Wednesday, July 24, 2013

John Carpenter: Masters of Horror – "Cigarette Burns"/"Pro-Life"


I realize that I’m in the minority when it comes to thinking that Carpenter had nothing to be ashamed of with Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Sure, those films have flaws (the former more than the latter), but I liked that he was trying for something different. I made the argument in my last post that Carpenter made Ghosts of Mars as a deadpan comedy. Even if the film’s detractors agree to this notion, their argument is that the film — no matter how deliberately bad it is — is still a failure. Okay, but at least Carpenter was trying for something unusual. Carpenter took criticism to certain films very personally (The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, come to mind), and his response was to always return to the bosom of the horror genre. So it’s no surprise that after the critical and commercial panning of Ghosts, Carpenter’s next project after a four year sabbatical (a return to theatrical work was still five years away) would be for the Showtime horror series Masters of Horror. And even though Carpenter's entries are arguably the best found in the two season the show ran, they're still pretty average Carpenter and really the furthest thing, aesthetically, from what he was doing with Vampires and Ghosts. Many would consider this a good thing; I find it disheartening, making for a pretty ho-hum viewing experience.

For those of you that don’t know (and if you’re reading this, I’m assuming that’s an extremely small percentage of you), the Masters of Horror series was the brainchild of one Mick Garris*. Certainly not the name one thinks of when conjuring up a list of “masters” or “horror,” but, hey, he certainly seemed to have enough connections with the right people, convincing them to do the series (or in Carpenter’s case, agreeing without thinking it through) which would eventually be picked up by Showtime. The idea behind the series was to showcase — in 60 minute short films — a variety of horror stories directed by a diverse group of filmmakers ranging from Carpenter to Tobe Hooper to Dario Argento to John Landis to Stuart Gordon to Takashi Miike.

The series had rules (and even more rules, as in “don’t show this” rules, were given once the series was picked up by Showtime): extremely truncated shooting schedules and small budgets — other than that, pretty much anything goes (and the “pretty much is what I just alluded to — no full frontal nudity and no harm to children were the stipulations Showtime issued). And for the most part, the entries in the series look good considering how their hands were tied. But Carpenter’s entries certainly are the most impressive of the series in that they look the most professional given their budgetary and scheduling constraints. 

Carpenter’s entry for the first season of Mick Garris’ series is “Cigarette Burns,” and it’s the best of the two he got to do. Starring Norman Reedus as the owner of a cinema that specializes in rare films, the film follows Reedus’ Kirby Sweetman as he attempts to track down an extremely rare French horror film entitled La Fin Absolue du Monde (The End of the World). Word has it that the film, when it premiered 30 years ago, caused a homicidal riot. The man asking Sweetman to secure the film is an old cinephile, Mr. Bellinger (Udo Kier in a brief, great performance), and he’s willing to pay $100,000 to Sweetman if he can get his hands on it. There’s something amiss, though, as Bellnger leads Sweetman into a room where an emaciated man is shackled. This man explains to Sweetman that his existence is linked to the film.

And so off is Sweetman to investigate the film. For most of the episode’s 60 minute runtime, Carpenter does a good job of shrouding the story and Sweetman’s journey in mystery. The film that Sweetman seeks is an interesting and elusive plot device (Carpenter does a good job of making us want to see this film by the end) to get Sweetman from one setpiece to the next; whether it’s an hallucination or a disturbing and nasty (two adjectives I thought I would never use when speaking of a Carpenter film) number involving a snuff film (wherein the filmmaker proclaims, “I would rather die than making something false”), “Cigarette Burns” moves at a nice clip and has a memorable tone to it. In addition, the short has a wonderful score by Carpenter’s son Cody (which is a bit derivative of the Deep Red score...unless he was meaning to rip it off; there is discussion of Argento’s film in the movie, and so I wonder if the score was more of an homage than anything).

The bad: well, the payoff isn’t that interesting (similar to the whole “effects of horror” theme in In the Mouth of Madness) and the Reedus is a pretty terrible actor.  Reedus stumbles through a lot of his dialogue,failing to sound natural when he delivers his lines. He’s got a look that makes you want to watch him (I think this is why he’s so good as the silent bad ass on “The Walking Dead”), but when taxed with being the focal point of a 60 minute short film, he’s just not up the task here. Also, despite my admittance that the snuff film scene (complete with decapitation) is an effective setpiece, it also feels out of place. Oh, not out of place in terms of the story or The Masters of Horror series and certainly not out of place in terms of the horror genre in 2005; no, it just plays odd because it is extremely graphic and nasty and is the very thing Carpenter built a career on not doing. So, yeah, it is effective. But damn does it feel out of place and disingenuous coming from Carpenter, a man who has railed against such graphic violence in horror films for being nothing more than an easy out — a cover up for bad directors who lack ideas and a sense of atmosphere.

