The short-lived TV series Masters of Horror on the Showtime network became famous for becoming an outlet for some of the greatest names in horror cinema. From John Landis to Dario Argento and many more in between. As many know, it all began with a regular dinner that these famous directors would host. Don Coscarelli describes them in detail in his book True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking, which I highly recommend. One famous filmmaker who attended many early dinners and went on to direct an episode is John Carpenter, with his contribution to Masters of Horror’s Cigarette Burns.
Like other entries in this now-classic anthology series, Cigarette Burns includes many of the director’s hallmarks. And an hour-long horror TV format with fewer concerns about box office, it’s possible a show like Masters of Horror creates something unique for a filmmaker like Carpenter. A chance to do something truest to his own sensibilities. In many ways I think that is what we find in this episode.
La Fin Absolue Du Monde
What we have at the beginning of the episode is a traditional setup for detective fiction. A McGuffin. A Maltese Falcon. A central object that our protagonist is out to find. In this case, we have Norman Reedus’ Kirby Sweetman, a man who is known for finding hard-to-find films. And this is the ultimate prize. La Fin Absolue Du Monde, a film that has become an urban legend over the years. It is said to make people go insane by watching it.
La Fin Absolue Du Monde is an experimental film that was only seen by a handful of people, and then was believed to disappear completely. It was said to have caused a riot at the premiere showing in the 1970s, resulting in everyone either being murdered or going insane from the viewing. Udo Kier’s Bellinger goes to Kirby, hoping that he can find the one existing copy of the film. As Bellinger has a unique taste for such rare films. And like many such characters in stories like this, it has become an obsession.
In Masters of Horror’s Cigarette Burns La Fin Absolue Du Monde acts in the same way as many Lovecraftian tales where there is an object that somehow accesses a dominion of hell that is unknowable or cannot be understood by our simple minds. Like Hellraiser’s Lament Configuration, Event Horizon’s gravity drive, or The Ninth Gate’s mysterious book, La Fin Absolue Du Monde has the potential to somehow conjure an unspeakable hell… or at least allow one to glimpse it, which is enough to make one go absolutely mad.
Masters of Horror’s Cigarette Burns Explained
So we have a mysterious object, that is the inciting incident that kicks Kirby down the path he must go down. There is also a personal problem. He is troubled by memories of his wife who killed herself, and her father from whom he borrowed a large sum of money and is insistent on getting his money back. So like many such tales, the search for La Fin Absolue Du Monde is a search for his own redemption. Just as Indiana Jones’s McGuffins often represent some kind of illumination for himself in some way, or the ecstasy that the Lament Configuration offers represents a yearning for lustful desires, the search for the forbidden film is a search for a release from his troubled soul.
And that’s ultimately what Kirby gets when he does see the film, and acts on his own vengeful desires.
Film in the right hands is like a weapon.
As Kirby slowly unravels the clues towards finding La Fin Absolue Du Monde, he gradually sees just how twisted it can make any who view it. That is where the horror is. It begins with a reviewer who saw the film 30 years ago and has been obsessively writing a single review ever since (something that reminded me of an alternative script for Wes Craven’s New Nightmare where Craven wrote himself as slowly going mad writing a new iteration of Freddy Krueger).
We trust filmmakers. We sit there in the dark, daring to affect us. Secure in the knowledge that they won’t go too far.
Going down this rabbit hole becomes an examination on what makes art, well, art. Does depicting the horrors of reality, showing death in film, does that have value? Is the power that film takes on when it becomes extreme, when it becomes visceral, become too powerful for its own good?
As stated in this review, “Cigarette Burns is a metaphor. A film by a film lover (Carpenter) about the very process of movie making and the relationship between a director and his audience.”
What is fascinating about Cigarette Burns is that it takes the Lovecraftian idea of an object that can access the unfathomable depths of hell and uses it to describe film itself. Art somehow allows us to touch on, describe, and depict pain and anguish better than than anything else. Film is our own Lament Configuration or portal to indescribable horrors. Is it maybe okay to question whether we should be going down that road, yes. What if it does more harm than good? What if in describing the horrors of the world, we are encouraging it in our own hearts?
Something happens when you point the camera at something terrible. The resulting film takes on power.
When Kirby finally sees La Fin Absolue Du Monde, like others, he unearths his rage and other deep-seeded desires… that is why different people react differently to the film, because we all respond differently to accessing our own hidden id. So Kirby’s response represents all of our, possibly healthy, response to witnessing the human condition on film. Seeing the horrors in movies allows us glimpses into the horrors that are inside of all of us.
In the Mouth of Madness
Many John Carpenter movies could be compared, but I think In the Mouth of Madness is closest in many ways. Both end in similar ways. And both are explorations of what it means to create art and unleash it upon the world.
The Ninth Gate
The Ninth Gate and Cigarette Burns are nearly identical in their plot. That is merely because they both are channelling many of the same Lovecraftian and other tales, while using certain detective fiction tropes as a way to serve them up.
This Nicolas Cage 1999 thriller is also nearly identical, just in different ways. While the Ninth Gate is similar to Cigarette Burns in that the mystery is a means of channelling hell, with 8MM the similarity is that the central object is a film. And like Cigarette Burns, 8MM is about a protagonist slowly exploring the extremes of human depravity, and ultimately finding the devil in ourselves.
Last Updated on April 6, 2021.