It’s hard to imagine a Masters of Horror series without John Carpenter. There are other names that might be more interchangeable, or that would be less noticeable had they been left off the roster of the Showtime anthology series, but trying to do something called “Masters of Horror” without Carpenter would be like trying to do a series on NBA Legends without Michael Jordan. I don’t know that I can definitively say that John Carpenter is the greatest horror filmmaker of all time, but John Carpenter is probably the greatest horror filmmaker of all time.
There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being the best, which means Carpenter comes into “Cigarette Burns,” his first of two Masters of Horror episodes, with a certain amount of baggage: there’s pressure on him to stand apart from the seven directors and seven episodes that have come before his, in particular because horror fans were seeing far less of his work around this time (besides his two Masters of Horror episodes, Carpenter has directed only two films, Ghosts of Mars and The Ward, in the 2000s). Whereas it was ok to see what Stuart Gordon or Mick Garris might come up with for their episodes, the expectation on Carpenter is always to deliver the next great Carpenter movie. We don’t quite get that with “Cigarette Burns,” but we do get an interesting side-step from the director and a very good hour of television.
Season One, Episode 8
Director: John Carpenter
Original Air Date: December 16, 2005
Norman Reedus is Kirby Sweetman, a former drug addict and rare films dealer hired by an eccentric millionaire (Udo Kier) to track down the only existing print of a film called La Fin Absolue du Monde, or The Absolute End of the World. The movie screened only one time at a film festival 30 years ago, during which the audience was whipped into a homicidal frenzy and began to riot. Believing the film responsible, it was reportedly destroyed and never seen again. Desperate to raise the $200,000 he owes to the father of his late wife, Kirby takes the job and begins traveling across the world to locate the film, descending into a nightmare of violence and depravity the closer he gets to uncovering its secrets.
I have to give Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, the screenwriters behind “Cigarette Burns,” credit for this: they know how to speak directly to movie geeks. By setting this story inside the world of film collectors and writing scenes that take place inside movie theaters and projection booths, walls adorned with classic posters, characters referencing Dario Argento’s Profundo Rosso, it immediately draws in those of us who are more than a little movie obsessed – you know, the kind of person who devote 13 hours over 13 weeks to watching a show like Masters of Horror. It’s such a smart shortcut to audience identification, because while I can’t relate to Sweetman’s past drug use or the loss of his wife or the massive debt hanging over his head, I can absolutely relate to wanting to seek out a rare movie with a legendary backstory. Think about it: we are the people who geek out every time Scream Factory or Arrow announce a previously hard-to-come-by title on Blu-ray. Now extrapolate that to the only existing print of a film thought to have been destroyed and starring what appears to be a real-life angel (an albino man, with wounds on his back consistent with having had wings cut off, is one of Kier’s trophies; the wings are mounted to the wall in the next room). Of course this story has not just our curiosity, but our attention.
McWeeny and Swan come by this movie geekery honestly. McWeeny, a critic and film journalist for many years, is probably best known these days as co-host of the “’80s All Over” podcast, a show devoted to the kind of obsessive deep diving that “Cigarette Burns” conjures up. Their screenplay for “Cigarette Burns” is its greatest asset; whereas previous episodes have told stories that have been slight or broad or simplistic, if well-executed, this one feels huge and ambitious and richer than those that came before it. Rather than a short story stretched out to 60 minutes, “Cigarette Burns” feels like a novel, one which would have been just as well served (if not better) as a full-length feature. If nothing else, it might have allowed for the changes in location to feel like just that – changes in location. As it is, “Cigarette Burns” feels more hampered than other installments by the budgetary constraints. Try as the filmmakers might to create a sense of scope, the story seems like it could all be taking place in the same town and in the same couple of rooms.
