Arriving near the end of a late-'70s/early-'80s slasher-palooza that was put into overdrive following the success of John Carpenter's seminal "Halloween
"—the most profitable indie of its time—"Curtains" didn't create much of a stir in 1983, yet has built a passionate cult following in the years since. There are several reasons why, all of them valid. In lieu of a straightforward plot pitting dopey teens against a psychopath picking them off one at a time, "Curtains" has an entirely adult cast and a layered narrative that embraces its eccentricities. The central goal is not to merely slice through the ensemble—though this does happen, as well—but to explore the seedier cutthroat politics of moviemaking and the desperation that often comes when reality does not match up to one's aspirations. Beyond that, the film features a truly disconcerting killer cloaked in an old hag's mask, and a round-up of outstanding horror setpieces, two in particular saturated with an eerie mood and theatrical ingenuity.
Smarmy film director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) is preparing his new project, titled "Audra," and has promised veteran actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) the juicy title role. When she takes her method preparation to the next level, convincing doctors that she is crazy as a ploy to getting admitted into a mental hospital, Stryker cruelly leaves her there and sends out invitations to six young hopefuls for a weekend casting call at his secluded mansion. With a wintry snowfall fast approaching, the actresses convene at his woodsy abode. Well, five of them do; the sixth, the role-playing Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess), is stabbed to death before she has time to leave her own house. As the women vie for the part in their own tactical ways, they are accosted by a disguised lunatic out to cut the competition. Adding to the sordid mystery, Samantha makes a surprise reappearance, having escaped from the institution and determined to convince Stryker she is the right person—the only person—to play Audra.
Like other genre pics such as 1980's "Prom Night" and 1981's "My Bloody Valentine
" that were filmed around the same time, "Curtains" was made under a Canadian Tax Shelter which helped to minimize up-front costs in exchange for employing a crew largely made up of citizens from U.S.'s neighbor up north. The production was a bumpy one, to say the least, with at least one major casting change and a one-year hiatus during filming that led to rewrites and reshoots. Director Richard Ciupka, unsatisfied with the final edit, replaced his opening name credit with the onscreen director's own, Jonathan Stryker. While it is probably immensely disappointing for a filmmaker to see his original vision not come to fruition, Ciupka should have taken a closer look at the finished film and realized that what was there was still pretty darn good. Is it a little rough around the edges? Could a fuller, more developed director's cut have led to an even better finished product? Yes and yes. Sadly, there have been reports that the sole remaining film elements of said uncut version, running over fifteen minutes longer, were outrageously ordered destroyed in 2009. What a shame.
There is something to be said, however, for the fevered mystique that "Curtains" has acquired in the decades since its release. The picture doesn't always play by conventional slasher rules and its more surrealistic aspects render it all the more fascinatingly esoteric. A curtain swishes open and closed to signal sporadic scene transitions. A toddler-sized doll, its arms outstretched and a frown on its face, is used as an emblem of doom, in one haunting moment showing up during a rainstorm on a winding mountain road. For fans who know "Curtains" well—and for those who remember very little—there is often one particular sequence that none of the above forget. Professional ice skater Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), who is hoping this unorthodox casting weekend will help her to make the leap into acting, heads out for an early-morning skate on a nearby frozen pond. As she swoops and glides to the sounds of Burton Cummings' "You Saved My Soul" on her boombox, she is alarmed when the cassette tape is abruptly stopped by someone while her back is turned. Going over to check it out, Christie doesn't realize that the masked hag killer is in her midst, skating toward her as a razor-sharp sickle is revealed from behind his or her back. That this scene is set in the bright light of day, further illuminated by the whiteness of the snow surrounding them, injects the dire circumstance all the more with a shuddersome menace.
"Have you ever wanted something so badly you would do anything for it?" asks stand-up comic Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin) during one of her acts. It may be the setup to a punchline, but it also rings true for Patti and all of the young women hoping the role of Audra could be their big chance to be taken seriously. In "Curtains," Richard Ciupka and screenwriter Robert Guza Jr. provide novel misdirection as director of photography Robert Paynter casts a purposefully off-balance theatricality to his imagery, finding beauty in terror and vice versa. The climactic chase between the murderer and Tara DeMillo (Sandee Currie) through a backstage prop shed, the darkness of the space lit by a large "applause" sign in the background, cooks up crafty tension and a quirky visual spark. In their search for recognition—the applause, so to speak—these ladies are about to pay an irrevocably large price. The closer one peers into the weird and macabre pleasures of "Curtains," the more its technical mastery and subtextual implications reveal themselves.
"Curtains" and 149 other great films are featured in my book, "The Fright File: 150 Films to See Before Halloween
," which is available on Amazon.com
, Amazon Kindle
and Barnes & Noble