“We were part of the film, bound to the negative like soul to flesh. Had it been destroyed, we would know.” — Willowy Being, Cigarette Burns, 2005
Generally speaking, I am a fan of John Carpenter. That isn’t to say that I love everything the man has ever done, but it’d be hard for me to deny that his works have a certain charm to them. I consider two of his films to be bonafide classics: The Thing (1981) and Halloween (1978). The rest of his filmography, in my opinion, ranges from “pretty good,” to “eh,” to “downright awful.”
The quality of Carpenter’s output (and quantity, for that matter) has declined, in my opinion, rather sharply since the peak of his success in the 70s and 80s. But every once in a while, he’ll make something that shows at least a hint of his better days. Case in point: 2005’s Cigarette Burns.
Cigarette Burns is technically a television episode–it debuted as a part of Season 1 of Masters of Horror–but given that the series was an anthology and strictly episodic by nature, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it a film in its own right. Henceforth I will refer to Cigarette Burns as a film or movie instead of an “episode.” The first person who calls me out on how incorrect that is gets a virtual head slap!
The story follows down-on-his-luck theater owner and film dealer Kirby Sweetman,played by a younger, pre-Walking Dead Norman Reedus, as he seeks to obtain an extremely rare film for an eccentric, rich cinephile, played by horror veteran Udo Kier. The film in question is La Fin Absolue Du Mond (or, The Absolute End of the World, pardon my French), which is supposed to drive people insane upon viewing it and is believed to have been destroyed after it allegedly caused a massacre during an early screening.
The film oozes old-school Carpenter. There is a steady hint of surrealism throughout, and a foreboding dread of something terrible about to befall Kirby. On the downside, Carpenter’s influence is not all good–the acting in Cigarette Burns is, at times, mediocre, a stubborn trait of Carpenter’s that he can’t seem to shed no matter how hard he tries.
Norman Reedus plays Kirby decently: I at first mistook his performance for bland and monotone, but then I realized those were Kirby’s traits more than Reedus’s. He plays a detached, disaffected man with many demons at his back, supernatural and otherwise, and that much is reflected in his delivery of the character.
Udo Kier is delightfully creepy (and at times cheesy) as Mr. Bellinger, the film collector who hires Kirby. It is hard for me to decide if his performance is a bad one or a good one, but it definitely kept me hooked and entertained.
One often unmentioned member of the cast is Christopher Redman. He doesn’t have many lines, but he delivers what little he is given with something that I can only describe as both chilling and meek at the same time. He plays a pitiable creature that succeeds in evoking sympathy and terror simultaneously. To delve further into Redman’s character it would be somewhat of a spoiler, so I’ll stop there.
The rest of the supporting cast ranges from serviceable to unintentionally giggle-worthy, but as most of the film focuses on Kirby, this isn’t as big a problem as one might think.
Visually, the film is damn near stunningly picturesque (with a few dark spots, admittedly) and the effects work can be genuinely outstanding barring a few brief sequences that seemed to have been glossed over, perhaps due to time constraints. Overall, the effects work is a definite strong point that makes the experience pop pretty high above the standard horror movie fare.
That said, some of Cigarette Burns relies plainly on graphic violence to be effective, which is to be expected given the nature of the story as well as the fact that all of Masters of Horror’s contributors had little or no limitations in regards to what kind of content they could make for the series. Free from the confines of the MPAA, I get the feeling Carpenter may have overcompensated in this regard, but that is only speculation on my part.
Cigarette Burns boasts not only Carpenter’s direction, but also showcases his musical talents. The musical score in Cigarette Burns is vaguely reminiscent of Goblin’s score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)–Argento himself is mentioned in Cigarette Burns–or Carpenter’s own work in Halloween. It’s properly creepy and catchy in the way most of Carpenter’s music is, and is definitely one of the movie’s highlights.
The story of Cigarette Burns is its biggest strength as well as its biggest weakness. I mentioned previously that it had the touch of the surreal, which truly complements Carpenter’s directing and cinematography to great effect. Unfortunately, the surrealist element is not pronounced enough to excuse the questionable decisions made by the characters make throughout.
Kirby has a tortured past and a torturous present; he is a man at the end of his rope, and I understand why he would undertake the journey that Mr. Bellinger sends him on. It does not, however, explain why he would continue to go through with it after his encounters become increasingly horrific (and believe me, they get horrific). Most horror movies suffer from questionable character motivation and odd behavior, but in Cigarette Burns this deficiency is accentuated further by its short length, clocking in at about one hour.
Still, despite my misgivings, I would recommend Cigarette Burns to fans of the horror genre. It is a well-made film with a continuously ominous tone that works as a loving callback to Carpenter’s earlier work and pays tribute to the genre’s greats, either by direct mention or visual/narrative influence. I’d be quite a bit more cautious, however, about recommending it to a more casual moviegoer.
My entirely opinionated verdict for John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns is:
3.5/5.0; or, above average.
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