October Nightmares #18: John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (2005) (Guest Review)



Guest Review, by Sam Graham.

Standing between 2001's Ghosts of Mars and 2010's The Ward, the short film Cigarette Burns (2005) is like that middle-child that the parents just kind of forgot about and wound up becoming rich purely with the intention of buying the family home and bulldozing it. Made as an episode of Masters of Horror- an anthology series where every episode was directed by a different horror director, Cigarette Burns is Carpenter's addition to the first series. I first found out about this dusty gem a couple of years ago when I went on a mad rampage and gathered as many Carpenter films unto me as I could, in as quick a time as my overdraft would allow. There's still a couple more I'm missing, but again, overdraft...

Cigarette burns starts out with Kirby Sweetman, played by Norman Reedus, who because Kirby Sweetman is such a stupid name, for the remainder of the review shall be referred to as Daryl (because let's face it, nobody really gave a shit about Reedus before The Walking Dead did they? Did you really care about Scud in Blade 2, or that guy mopping floors in 8mm? I didn't either). Daryl runs a failing movie theatre and moonlights collecting rare film reels for people with too much money.
He's hired by Mr Bellinger (Udo Kier. That breathy Eastern-European guy who plays every breathy Eastern-European villain from Command & Conquer's Yuri to the unpronounceable Nazi in Iron Sky), to find the one and only copy of a film called La Fin Absolue du Monde. Because putting the title of your film in French makes it so much more artsy. Apparently on its opening night everyone who saw it massacred each other in a blood-orgy rival to a stag-do on the Event Horizon, while I guess the director ducked out the back door just before the fucking started. So with the promise of a fat reward Daryl gets started.

I don't want to spoil it, but suffice to say his search takes him to some pretty dark places. One of which involving a mentalist snuff-filmmaker, who believes that while hacking off someone's head with a machete is murder, doing it on film turns them from a living, breathing human being, into a piece of art. I guess that's like taking pictures of roadkill, or running down cyclists with a Land Rover, thus metamorphosing them from minor distractions, into tension release.
Anyway, Daryl learns that La Fin Absolue du Monde is so powerful, because it involves people mutilating an angel by sawing its wings off. Warping a creature of divine purity is too extreme for us poor mortals to comprehend, so we go a bit mad instead. Towards the end we get treat to watching a man cut his own eyes out and we get to see Bellinger try to make his own film by spooling his intestines into a projector. Now, I've heard that good art should to be organic, but I'm not the least bit ashamed of that pun.

Cigarette Burns is Carpenter back on top form. It's well acted, well shot, and keeps a solid pace the whole time. Maybe it's because of the practical effects, or the low-budget quality, but it feels like a classic John Carpenter film, and would fit in perfectly with his earlier work. Because it's only an hour long it doesn't have the time to be a slow-burn horror (still no shame), and while the plot's very similar to The Ninth Gate (1999), it doesn't have the runtime to vomit all over itself with random flying women and black-robed bullshit. For me, the only thing it lacks is the soundtrack. Part of the fun of Carpenter's work is his music, and in some cases it's more recognisable than the film itself.  While it oozes with the same kind of atmosphere, it doesn't have that same memorability. This is probably because John didn't do the score to this one. Instead Cigarette Burns is handled by his son, Cody Carpenter, which is a lesson Will Smith could learn from instead of trying to make us believe his son is this generation's Jazzy Jeff.