Saturday, October 21, 2023

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Supposedly, watching this film drives its audience into fits of insanity and death, so, of course, collectors want it. The fictional film La Fin Absolue du Monde predates mockumentaries like Fury of the Demon and Antrum that supposedly documented similarly deadly movies. Yet, what will really interest horror fans is the chance to see John Carpenter direct Udo Kier. “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns,” an episode of the Mick Garris-created anthology series Masters of Horror, is not hugely Lovecraftian, but it is probably his best work of the 21st Century thus far, so nobody will object to it screening during the Lovecraftian horror series at Anthology Film Archives.

Kirby Sweetman would prefer to concentrate on programming his struggling repertory cinema, but to pay the bills, he often works as a cinema sleuth, tracking down rare prints for clients. Hans Backovic’s “La Fin Absolue de Monde (The Absolute End of the World)” is the rarest of the rare. Honestly, Sweetman did not believe it still existed, but Bellinger, his mysterious new client, assures him it does. Supposedly, it only screened once at Sitges, resulting in bloody, stomach-churning riots. Bellinger went to see Vincent Price introduce
Dr. Phibes instead, which sounds like a great choice, but he has regretted it ever since.

To pay off his debts, Sweetman starts following the film’s trail, starting with the only critic who filed a review. Since then, he has obsessively re-written his review, filling thousands and thousands of pages. Ominously, Sweetman also starts showing symptoms of the madness associated with the film, after listening to tapes of the critic’s interview with
Backovic. Much to his alarm, the circular Ringu-like flashes of light he sees, referred  to as “cigarette burns” by those in-the-know, usually herald a descent into madness.

Even though “Cigarette Burns” was produced for television, it has a dark elegance that feels very much like classic Carpenter. It was also scored by his son, Cody Carpenter, who collaborated on the
Firestarter and David Gordon Greene Halloween trilogy soundtracks, so “Cigarette Burns” also sounds very Carpenter-esque.

As you would expect, Kier is delightfully weird as Bellinger. Norman Reedus also does great work freaking out and stewing in his own guilt and remorse as Sweetman. In fact, the entire ensemble is consistently strong, in twitchy and sinister ways.

Fury of the Demon, “Cigarette Burns” gives us a very good idea of what is on Backovic’s film and more than hints at the horrifying implications. It is dark, stylish, and sometimes shocking. With the passage of a few years, it also now looks quite “influential,” as in it has been ripped off a few times. Highly recommended as vintage Carpenter, “Cigarette Burns” screens Tuesday (10/24) and Sunday (10/29), along with Stuart Gordon’s ultra-ultra-Lovecraftian episode, “Dreams in the Witch House.”