Cigarette Burns (2005)

Starring Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Gary Hetherington, Chris Britton, Zara Taylor, Chris Gauthier, Douglas Arthurs, Colin Foo, Gwynyth Walsh, Christopher Redman, Julius Chapple

Directed by John Carpenter

Expectations: Moderate. I’ll admit it, I am excited to see this. John Carpenter and me go way back.


John Carpenter is a special director to me. During my film snob period, John Carpenter was one of the few genre filmmakers able to cut through my bullshit. His confidence and grasp on storytelling was powerful enough to impress despite the issues a teenage film snob might have. Films like Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, They Live, Big Trouble in Little China. Christ, the man knows how to get the job done and make it fun as hell. So going into this episode of Masters of Horror, I hoped that Carpenter would coming out firing on all cylinders.

Cigarette Burns is a film about films, one of the hardest types of films to pull off successfully. This is because as a self-aware film, it brings itself into our world and out of the realm of fantasy. Our touchstones are their touchstones. Carpenter is quick to establish that this is still fantasy though, when he reveals a pale-skinned, inhuman freak chained to a wall in the house of a billionaire. The rich man wants our hero (Norman Reedus) to hunt down a print of a rare film only ever shown once. When screened for the festival audience, the people went into a murderous frenzy, creating a cinematic myth for the ages. The man chained to the wall isn’t as key as you might think, but the early revelation about him changes the experience of watching Cigarette Burns and, at least for me, separates the film from our world. A parallel universe, perhaps.

As a Carpenter film, it doesn’t quite have that feel to it that you’d expect. Maybe it was the Full Frame aspect ratio, but if I didn’t know it, I’d never have guessed that he made it. That being said, it does feel like a story in kinship with Prince of Darkness, with a healthy dose of Polanski’s The Ninth Gate thrown in for good measure. The opening title music has a feel reminiscent of Carpenter’s glory days as a composer, but it honestly never gets close to those heights, only reminding me that Carpenter isn’t what he used to be. I was convinced that he had lost his musical ear until the credit came up announcing that his son, Cody Carpenter, wrote the music. OK, that makes more sense. The music is good, I don’t want to be too harsh on it, but it is close enough to an old school Carpenter theme to draw comparisons, and there’s no way this could stand up to something like Halloween.

The gore is excellent in this episode, with one beheading in particular looking insanely realistic. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: KNB is fucking awesome. I’ve never thought of Carpenter as a gratuitous gore guy, and Cigarette Burns is a little half and half, with half of the gore serving the story and the scares, and the other half being sadistic gore porn for the evil-eyed ones in the audience. I’m a bit sad to see Carpenter stoop to these methods, but overall, the visuals do fit the story in both plot and tone. And really, can I argue semantics with a scene featuring a man threading his intestines into a film projector? No. No, I can’t.

It’s an interesting episode and one that I won’t soon forget. That being said, I don’t think it’s all that great. One of my favorite scenes involved a film reviewer who has gone crazy after viewing the film in question within the film. He sits alone in his mountain cabin, furiously typing away at a review, surrounded by stacks and stacks of papers bound with twine. Through dialogue he reveals that all of these papers comprise his latest, near-complete work: his review of the sought after film he saw thirty years earlier. I wouldn’t like to go crazy in such a manner, but I did have a chuckle imagining myself in his shoes, wondering which movie would finally send me into the dark pits of my mind, never to return. Better put off that Howard the Duck review for now.

Come back tomorrow for a look at Carpenter’s second episode for the Masters of Horror series, Pro-Life!

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