The episode concerns rare films dealer Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus) who is deeply in debt and trying to keep his small independent theater open. He is hired by an old cinephile, Mr. Bellinger (Udo Kier) to find the only existing print of an elusive thirty-year old movie, La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World), which supposedly sparked a homicidal riot during its premiere at the Sitges Film Festival after which it was destroyed. The episode follows Kirby as he pursues a series of clues that lead him inexorably towards a horrific and bloody conclusion.
The film resembles one of John Carpenter's previous films, the 1995 H. P. Lovecraft-inspired In the Mouth of Madness. Both films connect art with insanity; both involve the restraint of supernatural entities by artists; both explore the breakdown of civilized humanity; and both follow the descent into madness of a rational investigator who is forced to question his own conception of reality.
The film's title stems from a term that is erroneously believed to be film industry slang, which refers to nematic cue marks as "cigarette burns". The protagonist begins to hallucinate these midway through the film, and they appear to the viewer in the place where such marks would ordinarily be in theatrical releases. The term was originally used in the 1999 film Fight Club, which led many non-professionals to assume the term was standard film jargon.
Sweetman initially suggests that the film is an urban legend. Bellinger leads Sweetman to a hidden room in his mansion, which contains an emaciated, pale man (Christopher Redman) in chains. The man has wounds on each of his shoulder blades; strange bones protrude from the wounds and appear to be the source of a pair of angelic wings suspended from Bellinger's wall that, Bellinger explains, are props from the film. The chained man explains that his existence is bound to the existence of the film. He then offers Sweetman $200,000 dollars to find the film.
Sweetman begins his research with the riot that occurred after the film's original screening. He finds that according to contemporary records, the theater burned to the ground. Four audience members died, and the rest were driven insane. He also finds his first lead: a critic who wrote a review of the film, now living in Carthage, New York (director Carpenter's hometown). Sweetman flies there and finds the critic typing furiously at a typewriter. The man claims to be writing a second review, which he insists is "the real review." He is surrounded by tens of thousands of pages of typed paper, all part of his review. He begs to see the film again, and offers Sweetman an audio tape of an interview with the film's director.
Sweetman flies to France, and listens to the tape in his hotel room. He begins to experience flashes in his vision that resemble the cue marks (the so-called "cigarette burns" of the title) on cinematic film. Sweetman has a hallucination in which he sees his late wife in the same state he had found her in upon her suicide. He then wakes up.
Sweetman then goes to see an acquaintance in the rare film business. His friend reluctantly tells him that he was the projectionist at a secret screening of the film a number of years earlier. He was spared death and insanity because he turned away from the film as it played. Eventually, he tried to stop the film, but blacked out, only to wake up with his left hand horribly burned. Sweetman learns that the cinematographer and director are the only two survivors of the original screening, but the friend explains that the director is certainly dead, and the cinematographer has gone blind and will attack anyone who asks him about the film. Sweetman's friend begs him to stop searching for the film, but Sweetman dismisses his pleas.
His friend eventually sends him to a warehouse, where Sweetman meets a deranged filmmaker. He is invited inside, and notices that the windows are covered in what appears to be human skin. In the room is a box marked La Fin Absolue du Monde, which holds several production stills from the film. After viewing the stills, Sweetman is seized by the filmmaker's bodyguards, injected with an anesthetic, and blacks out.
Waking up, Sweetman discovers that he and the cab driver who brought him to the warehouse are tied up in chairs. The filmmaker enters the room wielding a machete. He kills the cab driver while his bodyguards film the murder. He explains to Sweetman that he believes the act of murder has become an art form, and La Fin Absolue du Monde is the apex of that art form. Sweetman experiences another vision of "cigarette burns." When he comes to he finds himself holding the machete. The bodyguards are dead and the filmmaker is on the floor before him with his throat slashed. Before the man dies, Sweetman tortures him to force him to reveal the film's location. The filmmaker replies, "Katja."
Sweetman flies to Vancouver, Canada to speak with Katja, the director's widow (Gwynyth Walsh). She confirms that the director is dead. When he asks about the producers of the film, she says that her husband never revealed their identity, only their interests—"chaos, sorrow, suffering, and famine." The widow gives Sweetman the film, claiming it was a curse upon her home from the moment her husband brought it there. When he asks how the director died, the widow reveals that he slashed his own throat, and hers as well, though not fatally in her case. She says that an angel was mutilated in the film, and the evil of that horror affects all who view the film.
Sweetman brings the film to Bellinger and collects his payment, then returns to his own theater. Bellinger loads the print into a projector and sees upon the screen the "angel" locked in his mansion. Meanwhile, Sweetman arrives at his theater to find the doors chained. He is informed by telephone that his father-in-law locked the theater in his absence. He receives a phone call from a distraught Bellinger, and returns to the mansion. There he finds the butler standing outside the home's theater, covered in knife-wounds; the butler proceeds to gouge his own eyes out with a knife. Sweetman enters the theater to see the closing credits rolling on the screen. Inside the projection room, he finds the old man loading his own intestines into the reels of another projector, whereupon they are pulled out as the projector turns.
Fleeing the projection room for the screening room, Kirby encounters his father-in-law, who pulls a gun and threatens to kill him. They struggle for the gun and as they do, another cigarette burn envelopes the screen. Sweetman awakens to find both him and his father-in-law sitting and watching the movie, both bloody.
While the film is playing again, the butler goes to the room where the angel is being held and gives the creature the key to his chains. Back in the theater, La Fin Absolue du Monde is unspooling. There are flashes of violence that match the earlier production stills. One scene portrays two men restraining an angel as a man with a machete approaches and raises the blade; blood spatters in a manner suggesting amputation.
A cigarette burn opens in the screen, and Sweetman's late wife steps through it, appearing as she did upon her death, naked and bathed in blood. She embraces her father and bites his neck in a vampiric fashion. Sweetman wakes up again, and sees his father-in-law struggling with the air, but unharmed. Realizing that they both see his late wife, Sweetman decides that they both have to die because neither can truly let her go as long as they're alive. Sweetman then bashes his father-in-law's head against the floor until he is dead. He then picks up the gun and resumes watching the film. The smiling projection of his dead lover soon appears. He tells the apparition that he loves her, puts the gun in his mouth and then pulls the trigger.
The last scene shows the "angel" taking the two film reels, having been released from his prison by the butler. The angel walks into the theater, looks at Kirby's bloody corpse and says, "Thank you for this," indicating the film reels, before leaving.