Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cigarette Burns (2005)

Back in 2005 John Carpenter joined a group of directors to bring a set of one-hour horror stories to the small screen. They called the series, The Masters of Horror. Carpenter’s first entry in the series hits on a few familiar tropes from his work, and is based on an influential gothic horror story by Robert Chambers. Nice pedigree, but was it worthy of the title Master of Horror?

Kirby (Norman Reedus) is a down on his luck theater owner who hunts down prints of hard to find films as a sideline. He is hired by the eccentric but very wealthy Bellinger (Udo Kier) to find one of the most infamous films of all time: Le Fin Absolue du Monde. According to history, the only showing of the film caused a riot that ended in many deaths. As Kirby starts digging into the history of the film he finds a trail of madness and destruction. It also triggers visions of “cigarette burns”, like the kind found in old film prints. With each burn, Kirby begins to wonder if he isn’t losing his mind too.

Good Points:
  • An interesting adaptation of The King in Yellow
  • Some pretty gruesome gore effects
  • Udo Kier looks like he’s having a great time

Bad Points:
  • Reedus isn’t convincing
  • The script makes some serious missteps
  • The impact of the ending is weak

This almost works, and yet the whole thing gets scuttled by two important factors. The script almost feels like it got pared down to fit the hour timeframe, and it ended up crippling the whole story flow. And then there is Reedus, who just doesn’t click as the character. The ending should have a powerful impact, but Reedus performance keeps it from resonating. Fans of the director may want to check it out, but most other folks probably won’t get pulled into this one.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  3

In Depth Review
What frustrates me about this one is that the premise has a lot of promise, but it takes a solid script and a deft hand to pull it off. Chambers’ story The King in Yellow is obviously the inspiration here (with it’s cursed play that creates insanity in whoever reads or watches it). But this plot is also shared by The Ninth Gate by Polanski and Carpenter’s own In the Mouth of Madness.

Maybe Carpenter was frustrated by the reception of his previous film, and decided to tackle this type of story again. But the script suffers from not quite pulling off the key ingredient – dread. We never feel that dread building like it should. We should fear for Kirby’s sanity and the consequences of finding the film. The stakes just never seem to gel and attempts to use Kirby’s back-story to drive his actions fall flat, especially in the finale.

Reedus is a big part of the problem. He’s fine when he’s playing the whiney prick that sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. But he just doesn’t work as the tortured soul, or the man questioning his sanity. I never believed he was afraid of the outcome; he just didn’t seem to care. In a way, that is a very frightening thought - a man with only selfish desires is sent to find the film.  It could work wonderfully actually, but that angle is not explored.

On the other hand you have Kier who seems to be having a blast playing up the eccentricities of Bellinger. Any time he’s on the screen it really helps the film and his final scenes are the real capper to the film (and the gore effects here and sounds are just plain nasty).

As to the Le Fin Absolue de Monde itself, well that is also a problem. Any time you deal with this type of storyline, you risk disappointing your audience. Show the mind shattering film and people will wonder why it’s so tame. Don’t show it, and you’re cheating. Carpenter does what he has to do, shows a little bit of it here and there. What you do end up seeing looks more like a snuff film, instead of something more otherworldly and challenging. I was hoping for some twisting visuals, maybe like something out of Ringu or surrealist like Un Chien Andalou.

In the end, it’s an interesting experiment, but I think In the Mouth of Madness  was a more effective film. It was worth seeing Kier lose his mind in such a spectacular fashion. 


  1. I've seen only a handful of the MH episodes -- not this one. The series was brought to my attention by a fan of local Jersey girl Misty Mundae. She was to appear, he said, in the Sick Girl episode (credited as Erin Brown due to some trademark issue). So, I caught that one and then a few others. A one-hour time limit is not necessarily a stumbling block: note the old Outer Limits shows or Alfred Hitchcock Presents which in early seasons was 30 minutes (less commercials) and later 60. The few I saw of Masters of Horror did trip over it, though, perhaps because the directors were used to just a bit more time. That's not to say they were bad. They weren't. They just were made to fit the runtime in Procrustean fashion.

  2. Oh I know of Misty Mundae. Didn't know she was in "Sick Girl". I should check that one out. I've also seen a few episodes of the series outside this one. "Dreams in the Witch House" was much like this one, it was almost really good, but just missed it by a little bit. I also saw the one Tobe Hooper did, the name escapes me, but mostly because it wasn't very good. A hit and miss show to say the least. I agree with you that the one-hour time frame can be handled well, but I think a writer has to be familiar with that format to really get the most out of it. When we were watching the "Thriller" series, some of those episodes were really well executed from both writing and directing. Others felt like they had a lot of padding.