John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns (2005)


Written by Michael Schutz

So-called “cigarette burns” are small, circular marks in the upper right-hand corner of a film. They look just like burns caused by actual cancer sticks, thus their name. They indicate that a change of reels is coming. In these days of digital film and projection, you don’t see them anymore. But back in the good old days, you could tell that an awkward jump of film was about to come—eight seconds after the cigarette burn. John Carpenter’s entry in the Masters of Horror series is titled Cigarette Burns, and his movie is an homage to film. Specifically horror films.

Norman Reedus stars as Kirby Sweetman, a mercenary of sorts, with a particular knack at tracking down vintage films. Enter Udo Kier as Bellinger, a wealthy connoisseur obsessed with a thirty-year-old film, La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). In a turn nearly identical to Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, Bellinger hires Sweetman to track down this rare film. A film only shown once, and which resulted in a homicidal riot. Bellinger knows the film still exists because he’s captured one of the extras—an actual angel whose wings were cut off during filming.

“In order to fully appreciate La Fin Absolue du Monde, one must understand the context in which it premiered… [it] is not a movie but more like a bullet fired directly into the collective brainpan of all those assembled, and the only rational response is violence.” So says the lone critic still alive who has seen the film. Brutality does surround this lost movie; everyone who has seen it either dies or goes mad. Sweetman himself begins to lose his mind in the mere pursuit, cigarette burns appearing before our eyes, cuing Sweetman’s visions of his beloved dead wife.

Taken as a straight-forward movie, Cigarette Burns is fairly interesting. The egregious similarities between Carpenter’s film and Polanski’s can be forgiven because this film references a host of movies including The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Phibes Rises Again, both of which Bellinger mentions, as well as the movie posters for Nosferatu, Saw, and The Devil’s Rejects popping up. But much more is at play here than the obvious plot.

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. “We trust filmmakers. We sit in the dark, daring them to affect us, secure in the knowledge that they won’t go too far…” What we see during this short film is the power of this medium. We really do trust filmmakers as we sit together in a dark room, giving our undivided attention to the images flickering before us. We are ready, willing, demanding to be emotionally changed.

To digress for a moment, when I saw The Lords of Salem at the cinema, I sat riveted as the story unfurled before me. At the end, when the movie’s action moves to a theatre, Rob Zombie mesmerized me with the construction of the scene—as the physical seats before me continued unbroken into the rows of seats in that film, like a Charles Adams drawing. A montage followed, a series of nightmare visions straight out of a demon’s fantasies. This swallowed me whole. I clearly remember wondering if perhaps this film had been made to capture my soul and drag me to hell. It sounds like a bunch of hyperbole, but I truly sensed my grip on reality slipping. This is certainly what the audience to La Fin Absolue du Monde felt. And it is only a matter of degrees more than what films do to us every day.

Or should do.

Haven’t we all seen a movie so terrible—or so gruesome—that we’ve needed to hold off the Oedipal urge to gouge out our eyes as did Bellinger’s manservant? And Carpenter’s beautifully realized death scene for Bellinger is the perfect metaphor for filmmaking. For all creative endeavors. What does an artist do but put his very guts on screen—or paper, or canvas—for an audience to enjoy, mock, decry, or praise? And don’t we all wish that the angels would weep over our creations?

Cigarette Burns is a movie you can watch with a bucket of popcorn or argue its philosophical points well into the night. Either way, it’s worth a viewing. Whatever you queue up next, I hope it’s good. And as always, stay dark my friends.