John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns

First Amazon rental of the month is John Carpenter’s entry in the Masters of Horror series, Cigarette Burns. I really only included it in my rental list because I was adding Stuart Gordon’s entry, an adaptation of The Dreams in the Witch House (I can’t resist the promise of Lovecraft on film, even though the results are so often disappointments — notable exceptions being Stuart Gordon’s Dagon and the HPLHS’s silent Call of Cthulhu), and I caught a glimpse of Cigarette Burns’ plot synopsis, which was enough to get me intrigued: Years ago the first showing of an obscure European director’s film La Fin Absolue de Monde resulted in a spontaneous bloodbath in the audience. The film’s single print was supposedly destroyed, but a rich collector has information to the contrary, and he hires our hero Kirby Sweetman to find it.

I love this sort of plot, where someone embarks on a quest to track down some obscure book or film (as in Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, or Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). And John Carpenter directed one of my all-time favourite films, The Thing, which is also one of the most Lovecraftian-without-actually-being-Lovecraft movies I’ve seen. (He also created some brilliantly moody-but-minimal soundtrack scores — a recent purchase was The Essential John Carpenter CD.) However, Carpenter also directed They Live!, a film whose great genre premise (an alien race enslaves mankind through the use of subliminal advertising) is totally ruined by its being turned into a crass action movie. (Not that I’ve got anything against action movies, it’s just that you want a film founded on an idea to reach some sort of idea-based solution, not one involving nothing but big guns and grenades.)

So, I was prepared to be disappointed by Cigarette Burns. Thankfully I wasn’t. The Masters of Horror series was originally made for TV. Thirteen notable horror filmmakers each directed an hour-long self-contained episode, and perhaps it’s the fact that Cigarette Burns is only an hour long that makes it work, as the need for brevity keeps the story on track.

Of course, the thing with a film like this — a film about a film — is that at some point the hero has to find the film he’s searching for and watch it. Whereupon we, the audience, will have to see it too, otherwise we’ll feel cheated. And how can any filmmaker deliver, after all the build-up about it being a work of undeniable though diabolic genius and power? Flicker and The Book of Illusions could dodge this issue because they were books about films, so their authors could describe the films without having to realise them in full. A film about a film doesn’t have that option.

The Japanese version of Ring (another favourite, though the US remake isn’t), really delivers on this promise, by making the content of its cursed videotape both short and extremely surreal. In Cigarette Burns we see glimpses of La Fin Absolue de Monde, but only after we’ve been told the reason why it has the effect it has. (As I want to try to keep this a spoiler-free zone, I won’t reveal it here.) So the mythical film retains its glamour by relegating all but those few glimpses to the viewer’s imagination, which is the right thing to do.

On the subject of books and films about (invented) films, there are of course many books about (invented) books. I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind earlier this year (it was recommended by Richard and Judy, for heaven’s sake!), and though it was quite readable, I really only read it to the end because I couldn’t believe such a critically acclaimed book boiled down to nothing but an awful quasi-gothic melodrama, but it did. The Invisible Library website aims to list all invented books, of which there is a surprisingly large crop.

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