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ARCHIVAL HORROR: Cinephilia and Chaos in John Carpenter’s “CIGARETTE BURNS”

Sunday, September 25, 2022 | Archival Horror


Archives hold the allure of rarity. In an age of seemingly endless access to vast quantities of cultural material at our fingertips – books, music, films, games, etc. – the archive promises something different, that hidden gem or obscure item that only a few know about. Or else, that infamous relic that people are dying to get their hands on – a rare book from the past or a record that had only one pressing. Archives have much in common with collectors and their collections. Rather than just dusty institutions, archives and the archival can attract obsessive individuals who scour the globe for that rare piece with historical or cultural value. In horror, these rarities are often surrounded by legends, rumours of devilish origins and warnings of doom to those who come across them. John Carpenter’s classics, The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), have become known as the “Apocalypse cycle.” However, there is another entry that deserves its place in this pantheon:  2005’s “CIGARETTE BURNS,” a one-hour episode of the Masters of Horror series.

An angelic entity is at the core of the chaos in “CIGARETTE BURNS.”

Second-run cinema owner, Kirby Sweetman (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus), is hired by an aging cinephile, Mr. Bellinger (none other than Udo Kier), to locate the sole surviving print of the notorious film, La Fin Absolue du Monde. That’s French for The Absolute End of the World. If that sounds pretty apocalyptic it might have something to do with the rumours that the film’s one – and only – screening led to an outbreak of homicide and spontaneous rioting among members of the audience.

Bellinger is one of those obsessive collectors who will stop at nothing to attain what he desires. That includes chaining up one of the film’s cast members, an angel stripped of its wings, in a secluded room of his mansion. This strange being’s existence is supernaturally connected to the film, proving to Bellinger that a copy must still exist. If it is found, Bellinger promises Kirby an exclusive two-week run of the film.

Udo Kier as the sinister cinephile Mr. Bellinger.

The mythology surrounding such prized and scandalous films attracts its own brand of experts. Memorabilia, for example, is an important way for some fans to display, organise and communicate cinematic value. These items, in a way, keep alive some of the “spirit” of the film, much like Carpenter’s angel. They are documentary by-products of something “real.” What’s more, the knowledge of some cinephiles could rival that of any archivist. Hardcore horror fans, for example, may own alternative versions of releases, know production histories, collect interviews or posters and can recite the backstories of supposedly “cursed” films. They preserve their culture and keep up-to-date with new information by making connections within the genre community. In an era of mass production, a single-print film, as one of Kirby’s leads tells him, has its own “magic.” Its images have their own “power.” Kirby’s quest to find the film leads to a reviewer, a snuff film shoot, a projectionist, the director’s estate and, of course, a film archive. Each part of this trail, however unorthodox, is an archival source in La Fin’s legacy.

Cigarette burns portend doom for Norman Reedus.

Horror films have always been associated with extreme cinema. Exploitation cinema – films that aim to shock – not only attract audiences seeking out a visceral thrill but also draw the disapproval of moral gatekeepers. The Satanic panic of the ’80s unjustly blamed horror films for the apparent escalation of violence amongst the youth of North America. Carpenter is no doubt cheekily responding to this backlash in “CIGARETTE BURNS.” His film-within-a-film really does drive people mad and turn them violent. As with the final novel of famous horror writer Sutter Kane in Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, or the mysterious play that leads to insanity in Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, La Fin Absolue du Monde can change the perception of reality. Insanity is imprinted onto the very celluloid of the film – in its “cigarette burns,” the cue marks that let projectionists know when to change reels. In Carpenter’s episode, these marks are like gateways to hell for those unlucky enough to see them. The very fabric of existence is threatened by this celluloid, this archival print. As the line between reality and fiction breaks down, Kirby begins seeing these cigarette burns in everyday life, appearing in the air around him and showing him flashes of his dead wife. Made just as digital was replacing analog film technologies, the episode – first aired on TV and later released on DVD – is a testament to the bygone power that old media technologies once had.

Kirby’s (Norman Reedus) final curtain.

Typically for archive horror, Kirby first encounters these cigarette burns while listening to audio tapes of an interview with La Fin’s director, Hans Bakovic (an uncredited Christian Bocher). Bakovic responds to a question regarding his film’s experimental style by explaining that “film is not entertainment.” Kirby’s waking hallucinations after listening to the tapes show us that even the supporting material of a film, its reviews, interviews and memorabilia, contain traces of its power. Kirby’s next stop is a visit to the French Film Archives in Paris, where he consults friend and archivist, Henri Cotillard (Julius Chapple). At the archive, Kirby discovers that everyone who worked on the film is dead. However, Henri does put Kirby in touch with someone who might know the whereabouts of the film – a director of snuff movies. The legends and aura of depravity around snuff films is a fitting way for Carpenter to let his viewers imagine the “realness” and danger of La Fin.  Kirby finally tracks down the surviving print at the apartment of Bakovic’s widow, Katja (Gwynyth Walsh). She tells Kirby that the film “rubs off on you” as soon as you “get close to it” by encountering the objects and people associated with its production. Ultimately, underlying the episode’s search for truth is proximity to the power of cinema itself through the collection, preservation and exhibition of archival films. Despite the enormity of online libraries, archives carry the romance (or danger) of cinephilia where rooms, machines, celluloid and bodies are like the cardinal points of a ritual, summoning pleasures both angelic and demonic.

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