Masters of Horror was an anthology series that aired for two seasons on Showtime from 2005 to 2007. It was created by Mick Garris, a horror director who had worked on a number of Stephen King TV movies, and the idea behind it was that each episode would be directed by a famous horror director and they would have carte blanche to do wanted story they wanted no matter how graphic or twisted. Some were original stories while other were adaptations of classic writers like HP Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. In a lot of ways it was a great idea because a lot of the famous horror directors of the 80s and 90s were struggling to get work on theatrical films at the time. A few of them like John McNaughton and Ernest Dickerson had already moved over into directing television shows anyway and horror cinema, at the time, was dominated by the Saw series and foreign imports.
John Carpenter's episode Cigarette Burns
appeared midway through the first season and was heralded by most
critics as one of the best of the series. The episode sees Norman Reedus
(The Boondock Saints, The Walking Dead)
play Kirby, the young owner of a struggling independent cinema. Due to
his financial situation he takes on a job from a mysterious businessman,
Mr Bellinger (Udo Kier), to track down a copy of a seemingly "lost"
film, La Fin Absolue du Monde (French for The Absolute End of the World)
that was only shown one time thirty years ago. So he flies around the
world interviewing various people who were at
the original screening
and finds that almost everyone that saw it either died or went mad.
Throughout his journey he suffers blackouts which are signaled to
audience by a "cigarette burn" appearing on screen just before it
happens. What was on the film? And who is the albino man with scars on
his back who is locked up in Bellinger's house? All will be revealed.
In a lot of ways this film felt quite similar to Carpenter's 1994 film In the Mouth of Madness.
Both had protagonists who were tasked on tracking something down and both were playful commentaries on the obsession of watching
films and telling stories. I've got to say, despite the similarities, I
didn't really enjoy this much but I think that's mostly down to the
script rather than the directing or acting. The set-up is great but I
was expecting the 'search' for the film would be really complicated but
essentially it's very easy. At the end
of the episode Kirby is more or less given the film by the director's
widow. Secondly, I thought the story felt way too similar to The Dumas Club, a
book by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (which was filmed in 1999 as The Ninth Gate) about a man who is tasked with tracking down a rare demonic book.
tone of the episode was a bit all over the place too. It wasn't scary
enough to give you chills and it wasn't campy enough to be enjoyable. It
fell somewhere in the middle. The actual shots of La Fin Absolue du
Monde are only
shown in a little snippets but they mostly look like something out of
cheesy 90s Nine Inch Nails music video. I think Carpenter should have
stuck to his guns and not shown any of the film so that it could retain
its mystique. There's a
great film that just came out called Berberian Sound Studio
that's all about how much more important sound is to horror films than
the visuals. Still Carpenter did manage to give me at least one mental
image that I'll never forget - that of a man feeding his own intestines
into a projector - that was some twisted and crazy stuff.
(Carpenter's contribution for the second season),
by contrast, was almost universally hated at the time but I actually
quite liked it. The episode sees Caitlin Wachs play Angelique, a young
women who visits an abortion clinic to end her pregnancy. She claims the
baby is a product of a demonic rape however, just as the doctors start
their procedure, her redneck father Dwayne (Ron Perlman) shows up with
her brothers intent on making sure the baby survives. Even if it means
killing most of the staff in horrific ways.
The script was written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan (who also wrote Cigarette Burns)
and it has a lot of parallels with a couple of Carpenter's earlier
works. In the first half you've got the siege atmosphere of Assault on Precinct 13 and Prince of
Darkness and then in the second half, when the baby is born, you get the gory horror of The Thing. The only problem with doing this is that it
keeps reminding you of better stuff that Carpenter has done. As much as I
liked the episode the writing was sloppy and the dialogue pretty hokey.
The only actors who give decent performances are Perlman
and Wachs. The rest of the cast was very weak.
I think the main
thing I liked about episode was the first half. The build-up was pretty
riveting for the first half hour but once the 'father' of Angelique's
child shows up the whole episode descends into a mess of poorly shot
effects work. I'm talking guys in rubber suits and CGI babies. It really
killed the atmosphere. I guess this was mostly down to the fact it was a
TV show so they didn't have the time or budget to nail the effects.
Still that first half hour was, for me, much better than the whole of Cigarette Burns.
I think overall Masters of Horror was an interesting foray for John Carpenter but neither episode can be described as an overwhelming success. I think after Ghosts of Mars
Carpenter was really burnt out on film-making and having watched these two episodes you get the
sense that he could still show up in body but not in spirit.