BR: Curtains (1983)

October 10, 2014 | By

 

Curtains1983_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Synapse Films

Region: A

Released:  July 29, 2014

Genre:  Horror / Slasher / Whodunnit / CanCon

Synopsis: A hag-masked killer knocks off actresses that have gathered at the isolated chalet of a director for an extended casting session.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with actresses Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffith / Alternate Archival Audio (55 mins.) with producer Peter R. Simpson and actress Samantha Eggar / Making-of featurette: “The Ultimate Nightmare – The Making of Curtains” (35:52) / Theatrical Trailer / 1981 documentary: “Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition” by Gordon Thorne (15:10) – Blu-ray exclusive.

 


 

Review:

What became a troubled production during the early eighties eventually evolved into a cult horror film, thanks to multiple airings on TV in the U.S. and Canada, if not a brilliant poster design and teaser trailer that were as haunting and impressionable on kids as the original The Shining (1980) publicity art.

It’s surprising that flawed as the film may be – a hefty chunk is comprised of reshoots by producer-turned-director Peter R. Simpson which delayed the film’s theatrical release – it actually works, but even more surprising is how the film still managed to impress horror fans when the only extant versions, quite frankly, looked like shit.

Curtains was directed by Richard Ciupka, a Czech-born Canadian cinematographic whiz kid who had advanced from special effects work to full cinematographer within a relatively short period of time. Applying a visual finesse that never seemed too glossy or commercial, his use of the camera in movement or static shots was very elegant, and producer Simpson felt that in light of his fine work on Melanie, Ciupka was ready to make the leap from cinematographer to director.

The reason Curtains looked terrible on TV and home video was simple: all transfers were unmated, and the source print(s) were cheap, grainy, and lacking both detail and colours, and yet fans were able to enjoy the nuances in Robert Guza’s script, and the atmosphere of a slow-burning slasher with a few brilliantly conceived kill sequences.

Synapse Films’ Blu-ray edition is in every way a revelation, proving Ciupka’s eye and Robert Paynter’s cinematography had designed a matted 1.85:1 film with beautiful colours and classy lighting, adding mood and sophistication to what was an unusually expensive slasher.

Costing $4 million, the funds clearly allowed for the construction of some excellent sets with fine décor, and there’s a sense production designer Roy Forge Smith was a little inspired by the Art Nouveau in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1978), while the hair stylists added to the hyper-real look by coiffing the women in styles reminiscent of a forties film noir. (The first dinner scene where the director toasts his virtual all-female guests features dresses and jewelry also evocative of the forties.)

A classic whodunnit, Curtains has director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) conducting an audition for the lead role of his long-in-stasis project “Audra” at his remote mini-estate, but it’s clear part of the casting process involves screwing the more impressionable (and younger) actresses, and playing psychological mind games which test the power of his influence, and the brittle will of his candidates.

The whole party is upset by the arrival of Samantha (Samantha Eggar), the original Audra who fell into disfavour when her method tactic of entering an asylum for research weakened her own grasp of reality; Stryker was both dismayed by the time and intensity of Samantha’s research, and ultimately bored with her obsession, leaving her to rot and move on to seeking a new Audra.

That vengeance subplot is what advances the slasher element – Samantha escapes from the loony bin to either reclaim Audra or discombobulate Stryker’s project – and introduces a serial killer who unsurprisingly knocks off each candidate, making it initially a thriller about fame-hungry thespians.

The submersion into an asylum for research is hardly new – Stuart Whitman played an actor who feigns madness to investigate the machinations of killer Roddy McDowall in the underrated Shock Treatment (1964), and Peter Breck played a reporter who enters an asylum as a patient to solve a murder in Shock Corridor (1963) – but it’s the perfect setup to launch a tale of murderous revenge, and keep the audience doubting whether poor Samantha is a full-on killer, or is pushed to kill when she attempts to claim Audra for herself.

As the lengthy extras in Synapse’s release clarify, Curtains was shot and edited as a measured psychological thriller with shock sequences (a version that sadly no longer exists), but producer Simpson felt the movie wasn’t working, so after more than a year the cast were recalled for reshoots, with the asylum prologue and the costume storage chase replacing Ciupka’s original material. Also redone was the entire finale – same killer, new setting – and tighter pacing to keep the film progressing towards the next kill.

