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John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns

Udo Kier in Cigarette Burns

Dreams in the Witch House

Ezra Godden in Dreams In The Witch House

April 2006 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Masters Of Horror - volume one

casts: Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Douglas Arthurs, Ezra Godden, and Chelah Horsdal

directors: John Carpenter, and Stuart Gordon

108 minutes (18) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Lucinda Ireson
Cigarette Burns centres on the search for an elusive snuff film entitled 'Le Fin Absolue du Monde' (the absolute end of the world), which is rumoured to have driven the audience into a murderous frenzy during its first - and only - screening. Naturally its reputation provokes intense interest and so, at the behest of wealthy film collector Ballinger (Udo Kier), Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) embarks on a globetrotting search for the print. Throughout his journey Sweetman encounters various individuals who are associated with the film before finally uncovering the jackpot itself, yet putting aside the fascination that the film holds is far from easy and Sweetman finds that he too must face his inner demons.

Conceived by TV horror veteran Mick Garris, Masters Of Horror is a series of hour-long movies directed by some of the leading figures in the genre, including Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper and Joe Dante. Here, it is John Carpenter's turn to take the helm and fans will be pleased to know that he finally emerges from his lengthy career slump with a film that, while not up there with the likes of Halloween (1978) or The Thing (1982), is infinitely better than his more recent efforts. Anyone hoping for an out-and-out horror extravaganza, however, may be disappointed by the film's talky nature and languid pace, with a significant portion of the running time being taken up with characters waxing lyrical on the unearthly power that exists within Le Fin Absolue du Monde. The budgetary restrictions are also evident in terms of locations, thus meaning that the international nature of Kirby's investigations never really convinces. Still, when it kicks into gear it provides some memorable (and gory) moments, and horror fans will get a kick out of the various movie references. The idea that the film preys on individual weaknesses is also interesting and is handled particularly well in the case of Kirby's guilt over introducing his girlfriend to drugs (we later learn that she committed suicide), with this storyline being presented in a sensitive and subtle manner that favours understatement where it could have easily slipped into hollow melodrama.

Considering the amount of scenes based around characters talking, Cigarette Burns relies on its actors to keep the viewer's attention and the cast do a fine job, with Reedus effectively underplaying the role and conveying his character's inner turmoil without resorting to exaggerated theatrics. The by-product of this is that he tends to be overshadowed by some of the more dynamic supporting players, but Kirby is vital as a centring presence and is portrayed in a realistic light rather than as a typical hero. Still, Udo Kier, who displays immense screen presence and seemingly effortless magnetism, creates the biggest impression. Successfully combining refinement with gleeful malice, his scenes are the highlights of the film and, as such, it would have been nice to see the role expanded. However, this would have perhaps diminished his character's impact, and so the decision to limit his screen time is wise in this respect.

The subject of screen time is a greater issue when it comes to Le Fin Absolue du Monde: we are constantly informed of the power that the film holds and the effects that it has on its viewers which leads to an inevitable dilemma when the time arrives to actually unveil it. That is, whatever we see of the film is bound to be anticlimactic, as there is no way that the it can live up to its reputation. To be fair, Carpenter does try to limit expose of the film to brief flashes but even this is too much, with the generic images contained within these clips quickly discounting Le Fin Absolue du Monde's legendary status. Given that this is the case, it is debatable whether Carpenter should have shown the film at all. Of course, one could argue that this may cause the viewer to feel cheated, yet the same could be said of the footage that we do see. In addition, the film is supposed to mean different things to different people - it's power comes from its ability to force people to confront their own personal details, and so it would have perhaps been preferable to concentrate solely on the reactions of the characters as opposed to narrowing the film down to one particular vision.

All in all then, Cigarette Burns has its flaws yet these are not substantial enough to drastically taint the overall experience, and the film's conclusion proves satisfying and memorable despite the underwhelming nature of Le Fin Absolue du Monde itself. With classic moments of horror, high-quality acting and a fascinating exploration into the dark side of the human psyche, Cigarette Burns emerges as entertaining and thought-provoking viewing and a solid (and hopefully lasting) return to form by Carpenter.