Carpenter would return for the second season of Masters of Horror with an extremely flawed (bordering on annoying) entry that is saved by a great lead performance from Ron Perlman. “Pro-Life” is the name of his second offering, and it’s title leaves little to the imagination. What we’re given is a rather ordinary premise about a couple who stumble upon a woman running out of the woods, which naturally leads to nothing but trouble. The woman in question is Angelique (Caitlin Wachs), and she’s taken to an abortion clinic to end her pregnancy, which she claims is the result of a demonic rape. Unfortunately for the doctors in the clinic, the girl’s father is known to them: his name is Dwayne (Perlman) an infamous Pro Lifer who protests in the extreme the practices of the clinic.

Everything is set up for a typical story about a pretty typical character. Yes, we get the clichés of a the backwoods character Dwayne and how God is telling him to destroy the abortion clinic (yawn). Yes, we get yet another siege film from Carpenter (although, this is the short film’s strongest part). And, yes, we also get the typical Rosemary’s Baby type situation surrounding the birth of Angelique’s child (complete with hilarious Devil puppet). All of this could have devolved into eye-rollingly awful and simplistic territory if it weren’t for Ron Perlman.

Perlman is really something in this, playing Dwayne not as your typical religious backwoods character. He wisely refrains from playing Dwayne as some kind of crazed sidewalk preacher (which a lesser actor/director combo would have certainly done), instead playing him as an eerily calm prophet who is assured that God is telling him to destroy the baby that’s inside of his daughter. Every line Perlman utters is chilling because he does so with such an assured authority (it kind of reminded me of how Bill Paxton convinces his kids in Frailty that God is telling them to kill the demons in their town), calmly meting out orders to his three sons who are helping him get Angelique out of the clinic.

Carpenter wisely sidesteps too many outrageous detours (perhaps one of the benefits of a short shooting schedule and only 60 minutes to fill). I was impressed, for example, with a scene where one of Dwayne’s boys — the youngest I think — isn’t sure about their mission and doesn’t know how he feels about using guns if it comes to that. He’s young and innocent and thinks that maybe there’s a better way to deal with all of this. A lesser film would have has Dwayne berate his son, telling him that he’s dishonoring the family name or some junk like that by not going through with the violent mission. Here, though, Carpenter simply has Dwayne understand his son’s reservations and simply asks him to keep watch outside. And perhaps this is why the character — and Perlman’s portrayal of this character — is so chilling: he’s not some ranting and raving lunatic that is willing to sacrifice one of his sons for his cause. He’s calm and understanding, and that adds a different layer to this kind of character that I wasn’t expecting at all when I saw where the film was taking me, especially considering that Carpenter makes the doctor at the clinic a complete dick, so that way we (meaning us liberal viewers) don’t immediately think that Liberal Douchey Doctor at Abortion Clinic = Good Guy and Backwoods God-fearin’ Pro Life American = Bad Guy; it just isn’t that simple, and that’s one of the truly great (and surprising) things about “Pro-Life.”

Unfortunately, the rest of “Pro-Life” can’t live up to Perlman’s performance. The birth, when it happens, is pretty cheesy and standard stuff, and it’s not the least bit interesting. When people are shot, the film falls victim to the annoyingly modern tendency to splash inordinate amounts of CGI blood everywhere (and if it isn’t CGI blood, it’s really fake looking blood). Where Carpenter was going for more of an Assault on Precinct 13 feel for the first half of his short film, he cedes the back half to a much less interesting horror premise. The music by Carpenter’s son is once again strong at evoking the right kind of mood (if “Cigarette Burns” had a score that made me think of Argento, the score of “Pro-Life” is downright Fulcian, which is to say that it reminds me of Fabio Frizzi), and, yeah that devil puppet thing is incredibly cheesy, but for the amount of time they’re given to shoot these short films and the little-to-no budget they’re given, it’s kind of impressive that they were able to even pull the thing off. It’s not a crime against art or anything, and it certainly isn’t a waste of one’s time if you haven’t seen it yet, but it leaves no indication that “OMG John Carpenter is back to form~!”

As short little 60 minute films, “Cigarette Burns” and “Pro-Life” are pretty good. I didn’t like them as much as his other work for Showtime in the ‘90s, Body Bags (these films takes themselves way too seriously, and that’s a big problem compared to the short films making up Body Bags), but they’re certainly worthy, albeit familiar, offerings from the horror master. Five years after “Pro-Life” and nearly a decade after Ghosts of Mars, Carpenter would make his return to theaters with The Ward — a scaled back, low-budget return to horror that fans of his had been clamoring for since In the Mouth of Madness.

* The story behind the “Masters of Horror” dinners that Garris would put on is a funny one. Carpenter mentions them here. The disdain and bitterness in his voice when speaking of David Cronenberg is simultaneously hilarious and sad.


  1. I have to disagree with you on one point: Joe Dante's "Homecoming" is my favorite Masters of Horror episode. But otherwise, you're spot on: good not great, a little "average" for Carpenter.

    The idea behind the MoH series was so immensely strong, it's heartbreaking how not-exciting the results were pretty much across the board. Including my single least favorite Stuart Gordon Lovecraft adaptation.

    1. So, of course the one you have to mention is like one of a handful I haven't seen. I will have to check that one out. I love Dante, so I don't know why I've waited this long to get to it. Thanks for the heads-up.