Monday, February 25, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns (2005)/Pro-Life (2006)

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 PĂ©rez-Reverte (which was filmed in 1999 as The Ninth Gate) about a man who is tasked with tracking down a rare demonic book.

The 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. 


Pro-Life (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.



  1. Agree, during his last years, Carpenter completely lost it. I remember being dissapointed with Ghost of Mars and thinking, boy, Carpenter just aint the same anymore.

    Cigarette Burns was an "almost comeback" meaning it wasnt horrendous, but it wasn't great either. I enjoyed the premise, the idea that they have this film that is so awful that people start acting really weird after seeing it, great idea.This idea of a film so evil, had also been explored in a horror film called Popcorn (1991), a pretty decent flick if I remember correctly. Haven't seen it in ages though! You ever checked it out?

  2. Yeah, Ghosts of Mars was soooo disappointing. So many things wrong with it - cast, sets, lighting, script. Everything just seemed really half-hearted. I've still got his most recent flick The Ward sitting on my DVD shelf.

    Haven't heard of Popcorn but might try and track it down. I agree the premise of Cigarette Burns could have been handled much much better.

  3. Haven't seen The Ward, I've heard so many bad things about it, but I know I will end up seeing it out of curiosity anyways.

  4. I've seen a few Masters of Horror episodes but not the Carpenter ones yet. Like most anthology shows it seemed to be a mixed bag. As a Carpenter fan I'll have to see these two episodes sometime. The scene with a guy feeding his own intestines into a projector sounds like something out of Videodrome!

  5. Hey Chris, yeah Cigarette Burns is very Cronenberg-esque is places. Haven't checked out much of the other Masters of Horror episodes. Any that you recommend?

  6. I haven't seen too many but Stuart Gordon directed an episode starring Jeffrey Combs playing Edgar Allen Poe called "The Black Cat" that I really liked.

  7. Jack, dont know if you've seen it but Stuart Gordon's episode called Dreams in The Witch House is pretty good too, I also liked Don Coscarelli's Incident on and Off a mountain Road was decent too....but Gordon's was better, it has many little references to H.P. Lovecrafts work, like the "Miskatonic University" sweater that Ezra Godden wears, also, it's based on an HP Lovecraft story, which shouldnt surprise anyone who has seen Gordon's body of work.