CanCon 101: The Simcom Trilogy – Prom Night, Melanie, and Curtains

October 10, 2014 | By

Curtains1983_BRWhen I was a kid, there were perhaps 3 movie trailers (all TV versions) which genuinely terrified me: The Shining (1980), with that slow, electrified wailing as a child is chased by an ax-wielding ‘Johnny’ down a snowy maze; It’s Alive (1974), with that bloody hand sticking out of the Davis baby’s cradle; and that slo-mo TV spot for Curtains (1983) in which a skater hears heavy thunks in the distance, turns to see a figure, and realizes it’s a hag-masked-scythe-wielding killer coming hard and fast to lop off her head.

PromNight1980_BRThese were memorable ad campaigns for very flawed films that evolved into genre cult favourites (and deservedly so), but Curtains, unlike its sister film Prom Night (1980), was troubled during post-production, and when it did emerge on home video to the burgeoning masses of renters, it looked like crap.

When I caught the film on TV,  I laughed at its apparent technical stupidity: banal grainy visuals, and shots where a mic boom pops in and out of view during lengthy dialogue scenes.

This ‘look’ was somewhat synonymous with Canadian films seen on TV, largely because they may have been 16mm reduction prints for TV airings, or just awful full screen transfers made from widescreen prints.

Another reason ‘the Canadian look’ seeped into the consciousness of kids is something that did exist: CBC light.

Back in film school, we were told to have all stock developed at something called CBC light – a setting the CBC assigned to all exposed footage slated for developing. From what I recall, it was a neutral benchmark setting that supposedly allowed the network to later time (grade) final answer prints prior to the video transfer needed for network airing.

The problem? As my classmates all realized pretty quickly, CBC light made all our hard work look like shit, and worse, our footage looked like the final transfers CBC aired during prime time – grainy, washed out, and sort of brown-green (like their banal series  Seeing Things).

It’s a look that instilled a truly negative reaction towards Canadian films due to bad print timing, poor transfers, if not a general carelessness on the part of networks whose only concern was to meet the minimum CanCon requirements and air film, TV shows, shorts, and documentaries with Canadian content to keep the CRTC (our regulatory body) off their backs.

The end result: to several generations of kids,  not only did our films look like shit, but it seemed there was no way to make 16mm nor 35mm film stock look good. Somehow, the rest of the world knew the secret to good cinematography.

That Curtains was able to transcend ugly TV and home video transfers and impress horror fans is remarkable, because unlike some beat-up, lost gem made in the U.S., this look permeated many films on TV during the eighties.

As Synapse’s 2K restoration proves, Curtains had money in its budget: lush cinematography, detailed set design, elegant costumes, and decent effects; proof we could, in fact, make nice widescreen films free from the docu-drama aesthetic of the CBC and the NFB.

Ciupka had originally directed a slightly arty psychological thriller, but its pacing and lack of graphic oomph apparently irked producer Peter R. Simpson, Simcom’s co-owner. Two years after principal photography had ended, the film emerged after heavy re-shoots and re-cutting; director Richard Ciupka claimed 40% of his work was all that existed in the final cut, and he used the moniker of the film’s egotistical director, Jonathan Stryker, in place of his own, yet even with all of Simpson’s retooling, Curtains kind of works, even though I’d argue from the surviving original material and traces of the original script, it could have been a more interesting film.

A copy of Ciupka’s original edit reportedly survived up until the early 2000’s, but its loss (perhaps tossed, along with other stored film cans, after Simpson’s death in 2007) can never be gauged as it’s all moot, and with one production still surviving from the original ending, there’s little to reconstruct beyond anecdotes about lost trims, lost scenes, and chunks of the reshoots that were never used.

It’s also Curtains, not The Magnificent Ambersons (1940), but there is a sense Ciupka’s vision had psychological oomph. Certainly due to Synapse’s efforts in restoring Curtains and Prom Night on Blu, there’s a proof to naysayers that those full screen tax shelter films which populated TV during the seventies and eighties were derived from movies made with more than middling competence.

Melanie1982_poster_sAlongside reviews of Synapse’s gorgeous 2K transfers, I’ve added Melanie, a classic orphan CanCon film that’s available nowhere because no one cares.

Well, it’s on YouTube, but its maudlin premise of an illiterate mother who travels across state lines to reclaim her snatched child from a drunkard husband probably makes it rate low on the ‘rediscovery’ meter, if not due to music rights issues, because the heroine soon develops what could be seen / is an improbable relationship with a fading rock star, played by Burton Cummings (who’s actually quite good).

Writer Robert Guza, Jr. was involved in these three Simpson productions, plus composer Paul Zaza, and even from the massively compressed images on YouTube, it’s clear the cinematography by Ciupka is lovely. Melanie is the film that probably got him the Curtains job as director, and maybe by reviewing this small film (which also co-stars Don Johnson and Trudy Young), it might materialize in a less shitty state. Worse case scenario: you now know it exists, and maybe you’ll give it a peek if it shows up on TV.

Coming next: Fritz Lang’s mean yet pulpy WWII thriller Man Hunt (1941), from Twilight Time on Blu.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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