Part 6 of the John Carpenter Retrospective looked back to Body Bags and In the Mouth of Madness, so it is fitting that the next and final two films to be discussed are Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life; Carpenter’s two entries in the ‘Masters of Horror’ series. These two sixty minute made for television episodes represent a continuation for the director. Body Bags had been Carpenter’s introduction to the anthology, though as fate would turn out, the feature film rather than the television anthology as originally intended.
Nine years on from the Lovecraftian horror In the Mouth of Madness, Cigarette Burns replaces the novels of Sutter Cane with Hans Backovic’s Le Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). Both Mouth of Madness and Cigarette Burns are fixated on the idea of art as a source of insanity, from which derives murderous and violent behaviour. Narratively the two films feature an investigative protagonist: Sam Neil’s insurance investigator, and Norman Reedus’ cinema owner, each the sceptic turned believer, each hired to find someone or something that as gone missing. Meanwhile Pro-Life would see a return for Carpenter to his 1976 siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, transposing a police precinct for an abortion clinic.
Cigarette Burns is sometimes argued to be Carpenter’s return to form, though following Vampires (1999) and Ghosts of Mars (2001), it is not difficult to believe it could represent anything other than a return. Vampires’ reversed narrative, the finale at the start rather than the end, a consequence of the flashback at the opening was always problematic. Ghosts of Mars, well mention that film to any Carpenter fan and watch their heads drop, and listen out for the painful groan. Whilst Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life may not rank in the upper echelons of Carpenter’s cinema, they are solid additions to his canon.
Both are highly creative and memorable horror stories. Cigarette Burns follows movie theatre owner Kirby Sweetman and his attempts to acquire, for his client Bellinger (Udo Kier), the print of Hans Backovic’s Le Fin Absolue du Monde, thought to be missing and hence unobtainable. Backovic spliced into the film images of the sacrifice of one of God’s angels, and now the very soul of the angel is forever burnt to the films negative. Its premiere was marred by a murderous riot, and since then it is said that anyone who sees the film is driven insane, and anyone who seeks the film, and gets too close is plagued by the cigarette burns.
Pro-Life takes the controversial issue of abortion and combines it with the siege narrative and the monster movie. Angelique (Caitlin Wachs) wants to terminate her pregnancy, and attempting to escape her religious pro-life father (Ron Perlman) she crosses paths with a doctor and nurse of a nearby women’s clinic. Helped to the clinic, her father under instruction from whom he thinks is God lays siege to the clinic with the help of his sons to rescue Angelique and protect the unborn child. In a memorable twist, it is revealed that Angelique was raped by a demon, and her foetus is therefore not human.
Just as They Live gave an entertaining twist to Carpenter’s exploration of the underbelly of the American Dream, and 1980’s America, he doesn’t fail to give an entertaining twist to a story at whose heart is the pro-life versus pro-choice debate; the right of the mother to terminate her pregnancy. The film’s concluding image of the monster holding its dead child in its arms, shot and killed by its mother Angelique, is an interesting play on the subject.
Cigarette Burns and Pro-Life both represent examples of succinct storytelling, and in this regard Cigarette Burns was more of a challenge than Pro-Life; the latter’s past and present more self-contained. There is the background exposition on Le Fin Absolue du Monde, the suicide of the film’s protagonist Kirby Sweetman’s (Norman Reedus’) girlfriend, both of which reach into the past. One narrative strand serves to turn us much like Kirby from sceptics into believers, the other to flesh out the main protagonist. Certainly Cigarette Burns could have benefitted from a feature length running time, but through this time constraint shines the skill of director and writers to expose just enough of the past for the film to work.
Furthermore, Cigarette Burns is an example of the possibility of entertaining expositional dialogue, much of the film made up of characters engaged in conversation. Usually considered a crime, and seen to be a director and writers way of bailing out of finding a creative way to deliver the exposition, it is some of the most entertaining expositional dialogue you’ll come across. If the Devil’s greatest trick was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist, what makes Cigarette Burns such a gem is the means of expositional dialogue to suspend your belief and buy into the myth of Hans Backovic’s Le Fin Absolue du Monde. Repeat anything enough times and it inevitably becomes truth, and this is the tactic employed in Cigarette Burns whilst avoiding the pitfall of exposition. This is the magic of cinema, the power of the ‘what if?’ For sixty minutes we are permitted an opportunity to suspend our belief and believe in something quite impossible; a preposterous idea even John Carpenter has chuckled at.
Whilst Carpenter received only a directing credit for each film, the scripts felt the influence of the master of horror. The script for Pro-Life, was reworked following suggestions from Carpenter. In the final film the religious scribbling’s on the van of religious zealot Dwayne Burcell (Ron Perlman) are not present, and Carpenter a director who prefers to have something that can be seen re-invented the monster from a shadowy force that would not be seen, into a horned monster, whose skin resembled the sedimentary deposits of the earth.
Cigarette Burns’ conclusion contains some of the most violent imagery featured in a John Carpenter film, and perhaps Cigarette Burns would have ended better with us not seeing the effects of Le Fin Absolue du Monde; our imagination left to imagine the bloodcurdling insanity provoked by the film. Would this have been a better alternative to the conclusion that sees Bellinger feed his intestines into the projector, and sees his butler plunge a knife into both of his eyes?
The spider baby and some of the effects in Pro-Life shatters our suspended belief, but the master director that Carpenter is, he quickly commits to screen a monster that not only terrifies, but possesses emotion; cradling its dead child in its hands provoking an emotional and sympathetic conclusion to the film.
Fans of Carpenter alike reflect with sadness upon his recent output, but I always maintain that Carpenter was a director of his time, and in a short spell he directed a set of iconic commercial and cult movies.
During the six years that spanned 1976-1982, Carpenter directed five of his classic films: Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York and The Thing. The remarkable quality and creativity of these films define him as a director of his time in light of his inconsistent output post The Thing. Nevertheless, from 1982 onwards, he directed a number of notable entries in his filmography. This retrospective has discussed thirteen films spanning thirty years in all, exploring the work of one of American cinema’s great auteurs, and his contribution to the horror, action, comedy, science-fiction genres, and dare I say it, he even found time to give us a little bit of romance.
Thanks for the memories John.