Beset by production difficulties, the 1983 Canadian slasher flick Curtains, emerges from the early 80’s effluent as a quite thoughtful, intelligent, and at times lyrical contribution to the horror genre. The slasher film is the horror sub-genre that I have the lowest regard for, so when one comes across my screen that is a little bit different I tend towards generosity. In the case of Curtains I’m willing to overlook the myriad plot deficiencies; the only partially developed characters, and the patchy performances, because the film has a fairly original premise, and an offbeat tone that is most welcome. The producer of Curtains was Peter R. Simpson, who a few years before had scored a major commercial success with Prom Night (1980), and clearly sought to replicate that feat. Simpson evidently knew what ingredients were required to make a successful horror picture in a market place that was obese with derivative product. The first time director was Robert Ciupka, a cinematographer, who brought with him a wealth of visual artistry. Therein lies the tragedy of Curtains, the reason why there is a push and pull between the market and art, why the film only partially succeeds, why the film suffers from an uneven style and a number of structural weaknesses. It is also the reason the film, which commenced shooting in late 1980, didn’t see the light of day until 1983. A clash of philosophies between producer and director would ultimately be the films undoing and lead to marginalisation, commercial failure, and for fans of horror, badly distributed and poor quality releases.
In our more enlightened age however such grievances are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Curtains is not the mostly likely candidate for high definition treatment, but that hasn’t stopped progressive US distributor Synapse from distributing the film on blu-ray. The film can now be enjoyed in a pristine transfer, and the artistic ambitions for the film begin to shine through. Much of the films slightly off kilter approach to the genre can be attributed to a screenplay by Robert Guza Jr. which offers no characters to identify with (these are not pot smoking, sex obsessed teens, but psychologically fragile adults), there isn’t even an asshole lurking on the sidelines to play practical jokes, and create false scares. Though an early false rape sequence is a mistake the film could have down without. The lack of sympathetic identification figures means the audience literally has no idea who is likely to survive, and although red herrings are set up, the identity of the killer is difficult to predict as well. This is a good first time effort from Guza Jr. a man who would spend much of his career writing for television (Santa Barbara, General Hospital). English actress Samantha Eggar (who had impressed in another Canadian production; David Cronenberg’s The Brood ) plays Samantha Sherwood, a veteran actress who has been promised the lead role in the troubled film production Audra by egotistical director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). Such is Sherwood’s devotion to her craft she and Stryker hatch a plan to have her committed to an asylum, so she can better prepare for the role of the insane Audra. This is method acting in extremis, and while Sherwood stares into the vacant eyes of mouthing imbeciles, Stryker intends to leave her to rot there so he can cast younger hopefuls.
This act of deceit gives the film its motivating force in the first half as Sherwood emerges as the likeliest candidate for murder once she escapes from the spastic surrounds of bedlam. One of the keys to a successful horror film is being able to assemble a bunch of characters in an isolated setting, and Curtains success rests in the premise of six actresses travelling to the snowy countryside of Ontario for a period of intensive auditions. We immediately have jealous rivalry as a unifying force as Stryker struts around in a leather jacket enjoying the power trip. Somewhat surprisingly John Vernon doesn’t really invest Stryker with the necessary force required; he is obnoxious and ruthless, but Vernon tends to downplay the character, and the film which generally has a muted or downplayed feel, may have benefited from a little more emotional force from the egotistical director. But Stryker is not above psychological torment, and delights especially in putting Sherwood through the mill. The interplay between the characters succeeds, and at times the film is more enjoyable when Stryker presides over the insecurities of the emotionally damaged sextet. Indeed on occasion one forgets that there is a masked killer (the old hag mask is particularly distinctive) stalking the troupe.
Perhaps the most important question then is whether Curtains works as a horror film; the answer is partially. There is a recurrent motif of dolls to preface murder, this not only works due to the uncanny nature of dolls themselves, but also adds to the theme of the childish, immature, and dependent nature of the actresses. The set pieces themselves lack the stylisation, and exaggerated absurdity of contemporaneous examples, meaning that Curtains emerges as a curiously bloodless slasher film. A few moments do work however; a head in a toilet is a notable jolt, the sudden throat slashing of a victim against a tree is unexpected, and then there is the ice skating sequence. The distinctive sight of the mask wearing, sickle wielding killer, skating in slow motion towards their intended victim is alarming, stylish, and ridiculous in equal measure. But it does give veteran DOP Robert Paynter, whose previous outing behind the camera was An American Werewolf in London (1981), the opportunity to show the wonderfully icy Ontario countryside in all its wintry glory. As a psychological drama Curtains works well; divested of its horror elements, the film could have been a really intriguing art movie; as a slasher movie Curtains is tame, quaint, and at times clueless – the result is a fascinating hotchpotch that is well worth a look.
© Shaun Anderson 2014