This is a minor concern, though, and one that only comes to mind when I start to think about the “could have been” of this material. Because even in its finished form, this is a cool, imaginative story – one that draws us in and fills us with dread: we’re never sure where it’s going, but we know it’s nowhere good. The stylization of Carpenter’s direction never leans into film noir, but it’s impossible to watch “Cigarette Burns” and not be reminded of other horror noir like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart and, in particular, Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. There is a nightmarish inevitability to the mystery at the center, in that we want to see it solved to satisfy our own curiosity about the resolution, but at the same time don’t want to see Sweetman getting closer and closer to the truth because we know some form of Hell awaits him at the end of the trail. And boy are we right. There is an image near the end of “Cigarette Burns” – involving Udo Kier and a film projector – that has stuck with me for the 13 years since I first saw the episode. It might be the most striking and horrifying image yet in all of Masters of Horror…but I haven’t seen “Imprint” yet. We’ll get there.
The strangest thing about “Cigarette Burns” is that it’s the Masters of Horror episode so far that least resembles the director’s filmography. Carpenter puts his stamp on the film right at the top – the opening credits bill it as “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns,” just as though it was one of his features – but many of the similarities end there. The most obvious difference is that he can’t shoot in his usual 2.35:1 scope photography, which messes with what we’re used to seeing John Carpenter compositions look like. It’s his use of the frame that often makes his movies so immediately identifiable, so the change to the 1.78:1 TV format takes some getting used to. Carpenter didn’t compose the score, either, though at least those honors went to his son Cody, whose music is reminiscent of the brilliant Goblin score for Suspiria – though I may just be projecting because of all the Argento talk and the presence of Udo Kier in the cast. The quickness and looseness built into the schedule of these Masters of Horror episodes rears its head once again, meaning the lack of Carpenter’s usual technical precision creates a bit of a gulf between what we traditionally expect from the director and what “Cigarette Burns” ends up being. It’s well directed, but I can’t always see him in it.
And, yet, if we’re willing to dig a little deeper, there are connections to Carpenter’s filmography within “Cigarette Burns” that do suggest a similar authorial stamp as other episodes. There exists in the film that same kind of slowly mounting dread present in a number of other Carpenter films, whether it’s The Thing or Prince of Darkness or In the Mouth of Madness, the film of his that bears the strongest resemblance to “Cigarette Burns.” Both works are about revealing the mysteries behind a piece of art, as well as the ability for that art to transform its audience and cause madness. They’re stories about art that feels dangerous (and, in both cases, actually is), which is interesting because Carpenter has long been interested in creating art that carries with it a certain amount of danger, be it the apocalyptic bleakness of The Thing or the radial upheaval of the status quo in They Live or the genuine revolution at the end of his underrated Escape from L.A. He’s a filmmaker long fascinated by the nature of evil dating all the way back to The Shape, and while “Cigarette Burns” addresses these ideas more around the fringes than head on, the kind of unknowable evil he is drawn to as a filmmaker is still very much at the episode’s rotten core.
My reaction to “Cigarette Burns” is, in some ways, the inverse of my reaction to most other episodes of Masters of Horror. I tend to enjoy the previous installments as explorations or variations on the work of filmmakers I love or admire, but I like “Cigarette Burns” less as a John Carpenter film than I do as an episode of television independent of his involvement. Its closest counterpart thus far would be “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” the premiere episode of Masters of Horror, which was a great hour of TV but not necessarily representative of its director, Don Coscarelli, as a filmmaker. That’s “Cigarette Burns.” It has some of the best, most original, most interesting material of any episode so far, but feels less like a John Carpenter movie than I might like. One of the most distinctive of all the voices included in the series gets somewhat swallowed up by the MoH machine, but because the script is strong and he’s John fucking Carpenter, still manages to direct what is arguably the darkest and most intense episode yet. It’s a movie geek nightmare in the best possible way.
“Cigarette Burns” Score: 3/5
And now, the official Masters of Horror Top 5 (so far):
Next time: We’re getting locked in a basement with William Malone and a “Fair-Haired Child!”
Editor's Note: To read all installments of this series, check out our Masters of Horror Rewatch hub!