars (2001), a divisive sci-fi horror film which would be his last theatrical film until 2011. Back then, I was watching this episode with a passing interest in Carpenter, growing up with The Thing (1982) and Halloween (1978). Now revisiting the episode, its having grown to admire Carpenter as a working director so good technically at his work he deserved auteur status regardless.
Cigarette Burns is sadly terrible. It follows the notion of a cursed film, Norman Reedus as a cinema owner and private collector of rare prints for wealthy customers searching for a legendary work called La Fin Absolue du Monde for Udo Kier, a film when screened in the seventies in a cinema caused deaths and violence in the audience. With a heap of personal tragedy in his own life, Reedus himself enters a vortex of strange phenomenon just on the hunt for the film before actually finding a print. It's an instantly fascinating idea, meta and potentially pretension with its continuous film references but a premise following Ringu (1998), has a great urban legend within itself of objects having a greater power than mere material of recording, cinema as a medium that can tap into a person's subconscious beyond simplistic surface emotions. Like Ringu, it also suggests the inherently haunted notion that film can resurrect the dead by their repeating images being permanently attached to film as long as it survives, which within a story where the protagonist is haunted by the death of his girlfriend, with her father with a gun at his side hanging outside Reedus' cinema, would be pertinent.
What happens however is that rather than leaving La Fin Absolue du Monde as a mere McGuffin whilst the hero investigates its existence, so many scenes even into the finale constantly repeat of how La Fin Absolue du Monde is an evil creation rather than demonstrate way and let the images or implications mortify the viewer. It's called evil. The people who saw it in the cinema call it evil in their scenes. One as a viewer has no ideas why it's exactly evil but characters keep banging on that its evil. So much so that not only will the images briefly seen won't live up to its build-up, closer to one of those intros Redemption Video would put in front of one of their Jean Rollin DVD releases barring the softcore nudity, but it's a crass implication of a far more powerful premise which wastes dialogue on repeating the exact same dialogue that La Fin Absolue du Monde is evil without depth.
Instead of the film being a haunted entity, the celluloid equivalent of Nigel Kneale's stone tape, it becomes part of an undeveloped pseudo Christian myth about angels and people driven to making snuff films, all of which that trivialises the inherent provocation of cinema as a construct, something which is more than an item to shot footage on but can be manipulated in material (physical or digital) to cause effects on the viewer. The subplot about Reedus' girlfriend cannot sustain itself either, evoking a lesser version of Event Horizon (1997) instead of slow burn psychological horror. In presentation, Carpenter like the other directors follows the strict production schedule of the series, although it's nice to see another Carpenter named Cody score his father's work, but honestly the real issue is the entire tone of Cigarette Burns from the beginning, reducing its premise to a faux evil which leads to a gory ending without any sense of actual dread to it. It's a disappointing way to begin Masters of Horror, surprising for me considering the praise the episode originally got as one of the strongest parts when The Ward (2011) was far more interesting than this.