Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Masters of Horror:
John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns

“Something happens when you point the camera at something terrible. The resulting film takes on power”

Since the Masters of Horror series debuted on Showtime awhile back, there’s been much written about the series both online and off. I've avoided reading that stuff until recently. The show looked promising, offering a stand alone horror film by a maestro of the genre in every episode. Not being a Showtime subscriber I didn't want to torture myself reading about a potentially great series of films I wasn’t going to be able to see until the DVD release.

Since only two episodes have made it to DVD so far, I certainly can't judge the series as a whole, but I am pleased to say John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns was worth the wait. It's a taut thriller with underlying themes of obsession and the inability to let go, and as a film buff I can certainly get behind its central idea: the quest for a lost film.

Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus), a mildly disheveled filmophile with a perpetually rumpled suit, is hired by a Mr. Ballinger (Udo Kier) to track down the Holy Grail of lost films: La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), a 1971 film whose only showing caused a fearsome outbreak of violence. As a result the film was banned and its only print destroyed. Since that time the film has been shrouded in mystery, but Ballinger insists the film does still exist. Ballinger is a film connoisseur, and he owns a most unusual souvenir from the production: an angel whose wings were severed on camera. As the angel explains, he is bound to the film on the deepest of levels. Were the film to be destroyed, he would know.

Ballinger offers Kirby $200,000, a sum Kirby needs badly to pay off the debts on his theatre, a "shitbox" as Ballinger calls it that Kirby uses to show eclectic films. The lien holder is Kirby's father-in-law, a relationship made all the more tense by the fact that Kirby's heroin addicted wife committed suicide.

Kirby's search for La Fin Absolue du Monde takes him down increasingly bizarre paths. Everyone who has had any kind of contact with the film has been effected by it. A.K. Meyers, the only critic to have reviewed the film, has spent the intervening years writing a new review, one that literally fills an entire room. Henri Cotillard, a film archivist who was the projectionist for a screening of the movie in the 1980's, paid a terrible price. As Kirby gets closer to his objective, he begins seeing "cigarette burns," the fleeting dot that appears in a movie right before a reel change. Within the cigarette burns are terrible visions which are becoming more and more vivid.

The one hour format--fairly lean for a feature--seems to aid in the pacing, forcing Carpenter to trim the fat so to speak. The tension builds nicely before the dark and nihilistic climax, and if you're looking for a little gore I think you will be more than satisfied.

For the most part, the casting is top notch. Reedus plays Kirby as likable everyman with a tragic burden. Kier's sinister euro-charm serves him well as a man who freely admits the skeletons in his closet and the likelihood of his own damnation, and Douglas Arthurs is downright frightening as a sadistic psychopath who understands the power of La Fin Absolue du Monde and would still gladly watch it. Gwynyth Walsh's performance as Katja Backovic was the only one I took exception to. She was a bit heavy-handed and I felt she needed to bring it down a notch or two.

The story reminded me a bit of Tim Lucas's novel Throat Sprockets, another tale of film-related obsession. Lucas himself has spoken of the similarity on his Video Watchblog, though not disparagingly I hasten to add. It's a case of two stories being cut from similar cloth, and no one is ripping anyone off here.

A second season is on the way from Showtime. Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch House has also been released on DVD with the remainder of the first season to follow. A first-rate premiere from a series that seems to be going places.


Sparx said...

John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns inspired me to make an experimental short film. I studied different techniques of influencing the human mind and attempted to implement them into a story. Art can be presented in the form of a product, or it can be used as a tool to promote different products, people, and ideas. Art can be seen as a tool for manipulation of the mind, the same way a scalpel is a tool for manipulation of the flesh.

You can watch my short film on YouTube:

or in case you prefer Vimeo:

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