John Carpenter is a legendary filmmaker often regarded as the Master of Horror. However, throughout his career he has put out many classic films, not just within the horror genre, but also with action and science fiction as well. He’s a diverse storyteller whose body of works transcends genres, which is why I’ll often refer to him as the Genre Master rather than just the Horror Master.
When his filmography is discussed, it would appear that the general consensus is that while his films from the 70’s and 80’s are highly regarded and made up of crowd-pleasing classics that demonstrates the filmmakers’ unique style, his films from the 90’s are more or less hits and misses; keep in mind that this is just a generalization and doesn’t represent the opinions of every fan as there are those, like me, who will go to bat to defend some of his later films, but we could probably all agree that there’s a distinct difference in quality between his earlier efforts and his later efforts.
Around the time ‘Ghosts of Mars’ was released in 2001, there were many who questioned if Carpenter still had it – or if he was starting to lose his touch in his old age.
Enter Showtime’s ‘Masters of Horror’ series: an anthology series with a variety of horror directors telling single serving, hour long horror tales. For me, despite the fact that they are essentially television programming, I look at them as short films, only missing a half hours’ worth of fluff or additional material that could have made them be considered largely as films rather than episodes. Regardless, among the best of the first season of ‘Masters of Horror’ is John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns – an episode/short film that proved Carpenter is still capable of delivering something great despite the stumbles he may have taken later on in his career.
‘Cigarette Burns’ follows Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus), the owner of a retro-movie theater who has a knack from tracking down long-lost prints of films. Haunted by his tragic past with addiction that lead to the death of his wife, Annie (Zara Taylor), and hounded by his ex-father-in-law Walter (Gary Hetherington) for the money he owes, Kirby takes a job from a wealthy collector named Bellinger (Udo Kier) to locate the thought-to-be-destroyed print of a film named ‘La Fin Absolue Du Monde’ – a film that had notoriously caused the entire audience to go mad with violence at its premiere – and as he gets closer to finding this legendary print, Kirby begins to experience a side effect of hallucinations and violence, and the twisted power the film has on those in its presence.
The script from writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan is unique, fascinating, and tightly written. Even with just an hour to tell the story they manage to lay down an interesting lore and backstory behind ‘La Fin Absolue Du Monde’, while also balancing some strong character work, particularly with Kirby’s past and his complicated relationship with the vengeful Walter. The script is effective and straight to the point, never getting to the point of over-complicating itself. That said, if there was an additional half hour worth of material, I’d be interested and take it in a heartbeat.
The score from Cody Carpenter is simple and evokes the style of his father’s earlier scores, making this feel the most like a John Carpenter effort arguably since his films from the 80’s.
And speaking of John Carpenter, his direction is on point, accentuating the mystery of the long-lost film in question and the growing danger it presents. There is one particular scene, which I will not spoil here, which features a revelation of a piece of Bellinger’s collection, and I love the way that it was shot. There are many great and shocking moments in this episode/short film, particularly with the final sequence, that are easily some of Carpenter’s finest moments in a long time.
John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns is an awesome, well-crafted tale that proves he’s still got it.
If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s available to watch on Tubi and Prime Video, and I highly recommend it.
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