Masters of Horror: Vol 1
Cigarette Burns & Dreams in the Witch House

Starring: Norman Reedus, Udo Kier, Ezra Godden and Chelah Horsdal
Anchor Bay Entertainment UK
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: 13
Available 13 March 2006

Masters of Horror
is the brain child of Mick Garris, the idea to assemble the best horror film directors and let each loose for an hour to create a new millennium of terror for the small screen. The names in question are: John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing, etc.), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Dario Argento (Demons), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Don Coscarelli (the Child's Play films, Bubba Ho-Tep), as well as Stuart Gordon and Mick Garris himself. This first twin-release showcases Carpenter and Gordon.

In John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns Kirby Sweetman splits his time between screening rare movies at his cinema and tracing them for private collectors. When he is paid by a wealthy man to trace Le Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World) he has little choice but to accept the challenge. His father-in-law had loaned them $200,000 for the cinema, but ever since his wife had committed suicide in a heroin-induced state the man has blamed Sweetman. Now he is threatening to close down the cinema and even kill Sweetman. However, the single existing print of the film has become notorious. At its one public screening the entire audience were driven to an immediate killing frenzy. A bloodbath ensued. As Sweetman gets closer to the source he begins to experience flashes of cigarette burns, which are circles on a film that tell the projectionist to change reels. Within these circles he sees frightening images, many relating to his dead wife. He delivers the reels and collects his cheque without watching the film, but the nightmare isn't over. The film affects all those who come into contact with it, and Sweetman is about to endure his own private screening of hell...

What can I say except that John Carpenter is a genius? A bias opinion perhaps, as I'm a long- time fan. But in this case it's not all his doing. Carpenter had pretty much retired after Ghosts of Mars, hinting that he might return if the right script came along. So here he is, in his own words an old man, returning to the fray after being impressed with the dialogue-driven script by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. A very creditable job he does too, using a passive direction which allows the suspense of the story to seep into you, rather than slapping the audience round the face with the concept.

It's good to see Carpenter has lost none of his brutal honesty; both feet are firmly on the ground. He ridicules the idea that anyone, least of all himself, is a "Master of Horror", whilst everyone else sings his praises, and we learn that what scares most people actually makes Carpenter laugh. So we see him on set (on the extras) silently convulsing with laughter before spontaneously applauding a gristly scene. A true character.

As for Cigarette Burns itself, it succeeds in allowing the viewer to build the suspense by merely hinting at the film's power and showing fleetingly quick images from the film (which work in a similar manor to Sadako's video in the Japanese film The Ring). It doesn't weaken the plot that we never discover what Le Fin Absolue du Monde is actually about - apart from it being an art film. There's a fine balance at play with the images, and it's difficult to know what to make of the angel which the collector keeps chained up, its wings savagely removed as a memento. It's not laughable, nor is it frightening, merely surreal. For me personally there is only one step too far (silly, not scary) when the collector feeds his own entrails into the projector.

Cigarette Burns has certain similarities to Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness, particularly the cinema version of a best-selling horror book which turns the audience into mindless psychotics. I would have preferred that Carpenter script his own piece, as he has for the majority of his films, but any sort of Carpenter is a bonus these days and this is a good addition to his arsenal.

There's a host of special features, including: a commentary by director John Carpenter (although it isn't mentioned, I'm certain I spotted a cameo from the man himself; as Sweetman enters his cinema he is reflected in the glass door walking past); a separate commentary with the writers Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan; Behind the scenes Making of... documentary; Working with a Master - John Carpenter (on set with the man, and comments from others with whom he has worked); an interview with Carpenter; an interview with Norman (Sweetman) Reedus; Cigarette Burns - From Script to Screen; John Carpenter biography; still gallery; visual effects; out-takes; trailers for the others in the Masters of Horror collection; DVD ROM screenplay and screen saver.

In Stuart Gordon's Dreams in the Witch House, advanced Physics student Walter Gilman rents a cheap room in a run-down old house not far from the university where is is conducting his thesis on geometric shapes creating joining universes. Resident at the house is a bad-tempered landlord, young mother Francis and her baby, and a seemingly crazy old man who prays loudly and covers his walls in crucifixes. After chasing a rat from the room of Francis, he wakes to find one in his own. He is horrified to realise it has a human face. The old man babbles about a witch coming for Walter, but the student writes the entire experience off as a dream. Increasingly real dreams begin to overtake him, to the extent that he wakes up in different places. Then he realises that the angles of the walls come together to form the exact shape needed to create a connection with another universe. The witch wants the blood of the baby, but for some reason requires Walter to make the killing stroke...

Stuart Gordon has made a string of horror movies, but arguably none of them bar one has resulted in any mainstream impact. His film version of Re-Animator, based on H.P. Lovecraft's story Herbert West: Re-Animator, struck just the right balance between Frankenstein-like horror and black humour. Although Dreams in the Witch House is scripted by Dennis Paoli and Gordon himself, it is again based on work by Lovecraft. Let's be absolutely honest and say in this instance Lovecraft is the only "Master of Horror" here. The reason why hardly any Lovecraft material has made it to celluloid is because it doesn't adapt well for the screen. Consequently, this is average stuff. Witches have been done to death (literally) in the movies and there's not enough of a slant to make the audience think they're watching anything new.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of enjoyable scenes. When Walter ravishes what he thinks is the naked Francis, she suddenly changes into an old hag - one of the guises of the witch (no Friday night / Saturday morning jokes please!). After a particularly vivid dream in the house Walter wakes to find himself at the university, seated in his underwear and inexplicably reading The Necronomicon, the ancient Book of the Dead which is written in blood and bound in human skin. Of course, The Necronomicon was invented and heavily used by Lovecraft in his stories. Since then countless films and books have used the premise; most notably The Evil Dead and the Necronomicon series of books by Brian Lumley.

The less said about the rat the better. The BBC were doing this sort of make-up for Sunday afternoon children's serials years ago. The Special Features are identical to the Cigarette Burns disc (just replace Carpenter with Gordon), and there is an interview with Chelah Horsdal who plays Francis.

Again, the packaging from Anchor Bay is near exemplary, choosing to separate the two short films, as they deserve, and then placing them in a box sleeve. The only niggle is that the artwork of Carpenter on the cover looks like someone has sketched a corpse and then turned it to stone.

This is some of the best horror stuff to have been made in recent years, and the trailers promise more gems to come. Roll on the next release in the series.

Ty Power

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