As ‘Jenifer’ and ‘Pelts’ provided a surprise (albeit small screen) return to form for Dario Argento, so ‘Cigarette Burns’ for John Carpenter, one of his two contributions to the TV series ‘Masters of Horror’.
Kirby (Norman Reedus), a film collector and owner/programmer of a run-down independent cinema, is hired by the effete but sinister Bellinger (Udo Kier) to track down the one existing print of a French art film so notorious that its only public screening incited sociopathic behaviour in its audience. ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ (trans. ‘The Absolute End of the World’) is a film Kirby’s always been curious about, but apprehensive of. He recognizes in Bellinger an obsession with it that borders on addiction. Kirby knows all about an addiction. He’s a recovering drug addict (his wife – to whose antagonistic father he owes a fuckton of money invested in the cinema – was a victim to his lifestyle). He knows Bellinger and ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ spell trouble, particularly when he’s shown an, uh, “artefact” from the film as part of Bellinger’s private collection. But the money that’s being offered – more than enough to bale out the cinema – sways him.
Carpenter structures the first half of ‘Cigarette Burns’ almost as a slow-burn detective story with Kirby tracking down film historians and critics associated with the production and its disastrous debut, a trail that leads him from America to France and the troubled daughter of the film’s quixotic director. En route, Kirby is plagued with visions/recollections of his wife, disturbed by the subject matter of ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ (I don’t want to spoil anything so let’s just say it contains material that pretty much fits the definition of unholy), warned off by those with a vested interest in the film, and – albeit unwillingly – made complicit in the actions of certain parties who are perversely inspired by it.
“All this filming,” alcoholic landlady Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley) says in Michael Powell’s career-destroying controversy-fest ‘Peeping Tom’ – “it isn’t healthy.” ‘Cigarette Burns’ could easily serve as an hour-long exposition of this sentiment. Leo Mark’s script for ‘Peeping Tom’ focused on scopophilia, defined medically as the morbid desire to watch. Obsession; addiction. Bellinger’s desperation to see ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ owes to a desire to experience art – cinema – on a visceral and dangerous level. Bellinger wants something stripped of the obvious safety net of fiction/fabrication. Kirby’s motives are those of professional interest tipped slightly too far by an admixture of financial necessity and morbid curiosity.
And that, in a nutshell, is the appeal of ‘Cigarette Burns’: it’s a morality tale for the cinephile; a ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ for every horror fan, obscurist or completist out there. If ‘La Fin Absolue du Monde’ existed, and its reputation was as tarnished by controversy and I had a copy within my grasp despite warnings against even thinking about watching it, would I walk away and always wonder, or sit down with a fearful tremor of anticipation and relish the possibility of reviewing it for The Agitation of the Mind?