John Carpenter's freaky Cigarette Burns is foremost a story about allowing oneself to be consumed by obsession. There's a lot of obsessive behavior in this film, and at the root of it all is the obsession with film itself. Being that the reigning obsession that unites these characters is cinephilia, there's a self-reflexive quality to the film — a movie about movie-watching — but it's not in a cutesy or insistent way like the Scream films. It is a film that understands the peculiar obsessions of the cinephile. Jean-Luc Godard once said, "The cinema is life, and I would really love to live life as I do cinema." If cinema is life, as it is for the characters in this film, is it then also death?
Questions like these are far from the mind of Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) when he travels to the house of one Mr. Ballinger (Udo Kier) at the outset of this story. Kirby owns a failing revival house and is deeply in debt to his late girlfriend's father; to supplement his income, he has become a rare-film finder, a celluloid detective.
Ballinger, who collects rare films and related paraphernalia, isn't long for this world by his admission, and he has one last thing he wants before he dies: a print of Le Fin Absolue du Monde. Kirby thinks that impossibility - the premiere of Monde saw the audience riot and burn down the theater, taking the print with it. Ballinger says he can prove that there's still an extant print of Monde somewhere in the world, which he does in a creepy and funny scene, and Kirby agrees to take the job. As he searches for Monde, he is forced to confront demons from his past; as it turns out, the rumored psychological effects of the cursed film may be true.
Writing about Cigarette Burns is difficult, precisely because the premise requires a lot of explanation. The title, for instance, comes from the little circles in the right-hand corner of a celluloid print that signal to the projectionist that it's time to change reels (as anyone who's seen Fight Club remembers). As Kirby gets closer to the mysterious film, he begins to hallucinate these cigarette burns, thus signaling that Monde is changing his subjective reality. All this is noted in the film, as is every other unusual point in the plot.