Of his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Cigarette Burns," written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan, director John Carpenter has been quoted as saying, "I've never seen anything else like it." While it may seem innovative to him, the show is reminding some viewers of certain books, like Ramsey Campbell's ANCIENT IMAGES, Theodore Roszak's FLICKER, and my own 1994 novel THROAT SPROCKETS, which first appeared as a graphic novel chapter published in the 1988 debut issue of Stephen R. Bissette's TABOO -- the same publication that later launched Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL. Drew McWeeny himself, I was pleased to learn, is a fan of THROAT SPROCKETS. He can be found enthusing about it here in his Ain't It Cool News persona of "The Real Moriarty."
Let me say right away that no experienced writer is invulnerable to influence. I have probably been influenced on some level by every artist I've even half-liked, and perhaps by some I don't like much at all; I don't believe creative people have a conscious choice in which colors stick to their palette. Therefore, while elements of THROAT SPROCKETS are visible in "Cigarette Burns," I would never accuse Messrs. McWeeny and Swan of deliberately trying to copy me on that basis. In retrospect, though I certainly didn't intend it, I must admit that aspects of THROAT SPROCKETS were influenced by David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, which is not merely a film I saw but a film that I lived, as someone who was a guest on the set for nine days and who spent a further year of his life researching and writing about it. The notion of image as a weapon, which resurfaces in "Cigarette Burns," is one of the things my novel absorbed as a result of my personal exposure to VIDEODROME -- and I also know that Cronenberg absorbed the notion from his own reading of William S. Burroughs, who wrote about image as virus and contagion. Burroughs was probably riffing on an idea he absorbed from a writer before him. Long before Burroughs' NAKED LUNCH, Manet's painting "Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe" (a landscape depicting a literal "naked lunch") scandalized Parisian society and was branded as obscene. I once had occasion to bring this to Burroughs' attention and he told me he was surprised that he had never noticed the parallel before, nor had anyone previously brought it to his attention. He liked the idea of his NAKED LUNCH carrying Manet's baton, so to speak. Suffice to say that even Shakespeare, in his time, said there's nothing new under the sun.
Some of the specific parallels I noticed between THROAT SPROCKETS and "Cigarette Burns"... Both titles are aggressive sounding and refer to punctures or impressions on 35mm film strips. The "cigarette burns" in this MOH episode are analogous to the "splices" in my novel, which herald jumps in time and blackouts in the narrative. My mysterious director/terrorist character Sadilsa is credited not only with the imaginary film THROAT SPROCKETS, but with another called LONGUE VERIFICATION FINAL AVANT DE LANCER UN PROJECTILE DANS L'ESPACE, which is a very long-winded French way of saying "Countdown" (literally, "Extended, Last Minute Verification Before the Firing of a Missile Into Space"). In "Cigarette Burns," the imaginary movie LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE (a wonderful title) is described as "a bullet," which is a kind of missile fired into space. The wings of an Angel figure prominently in this episode, and there is a pivotal appearance by a winged Devil in my book (it was Gahan Wilson's favorite part, I remember). The scene of the hooded film collector filming himself as he inflicts damage on the throat of a woman bound to a chair is very much like the climactic eureka of my book, involving the Glover and the Dark Lady; indeed, if a film is ever made of THROAT SPROCKETS, I'll likely be accused of copying McWeeny and Swan when it reaches that scene.
Another thing: Is it possible that the screenwriters were actually caricaturing me to some extent with their character of A. K. Meyers? (Carpenter supposedly renamed the character, who was named "Peter Dunnigan" in the original script. That's "Dunnigan" as in Donnie Dunagan, who played "Peter" von Frankenstein in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN -- the subject of Tom Weaver's Rondo-winning cover story of VIDEO WATCHDOG #112.) This A. K. Meyers is depicted as a reclusive genre film critic (like me), known for writing lengthy essays on foreign and obscure cinema (like me), who is found sitting in his home surrounded by thousands of pages of an unpublished 30-year project his obsession won't allow him to finish. (Well... I kind of wish I'd been asked to play the part!)
