Saturday, September 22, 2012

Masters of Horror - "John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns"

Season 1, Episode 8
Original Airdate: December 16, 2005
Writers: Drew McWeeny, Scott Swan
Director: John Carpenter
Executive Producers: Mick Garris, Keith Addis, Morris Berger, Steve Brown, Andrew Deane, John W. Hyde
Cast: Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Zara Taylor

“Film in the right hands is a weapon.”
A character intones this in “Cigarette Burns,” and after watching the violence caused by “The Innocence of Muslims” and the domino effect that continues, my mind kept drifting back to this episode of “Masters of Horror,” in which an evil film becomes a cause for pain, torture and riots. Here is an episode of television with gigantic, far-reaching ambitions that just exceed the grasp of the filmmakers creating it – but watching them try to pull it off is some kind of wonderful.

When I say the movie in “Cigarette Burns” is evil, I don’t mean it in the same manner I do the inept and disgusting “The Innocence of Muslims.” The film in question, “La Fin Absolue du Monde” (translated to “The Absolute End of the World”) is actually evil. It depicts, among other atrocities, an angel having its wings savagely torn from its body. We learn that there was only one screening, at a festival in the ‘60s, where the audience rioted and attacked one another until the aisles were slicked with blood. After that, it seemingly disappeared into the ether.

Kirby (Norman Reedus), a film historian who has a reputation for being able to find any lost film, is hired by a rich man named Bellinger (Udo Kier doing a great Peter Lorre impersonation) to track it down. Bellinger is obsessed with “La Fin Absolue du Monde” and has several props from the film: The pair of wings torn from the Angel framed on his wall…and the Angel trapped in chains in his basement. Kirby is a recovering junkie who recently lost his love Annie (Zara Taylor) and takes the job because he owes a lot of money to Annie’s father (Gary Hetherington). He’s already emotionally fragile from his loss – and from the moment he begins his pursuit we can tell he is going to fall into the same cycle of obsession Bellinger cannot escape from.

Kirby seeks out to find information about “La Fin Absolue du Monde” from several people, and we make the quick realization that any person even slightly associated with the missing film has been mentally (or, in some cases, physically) destroyed. Hell, the director, Hans Bakovic, has also seemed to disappear completely. Most memorable among those Kirby can track down is an audience member (Chris Britton) from the first screening who has spent decades attempting to pen a worthy review of the film, writing tens of thousands of pages in the process. Surrounded by the pages, he speaks in a horrifyingly calm tone to Kirby:

“We trust filmmakers. We sit in the dark, daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won’t go too far…Hans Bakovic is a terrorist. He abused that trust we place in filmmakers. He didn’t want to hurt his audience – he wanted to destroy them completely.”

More than that, the film is physically manifesting itself for Kirby the closer he gets to it. He begins seeing “cigarette burns,” those circles you see at the top of a film frame when you’re at the movies that signals it’s time to switch reels, and though he keeps telling others that he doesn’t want to see the movie, we know he won’t be able to escape it.

The co-writers, Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, have set up an incredible concept (the horror version of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in many ways) and beautifully build suspense throughout the episode. There are many scenes where characters say some version of “This movie is fucking evil,” but McWeeny and Swan manage to find interesting variations and ways to continue the escalation. John Carpenter, who also directed the film masterpieces “Halloween” and “The Fog,” is expert in maintaining tension and his touch is apparent throughout, despite an over-reliance on gore that became both a hallmark and problem for most of the “Masters of Horror” episodes. Particularly out of place is a scene where Kirby is tied to a chair and must witness a psychopath (driven mad by the film, of course) behead a woman by repeatedly chopping into her neck with a machete. The scene feels exploitative and done because the audience expects it more than because it serves the story. It also doesn’t work on a technical level – the psychopath makes a point of talking about how powerful a murder would be if shot in a single take, but what power the moment might have is undercut by the editor’s constant snipping.

Kirby finally gets his hands on “La Fin Absolue du Monde” and here is where “Cigarette Burns” stumbles, but that’s not to say there aren’t thrilling moments in the climax. It’s just that, unfortunately, the writers did such a fantastic job of building to the moment that nothing could possibly live up to the viewer’s expectations. Carpenter unwisely made the decision to actually show sections of the “La Fin Absolue du Monde” instead of just letting our imaginations do the work, and that stops the episode dead in its tracks. One scene looks like something from “The Blob,” and the others are nothing we couldn’t see in any “Saw” or torture-porn flick. In many ways it is reminiscent of the third-act problems with Carpenter’s near-masterpiece “In the Mouth of Madness,” where he literally found himself written into a corner (those who have seen the film will get the pun).

But there is great stuff in those final moments. Bellinger’s butler has such a visceral reaction to seeing the film that he stabs both his eyes out. Bellinger falls deeper into madness and actually tears out his small intestine and begins running it through the projector, which is one of the most disturbing/amazing death scenes ever placed on film. And the final beat, with the Angel taking back the film and escaping from the destruction, is rightly moving.

By naming his show “Masters of Horror,” Mick Garris set an impossible standard for his anthology series. He did recruit some of the best names in horror: Carpenter, Joe Dante, John Landis and Dario Argento, among others, to direct the episodes but, as with most anthologies, the episodes vary widely in quality, with many way too gory for their own good (even the Masters often forget that more blood doesn’t automatically equal more horror). One episode in particular, “Imprint,” (directed by Takashi Miike) involved so much blood, gore and aborted fetuses that even Showtime found it too disgusting to air. But several, like “Cigarette Burns,” Dante’s “Homecoming” (a brilliant dark comedy where all the soldiers who died in Iraq raise from their graves…to vote against George W. Bush) and Landis’ “Family” (in which a deranged family man wants to murder his neighbors and adopt them into his home) are genuinely awesome. After two seasons on Showtime the show moved to NBC with a new title, “Fear, Itself” and leveled out in quality right before its cancellation.

I love “Cigarette Burns” for what it aspires to be, and it is one of the few modern horror works that actually got under my nerves and affected me on a visceral level. At its very best (or very worst), film and television can affect a viewer deeply in a manner no other artistic outlet can, which can be both lovely and horrifying, depending on your perspective.

“Cigarette Burns” is available as an individual episode onDVD or as part of the “Masters of Horror” season one boxed set. It’s also available on iTunes and on Hulu.

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