Saturday, October 29, 2022

Ten Days of Terror!: Cigarette Burns

Film: Cigarette Burns (Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Sometimes, someone combines a couple of basic story ideas and what results is a fascinating combination. Get Out, for instance, was a little bit Body Snatchers, some Being John Malkovich, and a serving of The Stepford Wives combined into a whole that ended up being as good or better than all of those influences. That’s very much the case with Cigarette Burns (also known as John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns). A part of the “Masters of Horror” television series, this was the eighth episode of the first season, and it’s one that seems to have stood out as the biggest achievement.

So what are we combining? There’s a good deal of Ringu in this, because we’re dealing with a film within the film, and this one is particularly cursed. Everyone who has seen the movie in question is dead or has gone mad, also true of the people who worked on it. There’s also a great deal of The Ninth Gate here since the movie within the film needs to be tracked down as it is presumed lost forever. That is the basics of the film: a man with particular expertise in finding rare films is hired to find a legendary film that is presumed lost. For added fun, the man doing the searching has his own demons and his own reasons to want to find the film in question.

Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) runs a small arthouse theater that seems to cater to the stranger end of the horror spectrum. We learn over time that his wife (Zara Taylor) was, like Kirby, strung out on heroin and, unlike Kirby, has killed herself. This is important because this happened after her father (Gary Hetherington) loaned Kirby $200,000 to fix up the theater. He’s now threatening to kill Kirby if he doesn’t get his money back, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll kill Kirby anyway.

In a stroke of luck for Kirby (he thinks), he is hired by a man named Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track down a film called La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), which had been shown exactly once at a film festival. According to the legend, the film caused a homicidal riot at the screening and was destroyed, but Bellinger has reason to believe that there is still an extant copy. In his house, he has chained up a wounded creature that is humanoid without being human (Christopher Redman). The creature tells him that it is bound to the film and would know if it no longer existed. Bellinger offers $100,000 for the film. Sweetman demands $200,000.

What follows is Sweetman’s quest to find the movie. It takes him across the path of multiple people who have had some brushes with the film and who have either been driven mad by it or have been otherwise affected by it. Along the way, he has serious nightmares about the death of his wife as well as some waking hallucinations. When he finally reaches the wife of the film’s director (Gwynyth Walsh), she tells him that the closer he gets to the film (emotionally, or mentally, not specifically physically), the more he is affected by it. This is shown to us in the form of “cigarette burns,” the cue marks used in older films to alert the projectionist to change the reel.

There are a lot of things that are done right with Cigarette Burns. One is how much this parallels The Ninth Gate. So much of what makes that film work is the slowly unraveling mystery of the books at the center of the plot. The same is true here, although what happened in the filming of La Fin Absolue is a lot more obvious, perhaps because of the length limitations of this film. The rough identity of the creature in Bellinger’s house isn’t that hard to figure out, and so we know the direction we are going early on, but the confirmation of this comes in stages, and often in surprising ways. There are also several moments of surprising gore.

It’s also well cast. Norman Reedus is a great choice for Kirby Sweetman because there’s something about Reedus that always seems just a little seedy. The same is true of Udo Kier, who is easy to believe as the sort of person who would go to extremes for the sort of unique experience La Fin Absolue promises.

The problem? It’s too short. This could be expanded into something a little longer, I think. This story could have easily handled 80-90 minutes instead of coming in at just under an hour.

Why to watch Cigarette Burns: John Carpenter back in form.
Why not to watch: This could go an extra 30 minutes easily.


  1. I have seen this as I thought it was an awesome short by John Carpenter as it is a late-period gem for him as I wish he would get back on the director's chair.

    1. I agree. What I'd really love is to see this as a 90-minute feature. There's enough here to carry a story of that length.