Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #474
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: March 4, 1983
Sub-Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: Canada
Budget: CAD 3,700,000
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Richard Ciupka
Producer: Peter R. Simpson
Screenplay: Robert Guza, Jr.
Special Effects: Colin Chilvers
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Score: Paul Zaza
Editing: Michael Laverty, Henry Richardson (uncredited)
Studios: Simcom Limited, Curtains Productions
Distributors: Norstar Releasing, Vestron Video, Synapse Films (DVD)
Stars: John Vernon, Linda Thorson, Samantha Eggar, Anne Ditchburn, Lynne Griffin, Lesleh Donaldson, Sandee Currie, Deborah Burgess, Michael Wincott, Maury Chaykin, Joann McIntyre, Calvin Butler
Suggested Audio Candy
Paul Zaza “Soundtrack Suite”
Of all the many slasher movies surfacing during the early eighties, few are as ripe for discussion as Richard Ciupka’s Curtains. Almost entirely overlooked by critics and moviegoers alike upon its release, it spent thirty years in limbo and seemed destined to remain that way perpetually. However, during that protracted period, it amassed something of a cult following and, now that Synapse Films have seen fit to remaster the original print and offer it a fresh lick of paint, there seems no better time for revisitation. If it is a pleasant surprise that this curious Canadian feature has been dusted off, then it’s simply astonishing that it ever saw the light of day in the first place.
Beset by problems from the offset, Curtains entered production in late 1980 and it was two years before it reached completion. Aside from numerous rewrites and the recasting of pivotal roles, there was significant bad blood between Ciupka and his producer, Peter R. Simpson. The director eventually abandoned the project with barely 45 minutes of footage shot, citing irreconcilable differences for their parting of ways. He was adamant that it should be an art-house picture, whereas Simpson was keen to tap into the fast-rising market for slasher and aim more towards a teenage demographic. As a result, the film was shelved for a year until eventually Simpson took matters into his own hands and reshot numerous scenes himself. By the time the film finally saw the light of day, Ciupka refused to have his name attached and instead it was credited to Jonathan Stryker, which is the name of John Vernon’s lead character.
Staggeringly, there is very little evidence of its troubled shoot in the finished product and the fact that Curtains isn’t a mess of gargantuan proportions is something of an achievement itself. Well written, beautifully shot, and featuring sound performances from its ensemble, it is far better than it has any right to be considering the turmoil. Having said that, no amount of visual mastery or committed delivery can disguise the fact that it seems unsure of its identity. On one hand, it is a murder mystery the likes of which Agatha Christie used to knock out in her sleep whereas, on the other, it desperately wants to be a standard slasher. This is particularly evident during Act II, where Simpson’s influence is far more evident.
As the curtain raises, we are introduced to method actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar from The Brood) who takes her preparation for the leading role in a film about a mentally stable woman a little too seriously and has herself committed to a nuthouse in order to assist her in getting into character. Her director (Vernon) supports her decision and the two concoct a ruse to convince staff at the institution that she truly is as mad as a sack of squirrels. So far, so good then. That is until Stryker decides to let her languish in her straitjacket and begins looking at alternatives for the titular role of Audra. Upon learning that she is being replaced, Sherwood makes her escape and heads off to the remote country mansion where casting auditions are set to take place with trouble firmly on her mind.
The six hopeful thespians looking to bag the part of Audra are an eclectic bunch for sure. They consist of fledgling actress Amanda (Deborah Burgess), established starlet Brooke (Linda Thorson), petite dancer Laurian (Anne Ditchburn), lusty musician Tara (Sandee Currie), stand-up comedienne Patti (Lynne Griffin), and professional figure-skater Christie (Lesleh Donaldson). One of the girls receives her final curtain before she can so much as turn up for to her casting call, while the other five assemble at Stryker’s palatial manor in preparation for their big auditions. After meeting up for dinner and comparing notes on just how far they will go in order to land the role of a lifetime, the true tryouts begin in earnest.
For Keeper, the opening act plays out a little too closely to daytime soap opera which should come as no real surprise considering screenwriter Robert Guza, Jr. went on to pen countless episodes for both General Hospital and Santa Barbara. I’m all for a little characterization and the fact that Curtains takes the time to establish each of the ladies’ nuances should be commended but it hardly makes for riveting viewing. Once the numbers start to dwindle, things perk up considerably and the plot begins to thicken. Time for some red herrings and, in tongue-tied caretaker Matthew, we have ourselves a real fish out of water. I hold Michael Wincott in very high esteem and find it unfathomable that almost all of his scenes (including every last line of dialogue) ended up on the cutting room floor. At least we got to hear that wonderful gravelly voice in Alien Resurrection before he received his early bath. Here his most vocal contribution is a fart he lets off in the Jacuzzi.
Thankfully, Curtains features one of the most iconic kills from the entire eighties slasher canon to reinstate our flagging faith. Best described as skate and slash, it provides us with the lasting image of our hag-masked psychopath charging across a frozen pond towards the screen in slow motion, revealing a sickle at the last moment as her terrified victim attempts to make sense of the intrusion. It is scarce that we are supplied with a kill during broad daylight in a slasher flick but this one works an absolute treat, even more so, because the bright sleet-laden woodland appears to hold no direct threat at commencement.
While none of the other dispatches could ever hope to compete with this beautifully choreographed scene, each kill is preceded by the discovery of an ominous porcelain doll which supplies an extra level of consternation. Meanwhile, there’s a wonderfully protracted cat-and-mouse pursuit in a theater basement packed with dusty props, creepy mannequins, and billowing drapes which suitably sets the nerves jangling. The final reveal won’t take a degree in neuroscience to suss out as all options are already pretty much exhausted by this point but the abrupt ending is a novel inclusion.
Curtains is a tough movie to be too hard on as its recent restoration shows just how much care and attention went into making it stand out from the crowd. It is far from perfect and struggles with its own identity but the end result is far less fragmented than one would expect given its troubled conception. Ultimately however, it fails to elevate itself above countless other middle-tier slashers of its era and perhaps a little more of what Simpson was proposing would have helped on this count. Having said that, the fact that it has resurfaced after all these years when it appeared as though its own curtain had fallen is reason to rejoice, if only for a few more precious moments out on the ice rink.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Hardly what you would consider as sadistic, there is very little in the way of splatter and most of the kills are virtually bloodless. One disembodied head in the toilet bowl gag à la The House on Sorority Row is about as close as we get to grue and the skin quota isn’t catered for particularly well either. Celine Lomez who was originally set to play Brooke, was fired for refusing to agree to full frontal nudity with her part eventually going to Thorson. I would imagine Lomez felt particularly aggrieved considering Thorson eventually ended up keeping her clothes on anyway. All we get is one measly flash of Currie’s upper trunk in the hot tub which is as fleeting as Wincott’s role. I’d love to be the guy responsible for sweeping the cutting room floor.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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