Masters Of Horror Season 1: Cigarette Burns
Directed By John Carpenter, 2005
I love the works of American film maker John Carpenter, I have for about 17 years now, and I'm fucking biased. Nothing in this review is impartial. Like watching Leone, half of the joy of Carpenter is the massive ambition directed in certain directions - and totally absent in others. While I've had brief passionate interests in film makers like Polanski, Lumet and Pakula, I always come back to a Carpenter movie, eventually.
Carpenter is the closest thing to a European style genre movie auteur that the US has produced. At the younger end of the Movie Brats generation of the 1970's he never quite had the chance, or the finance, to rebuild the movie industry in his own image as Spielberg and Lucas did. Spielberg went from low budget gruelling tension in Duel on to serious financial pulling-power with Jaws. In contrast, Carpenter whether by choice or happenstance was kept making stripped-down perfection (Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween or The Thing to name three). For his hot streak of a dozen movies from 1976 to 1988 his work has a coherent vision that a bigger budget wouldn't allow. The grand canvas Carpenter paints is politically liberal, claustrophobic, paranoid, you can see this hippy rebel laughing behind the camera... Reaganite politicians who turn out to be an alien invasion, New York as a sealed criminal dumping ground, a bastion of the sane holding up against a faceless evil. Carpenter didn't compromise on the world building for the cheap reveals Hollywood prefers.
But then after 1988 Carpenter's career turned to shit. In the following decade he was at best watchable (Vampires is reasonably entertaining), and at worst painful. His films had always had flaws - with his emphasis on world-building the third acts often fall flat for lack of characterisation - but increasingly his work lacked even the imaginative heavy lifting. From an active film-maker his status began to change in the naughts. Hollywood plundered his archive for remakes and dug him up for grand-old-man documentaries, too embarassed to put him behind the camera.
In 2005 Carpenter was recruited by Showtime to direct an episode of their Masters Of Horror season. Along with Takashi Miike and Dario Argento the presence of Carpenter let Showtime pitch this season as a serious feature where major talents would be allowed considerable freedom, an unplugged season for movie makers. For Carpenter it was his chance to control a feature and follow the sub-standard Ghosts of Mars of 2001, a pitiful space-set remake of Assault On Precinct 13.
Blood, lots and lots and lots of blood.
I've never thought of Carpenter as a director with a fetish for gore - he's more about thrills, tension and climaxes - but on being recruited for a horror season Carpenter clearly decided to drench this hour long feature in the red stuff. It's strange because Cigarette Burns is not built around shock factor, on the contrary it's probably the most European horror story he's dealt with. Like Rosemary's Baby or Don't Look Now this is a narrative of cosmic but personal dread, where the closest thing to embodied evil is the ambiguous backstory of the lead. But Carpenter saw a white projector screen and he wanted to paint it red.
The name comes from the cue marks that inform a projectionist of a film's timing, a term that became common currency after being discussed in Fight Club. Cigarette Burns' plot revolves around "La Fin Absolue du Monde" (The Absolute End Of The World) a film directed decades before the story is set by Hans Backovic. At its premier festival screening the audience was driven to violence and murder, and the film was not screened again. Cigarette Burns' protagonist Sweetman is the owner of a failing cinema recruited by a retired collector to re-discover the original print. What follows is Sweetman's descent as he discovers that following this film is embedding him in its story.
This is cosmic dread of the elemental variety... In Lovecraftian horror the protagonists aren't violently dispatched, merely damned by their own actions and failings. Before this film even begins every character has begun their own damnation, and yet the reveals are a sequence of illustrations. Unrelentingly they are confronted by the result of their failings, and the inevitability of their descent weighs heavy on their faces. Evil has mutillated the divine, and the mutilation is done by human hands.
Carpenter has always been able to make a film more than the sum of its parts. Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 are tight examples of student budget thrillers, so it makes sense that the limitations of a TV movie inspired Carpenter more than they constrained him. While European horror star Udo Kier as the cliched collector and tv actor Norman Reedus as the lead both give solid performances, it would be unfair to judge this by the standards of a full cinematic budget. Although this is the best film Carpenter has put together in the last fifteen years, it doesn't have the resources to compare with his vintage work. A fair comparison would be Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut - a flawed film by a serious talent - and Carpenter merits respect when his game is on as it is here.
There are several inspired film making tricks that Carpenter pulls out to crank up the tension of this movie, I was particularly taken aback by the (and it can't be a spoiler if its in the first five minutes of the film) mutilated, manacled angel that inauspiciously shows up in the initial scene, and then leaves. This touch serves to sever the link with reality and yet for the rest of the film this scene is treated as nothing special... The characters barely register its significance. This allows Carpenter to pull the rug out from under us as an audience and he never feels the need to put it back. Another example would be a truly gruesome scene at halfway through the running time which works only as some cleverly handled exposition, of no further significance.
But the soul of this movie is the lost film maker Backovic, a Colonel Kurtz of sorts... As a director who has long been regarded as past his prime this past-tense view of a horror master obviously touches on Carpenter's own circumstances. Again, he handles this with this film's signature of skilled pacing, blood and subtlety. Carpenter has always filled his movies with political messages, and here his issue is the responsibility an audience carry for anything that is produced with them in mind. It's a story that comes up again and again (Network and Videodrome are built along similar lines) but here Carpenter makes it particularly personal. I like the retro feel of the technology of celluloid as opposed to the modern, digital age it is commenting on. He uses the language of traditional film making to dramatise a story of human failings.
The climax is really rather nicely done, and I've been thinking about this feature for the last three days which is most impressive for a TV movie... It's no masterpiece, it's probably not even very good, but it is a veteran talent reminding us what he can do.
Internet rumour has it that Carpenter is due to direct a Nicholas Cage vehicle in 2010, and if that proves successful we can at least hope for him to be allowed increasing directoral control afterwards... I miss Carpenter to such a degree that I've stopped myself watching Starman; it's the last one of his classics left, and I can't face running out.
Cigarette Burns will never get shown at the cinema, and history won't remember it... But for fans this is definitely worth your time. I'll cut to the chase - torrent this.
"We trust film makers, we sit in the dark daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won't go too far... Hans Backovic was a terrorist, he abused that trust we place in film makers. He didn't want to hurt his audience, he wanted to destroy them completely."