Many slashers from the genre’s Golden Age — beginning with John Carpenter’s 1978 HALLOWEEN and continuing through the next few years — gained notoriety from memorable murder set-pieces (a tradition dating back to the Italian giallo, arguably the slasher’s closest cinematic relative); some noteworthy examples include Kevin Bacon’s bunk-bed skewering in FRIDAY THE 13TH or Johnny Depp’s blood-geyser demise in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
With that said, while the 1983 Canadian production CURTAINS fell slightly on the late side of the genre’s peak (thanks to a forestalled release that I’ll explain below), it may have vanished into relative obscurity, if not for one of the most effectively creepy kills in slasher history: I’m talking about the nightmarish pursuit of familiar Canadian horror movie heroine Lesleh Donaldson (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME) by a hideous hag-masked villain — both of whom are on ice skates — across a frozen pond in broad daylight.
Apart from that elegantly bizarre sequence, it might seem to a casual viewer that CURTAINS doesn’t have a whole lot going for it… at least not as much as it could have, had the demons of Development Hell been a bit less cruel.
Initially conceived back in 1980 as a stylish supernatural thriller involving a banshee-like creature (and allegedly set to star legendary madman Klaus Kinski), the initial concept didn’t go over well with producer Peter Simpson, who was hoping to repeat the success of his previous Canadian slasher project: 1980’s PROM NIGHT, starring straight-outa-Haddonfield Jamie Lee Curtis.
That creative conflict led to rewrites, reshoots, recasting and endless production delays, dragging the process out over the span of several years. Director Richard Ciupka, best known as cinematographer on the Oscar-nominated ATLANTIC CITY, ultimately left the shoot midway through, leaving Simpson himself to step behind the camera and helm several key scenes — some of which were re-shot completely. The final directing credit, “Jonathan Stryker,” is actually the name of the fictional director played by John Vernon in the film.
The story that finally made it to the screen involves aging method actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar, THE BROOD) who, to prepare for the title role in Stryker’s new thriller AUDRA, has herself checked in to an insane asylum. But all the while Samantha’s cooped up with the crazies, Stryker’s been auditioning several younger actresses for the part. Naturally, all of them would die for the opportunity to play Audra… or kill for it. Not long after we discover that Samantha has escaped (thanks to an accomplice we never see), the competing actresses begin dying one by one in bizarre, often gory ways.
While this seems like a pretty straightforward fusion of Agatha Christie-style whodunit and sexed-up ‘80s slasher, the end result is mostly a jumbled, disjointed mess… but I’ll be damned if it isn’t an incredibly beautiful and stylish one as well. Therein lies the tragedy — it’s pretty disappointing to see so many glimpses of the classy, surreal thriller that CURTAINS might have been.
Examples include a theatrical framing device which divides the story into three acts, each signified by a stage curtain; the chilly, snow-swept isolation of Stryker’s remote country estate — which comes with its own labyrinthine prop house, itself the setting for a terrifying chase sequence; and a creepy mechanical doll with a knack for showing up before the killer strikes (even in a haunting dream sequence that may be a carryover from the original script).
It’s also refreshing to see an early ‘80s slasher with a more mature cast, instead of the usual randy teenagers. Screen veterans Eggar and Vernon chew their fair share of scenery — Vernon in particular seems to relish the role of the lecherous Stryker, who psychologically torments the actresses to elicit “genuine” performances (while managing to get quite a few of them in the sack).
Other standouts include Lynne Griffin (BLACK CHRISTMAS) as a stand-up comic hungry to break into the big time, former AVENGERS co-star Linda Thorson as an uptight diva who’s secretly terrified that her star may be falling fast, and Donaldson as the youngest and most naïve of the group — a frightened lamb among wolves.
In a perfect world, CURTAINS might have achieved an expressionistic and dreamlike tone similar to Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA; even what remains of this fragmented production hints at that potential enough to make it worth a viewing or two, and definitely a must-have for ‘80s slasher completists.
Those fans should be grateful for Synapse Films’ acquisition of a good-quality print for this film’s high-definition debut; the print’s natural grain and slightly hazy texture is actually a plus, complementing the soft-focus cinematography, and smooths over the often harsh editing and continuity flaws. There’s also a lively commentary track by Donaldson and Griffin, whose reactions to the film (neither had seen it for a very long time) are often witty and playful. Any serious slasher collector should snap it up pronto.