There is a discontinuity between the integrated material – Ciupka’s style is more elegant, and the vestiges of the psychological torment are more atmospheric than Simpson’s straight kill montages – but even the storage kill works, as the doomed heroine wanders through a gallery of noose-strung mannequins in a sequence likely lifted from Blake Edwards’ brilliant Experiment in Terror (1962), where a body is discovered amid hanging whole and dismembered mannequins.

Other continuity oddities include the appearance and use of the mask – it’s seen in Samantha’s suitcase, yet in a later scene it’s Stryker to tosses it to her for a mean-spirited audition – and the character of Matthew (Michael Wincott) who’s presumably an actor but has no lines, and is seen screwing an actress (Terror Train’s Sandee Currie / Sandra Warren) in a hot tub before literally riding off on a snowmobile and disappearing from the film.

Some pleasant surprises include cameos – Maury Chaykin plays an effete agent, while Kate Lynch (Meatballs) has a short scene as an autograph-wanting asylum secretary – and the use of Toronto-bred talent: Linda Thorson (The Avengers) is almost unrecognizable in a terrible perm; former Global TV newscaster Deborah Burgess has a sleazy sex scene and a great nightmare sequence; Lesleh Donaldson (Happy Birthday to Me) is inarguably in the most memorable kill sequence in Canadian slashers; and prolific Lynne Griffin (Black Christmas), who fulfilled a personal desire to play a stand-up comic.

Dancer Anne Ditchburn made only a handful of films, but her death scene is also memorable and reflective of Ciupka’s more restrained style – gradually cutting to closer shots of the actress during a solo performance before a (literal) shock stab – but it’s that ice skating montage where Donaldson is macheted which remains the film’s centerpiece, balancing kitsch with genuine terror as the ‘hag-faced’ killer ambles closer to the victim before revealing the weapon of choice, and skating in fast for the kill – footage which was used in the original TV spot  (which sadly isn’t on Synapse’s disc, nor YouTube).

Synapse managed to interview almost every major figure for this release – director Ciupka, composer Paul Zaza, actresses Donaldson and Griffith – and the culminating emotion shared by the participants is that amid the reshoots and the film’s virtual disappearance from cinemas to TV, Curtains evolved into a genre classic. No one’s more surprised than Ciupka, who regarded the experience of seeing the Simpson version as so disheartening that he gave up directing for nearly a decade, returning to commercials.

Amid the pristine transfer (of which only one shot is affected by visible damage), a deliciously lively commentary track, and promotional ephemera, the only weakness is the featurette’s heavy re-use of the same score extracts, tracking music where it outlives its relevance, and often appearing where words and reactions are sufficient. It would’ve been nice if a music or music & effects track survived for inclusion, but this is a near-perfect release that shows a devotion to a cult film ignored by its Canadian owners.

Synapse’s Blu-ray release was slightly delayed when a brief documentary made for Ryerson University was discovered, showing Ciupka choreographing the filming of a short concert at the end of Melanie, and brief scenes when he started directing Curtains. The 16mm short is a real treat, especially since it shows rare behind-the-scenes footage of Melanie – another orphan CanCon film which is available nowhere.

Although Ciupka is surprised the film managed to evolve into a genre classic, he’s quite candid in recalling his reactions when he first saw the edit released to cinemas (the changes were so radical, he removed his name and used Jonathan Stryker – Vernon’s character – in its place), and the sadness which sent him back to cinematography before returning to directing two decades later with Coyote (1992), and a handful of subsequent TV and film projects.

Writer Guza’s scripts for producer Simpson include the story for Prom Night (1980), Melanie (1982) with Richard Paluck, and Curtains (1983) before he migrated to daytime and evening soaps Santa Barbara (1989-1990), Models Inc. (1994-1995), and General Hospital (1984-2011).

Star Samantha Eggar appeared in a handful of CanCon classiques, including Welcome to Blood City (1977), Why Shoot the Teacher? (1977), The Uncanny (1977), The Brood (1979), and The Hot Touch (1981).

Synapse has also included archival interviews with actress Eggar and producer Simpson which are included as an alternate audio track. A lengthy interview with producer Peter Simpson is available at The Terror Trap.com

 

 

© 2014 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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