Before I say what I thought of the episode, I should cop to the fact that I had a chip or two on my shoulder going in. Hoping to write for MASTERS OF HORROR myself, I submitted an original treatment on a similar theme to one of the show's producers a few months ago. My story was about a legendary lost horror film and its grip on the imaginations of a group of horror buffs, some of whom were quite deranged. My offering (which gave me chills as I typed the last paragraph) was turned down... because MOH had already committed to film this script, so all their needs for scripts on the topic of "lost" and/or "forbidden" movies were filled. In addition to knowing that my best shot at writing something genuinely scary for MOH had been deflected by this script, I also heard rumors beforehand that there might be some THROAT SPROCKETS parallels, which made me feel all the more guarded and annoyed.
As it turns out, I found "Cigarette Burns" to be one of the most enjoyable MOH episodes. The first act was very perusasive and seductive; the dialogue is very knowing, I loved the props of Bellinger's (Udo Kier's) film collection, and also the bit about the projectionist stealing a frame from PROFONDO ROSSO ("Dude, it's Argento -- gotta have it!"). But whenever the story turned to its subplot, about protagonist Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus, pictured above with Kier) being haunted by his dead heroin addict girlfriend and bullied by her father, I could feel the episode hemorrhaging relevance and myself hemorrhaging interest. When dealing with obsession, it's a mistake to make the object of obsession anything less than constant and overriding. Secondary characters are not a good idea unless they share or reinforce the central obsession.
After the first act, I felt the episode lost its direction and had no idea of where to go. The introduction of the Angel, especially so early in the story, was too fantastic, too much of a WTF moment; its role in the story, which I found poignant and provocative, is never as clear as it needed to be. The gory bit with the Asian manservant poking out his eyes I found embarrassing. But most embarrassing of all is that the long-lost print of LA FIN ABSOLUE DU MONDE, which no other collector had been able to track down, was ultimately found sitting in plain sight on a film rack in the late director's home editing suite! For Chrissakes, it's the first place anyone would look! It was also a serious error not to end the episode with Udo Kier's fabulous, climactic coup de theâtre; the episode continues on for several more minutes, none of which add anything of value to the story, even dragging the dead girl's father back in (where'd he come from?) for no apparent purpose.
Despite these faults, Udo Kier used this episode as an opportunity to achieve greatness. He's nothing short of fabulous here. It was wonderful to see him playing not just another cold Germanic bureaucrat, but a role that treats him like the star he is, acknowledging his history as an actor for the likes of R. W. Fassbinder, Michael Armstrong, and Paul Morrissey. His final act with the film projector is a wonderful tip of the hat to the outrageous deaths in the final reel of FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, in which Udo starred over 30 years ago. His casting is a potent reminder that some of the greatest "Masters of Horror" are actors, and more of them should be showcased on this program while they're still among us.
As for John Carpenter, I haven't cared for anything he's done since THEY LIVE (1988) -- I actually cringed for the screenwriters when his, alas, customary possessory credit faded in over the episode's title. Nevertheless, I have to say that "Cigarette Burns" is the most engaging, intriguing, and successful film he's made since PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987), so congratulations are due.
Sure, it's annoying (not to mention ironic) that my original story proposal got knocked out of the running by a script that spends a goodly amount of time reiterating or riffing on something I wrote. But ultimately, "Cigarette Burns" doesn't pre-empt my novel any more than THE RING (also quoted by McWeeny and Swan) did. I still think THROAT SPROCKETS itself could turn the movie or cable TV world on its ear, if given half a chance.
Until that day comes, at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that something I published more than a decade ago is still resonating in the genre, influencing a new generation of writers. It's gratifying, but I envy their opportunity.
Just have to keep working harder, I guess!