Saturday, October 29, 2011

Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

Masters of Horror: Season 1, Episode 8
Cigarette Burns
Director: John Carpenter
Notable Films: Halloween, The Thing, The Fog
Director Trademarks Present: Apocalyptic, A Medium that Drives People Crazy, Film-Noir Atmosphere, Paranoia, Nihilistic
Plot Summary: Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) is hired by the mysterious Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track a print of "La Fin Absolue Du Monde," a movie said to have been screened only once before driving its audience homicidal. Sweetman accepts the job knowing it can save his ailing theater, in debt to his former future father-in-law Walter (Gary Hetherington). Not helping matters is Kirby is a recovered heroin addict, having hooked his girlfriend (Zara Taylor) before her suicide. He begins a global journey, encountering a host of strange and dangerous people who all warn him away and discovering as he gets closer the film really does possess some kind of power.

French auteur Jean- Luc Godard famously said, "Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie." One a character in Cigarette Burns, an aspiring filmmaker who laments the artificiality of Hollywood, has a morbid take on this motto during the making of his snuff film, noting that in one uninterrupted take, the only cut was to his victim. Another character, inspired by "La Fin Absolue De Monde" to make his own movie, literally puts his guts into his work. the reels pulling out his intestines. Film is magic, the movie tells us, but in the right hands, a weapon.

Cigarette Burns is essentially a cinematic retake on Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness, an apocalyptic film about a book that drove people insane. Here, the emphasis is placed on Sweetman's detective work rather than on fantastical, reality-bending powers and creatures from another universe. The result, I think, is something more personal and focused than Mouth of Madness.

What are cigarette burns? Cigarette burns are the little circles that appear in the corner of a film frame to alert a projectionist it's time to change reels. Generally, they are placed at the end of a scene or right after a key emotional moment. Timpson (Christopher Gauthier), one of Kirby's employees, has a habit of removing the cigarette burns from old film prints because they alert the viewers something is about to happen. Without them, Timpson says, it's anarchy because you won't know anything's coming.

Carpenter's episode plays out like a film-noir. We get the dark shadows, the criminal underworld and other assorted weirdos, and an overall sense of nihilism. Our protagonist heads toward his doom as he learns more in a world gone bad. As Sweetman gets closer to La Fin Absolue De Monde, he begins having visions of circles that resemble cigarette burns. Whenever he sees one, something bad happens, and we the audience get a sinking feeling in our stomach.

The film works by accumulating tension and dread at each stop along Sweetman's investigation. Everyone he talks to reveals how they were marked by the film and gives him some new information. For example, a film critic (Chis Britton) who reviewed La Fin after it's only reported screening now lives in a secluded cabin and has spent 30 years writing a new review, saying he failed to warn the world. Later, Sweetman meets the widow (Gwynyth Walsh) of Hans Backovic, the enigmatic filmmaker responsible for the film, and she tells Sweetman how the director's own work destroyed him and almost claimed her. Everything about the episode is ominous.

It probably goes without saying that once La Fine Absolue Da Monde plays in all its glory by episode's end, it's something of a letdown. After all, this is a work we're told may have been produced by Satan and was intended to destroy its audience; could anything live up to that kind of hype? Carpenter does his best to tease and glimpse, but it's much more effective when he portrays how the characters respond to the film.

Acting-wise, Reedus is adequate as Sweetman. No one else is around long enough to make much of an impression except Kier who excels in the creepy foreigner role. He's mysterious, subtly threatening, and quite funny, particularly with how treats the "star" of La Fin Absolue De Monde, a willowy being he keeps chained in his mansion. Kier's reactions toward the film really sell its effect.

Cigarette Burns is a classic return to form for Carpenter. It's bloody, nihilistic, foreboding, and done with a certain degree of class and sophistication. Definitely the standout episode of the season.

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