Trivia Think the score sounds like classic Carpenter? That's because it's composed by his son Cody Carpenter.
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Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)
9th Mar 06
A lot of people with an over fascination with rare movies compete to say "La Fin Absolue Du Monde" in the most convincing French accent.
Is John Carpenter back? Well, yes. Kind of. Cigarette Burns is the best film he’s made since 1994’s Lovecraftian In the Mouth of Madness, which sees insurance investigator Sam Neill meddling with a very dangerous work of fiction. It just so happens that JC’s latest piece – part of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror – is really quite similar to this last good film, so much so that the last scene in the Sutter Kane story could almost be straight out of Cigarette Burns. This time, the evil lies in the power of a film – La Fin Absolute du Monde (which translates as The Absolute End of the World, but the characters here just love showing off how to pronounce the title in French). It’s a film so powerful in its wickedness that watching it, or even being associated with it, will end in madness, murder, death.
Norman Reedus stars as dedicated cinephile Kirby Sweetman – a man with a history of heroin addiction and a junky girlfriend who committed suicide - who is asked by rich film collector Mr. Ballinger (the magnificent Udo Kier on fine form) to track down a print of the ultimate horror film. Kier is also an avid collector of film memorabilia, his prize exhibit being a real, living, breathing angel from the film in question. He keeps this pained, ‘willowy figure’ of an angel on display in his mansion, with its hacked-off wings proudly displayed above his desk.
Sweetman looks as shocked as you might expect but accepts the job as he not only owes his father-in-law the fee for finding the film, but also has more than a passing interest in seeing the infamous film itself. And so, he embarks on a maddening crusade to find La Fin Absolute du Monde. It’s a perilous journey that takes him from one bizarre situation (a damaged film critic who has almost finished his life’s work – one review of the film, though he will never really finish it of course) to another (a snuff filmmaker who “believes in truth”) and as he gets closer and closer to the print, he begins to see cigarette burns in his mind, signalling impending peril just as they signal a projectionist to change projectors. He is losing touch with reality as he knows it, and his past is coming back to haunt him. He eventually tracks down the print and delivers it to his excited employer, who doesn’t waste time before reeling it through his projector with catastrophic consequences. This is where the fun really starts.
This is a fantastic concept, or as JC would put it, “a fun idea” – something a filmmaker (especially a filmmaker like JC) can have a great time with. It also works nicely as a comment on the power of cinema’s influence, just like In the Mouth of Madness relates to the power of the printed word. One of the main problems with Cigarette Burns however is that it’s made for TV with a 57 minute running time. In this context, it's difficult to properly assess it in terms of the Carpenter oeuvre. Thinking about it this way could actually be bullshit and utterly pointless when all you want to know is whether it’s any good or not.
So, is JC showing the form of yesteryear? Answer - definitely, but only if you consider 1994 to be yesteryear. Not 1978. Or 1981. Cigarette Burns is a very dialogue-driven story; exposition followed by exposition followed by a gross-out KNB special, taking us towards a climax that not only delivers, but does so with outrageous OTT aplomb. Such is the stunning originality of the final sequence that it actually comes off as being a little ridiculous. But you know what? That’s fine with me.
Restraint relating to this cinema diabolicus is necessary to make Cigarette Burns work. We, as an audience, are desperate to witness a handful of frames of La Fin Absolute du Monde as this, after all, is a film so intensely nasty that it drives you to madness and murder. Carpenter and his crew have shot some footage that Carpenter blatantly feels he can just about get away with; grainy, B&W images of fingernails breaking on walls, angel-torture and such like, all embossed with manipulated sound effects that pull it together quite nicely, especially when you consider just how painful a less successful approach would have been to endure.
No JC experience would be complete without his signature music and one of the most pleasant aspects of his latest is that the soundtrack is the debut of one Cody Carpenter – JC’s son. Young Cody has obviously not just been walking past the plethora of musical instruments scattered throughout their home – he has been picking them up, learning how to use them, and has proffered a plinkety-plonk soundscape that his old man would be proud of. Which he is.
JC is also proud of Cigarette Burns in its entirety, as the (excellent) extras in this DVD reveal. Sure, there are a few aspects he is unhappy with – the Vancouver location being most prominent, but despite a less-than-perfect location it would seem that the grand old master of horror cannot say enough good things about everyone who has helped him make this episode something special. Interestingly, he seems to have reached the point where confesses to be really happy when a project works, and can’t be bothered to care about it when it doesn’t. Fortunately, Cigarette Burns has enough going for it to make it work. Welcome back, John.
Versions Out now as a double disc set with Stuart Gordon's Dreams In The Witch House from Anchor Bay, and a single disc version is to be released in the near future too.
Incidentally, here's a few clips from the DVD to keep you guys interested.