DVD extras: Anchor Bay has become renowned for giving the fans what they want in terms of DVD extras, and this disc is no exception. The main extras are two commentaries; one featuring director John Carpenter (a likeable and informative host) and the other the two writers, who seem genuinely pleased and enthusiastic about the final film, and appreciative of their inclusion in the filmmaking process. Also of interest are Celluloid Apocalypse: An Interview With John Carpenter, and Working With A Master, offering an overview of Carpenter's career. Other extras include a 'making-of', and an on-set interview with Norman Reedus, trailers, a stills gallery, outtakes, script to screen comparison, a biography of John Carpenter and DVD-ROM features in the form of a screenplay and screensaver.

Adapted from a H.P. Lovecraft story, Dreams In The Witch House focuses on grad student Walter (Ezra Godden), who rents a room in a musty old house in order to work on his thesis. Things start off promisingly, with Walter getting on well with his attractive next door neighbour Frances (Chelah Horsdal) and her young son Danny, yet he soon becomes aware of mysterious pounding and chanting emanating through the house, not to mention visions of a witch and her familiar (a rat with a human face). Following an encounter with 'The Necronomicon' (the book of the dead), Walter suspects that the witch is seeking Danny's blood and makes it his duty to prevent her from succeeding in this aim. However, the supernatural forces of the witch and her ever-present familiar prove stronger than he could ever have imagined...

It is a widely held belief that H.P. Lovecraft has not been served well in movie adaptations of his work and there have certainly been enough lacklustre films over the years to confirm such an opinion, yet Gordon stands apart as arguably the most successful in his attempts to bring the author's stories to the big screen. Indeed, prior to this film he had already directed four Lovecraft adaptations: Dagon, Castle Freak (1995), From Beyond (1986) and, most notably, cult classic Re-Animator. Consequently, he approaches his entry in the Masters Of Horror series with an assured hand and, while the story may be transported to a modern setting, the tone and themes of the film (an interest in science, dreamscapes and man's descent into psychosis, for example) are unmistakeably Lovecraftian.

The film is a stagy, character-based affair but that's mostly a good thing in that it creates a sense of intimacy and allows us to get to know the characters so that we care what happens to them. The indoor sets also help to create a feeling of claustrophobia that enhances the psychological trauma suffered by Walter, and lighting is used to simple but positive effect. However, the enclosed, small-scale nature of the film means that never transcends its TV status and so anyone hoping for an epic cinematic experience is bound to feel letdown. Still, this simplicity is refreshing and it's nice to see a film that does not rely on impressive visual effects but rather focuses on quirky, inventive touches (the witch's rat/ man hybrid familiar is particularly memorable). Furthermore, the film is well cast, with Godden deserving particular mention - he is completely convincing and likeable in the leading role, and the scenes between him and Horsdal are naturalistic and engaging. There is also able support in the form of Campbell Lane, although it would have been interesting to see Jeffrey Combs' take on the role (he was cast but dropped out for undisclosed reasons).

Ultimately, the film moves into territory that is not just surreal but downright brutal, and this is all the more affecting because of the character development that has preceded it. It is also a gutsy approach on the part of both the director and the television network and, despite its '15' certificate; it certainly does not feel as though the film has been watered down in any way. This leads to a conclusion that eschews the conventional ending that the viewer expects in favour of something much more brave and disturbing.

If this film never rises above the level of TV movie, then it makes up for this with rich characterisation and some imaginative and shocking scenes. It definitely retains the spirit of Lovecraft's writing, and one gets the impression that, of the directors involved with Masters Of Horror, Gordon is best choice for this particular entry in the series.

DVD extras: as with Cigarette Burns, this disc contains a wealth of extras, including a commentary featuring director Stuart Gordon, actor Ezra Godden and DVD producer Perry Martin, which gives insight into elements such as adaptation, acting techniques and working to a strict budget and timescale. The documentary Working With a Master: Stuart Gordon is also a welcome addition to the disc, especially for fans of Gordon's previous work (look out for familiar faces such as Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). Other features include trailers, a stills gallery, outtakes, an on-set interview with Chelah Horsdal, script to screen comparison, a couple of visual effects featurettes, a 'making-of', a biography of Stuart Gordon and two DVD-ROM extras: a screen saver and, more interestingly, H.P. Lovecraft's original story.

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