Friday, August 8, 2014

CURTAINS (1983) Blu-ray Review

Curtains (1983) d. Richard Ciupka / Peter Simpson (Canada)

This moderately entertaining Canadian slasher flick centers on tyrannical director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) as he auditions six female candidates for the lead role in his upcoming film project, Audra. However, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar), the aging starlet originally promised the part, has checked herself out of the mental institution where she was incarcerated to do “research,” arriving at Stryker’s secluded mountain cabin getaway to size up – and perhaps scythe up – the competition.

Containing several memorable set-pieces, stylish murders, one creepy frowning doll, a hag-mask-wearing-sickle-wielding killer, and an off-puttingly abrupt ending, Curtains is a curious and disjointed affair, but one that remains unexpectedly watchable, especially when its troubled genesis is taken into account. A case where the behind-the-scenes drama is as compelling as the onscreen twists and turns, Belgian-born director Ciupka’s original cut was surreptitiously retooled by Peter Simpson when the Prom Night producer declared that he only had, as he put it, “half a picture.”


A year after principal photography completed, Simpson called several key members of the cast back for his self-directed reshoots, dramatically altering the story’s set-up and conclusion. Ciupka was understandably shocked by the final version and refused to sign off on it with the director’s guild – as a result, the film went out with the directing credit going to “Jonathan Stryker,” the name of Vernon’s character, and the ending credits listed as “Act 1” and “Act 2” to reflect the different shoots!

Though high-concept and character-based, the script by Robert Guza, Jr. (who would go on to serve as General Hospital’s head writer for 27 years) has its own peculiarities, not the least of which being the female candidate’s diverse qualifications. Eggar’s competition, such as it is, breaks down along the lines of 1) “mature” actress Brooke (Linda Thorson), 2) petite and shy singer/dancer Laurian (Anne Ditchburn), 3) stand-up comedian Patti (Lynne Griffin), 4) lusty sexpot Tara (Sandra Warren), 5) ice skater Christie (Lesleh Donaldson), and 6) up-and-comer Amanda (Deborah Burgess). One can only wonder what the hell kind of script Stryker has on his hands where figure skating, comic timing, and modern dance are interchangeable skill sets, amirite?

Another puzzler is the non-presence of Michael Wincott’s (The Crow) “Matthew” character who quite literally does nothing but slouch at the dining table, fool around in the hot tub with Warren, and then drive off aimlessly on his snowmobile only to abruptly turn up in the self-same jacuzzi toward the end of the flick. Presumably his character was slightly more fleshed out in Ciupka’s version, but as it stands, he’s little more than an anemic red herring at best and an utter cipher at worst.

To add insult to injury, when finally released in 1983 (over two years since shhoting had begun), its distribution was bungled both theatrically and later on home video. When one could lay hands on it, the distractingly dark and muddy VHS pan-and-scan transfer was, for ages, the only way it could be seen. It was this same version which ultimately found its way onto Echo Bridge’s 2010 cheapie four-pack DVD (and eventually YouTube), much to the disappointment of fans.

But again, in spite of everything, the film earned its followers. With terrific production values and solid ensemble performances, Curtains is easily on par with its early ’80s slashers brethren. The image of the hag-masked killer skating toward Donaldson across the frozen pond has worked its way into many a genre fan’s nightmares, and the prolonged sequence of Warren being stalked in an inexplicably prop-laden basement room sustains its suspense throughout. Ciupka’s methodical gliding camerawork and inspired angles show off the chops that made him a star cinematographer for the likes of Louis Malle, Nicolas Gessner, and Claude Chabrol, while Simpson’s savvy adds some much-needed punch to the proceedings. As unhappy a marriage as it might have been, and despite the resulting Frankenstein scars, it’s far from the disaster it should have been.

However, there has always been the matter of the shoddy presentation, and for years, aficionados have longed to see a cleaned-up widescreen presentation, replete with extra features and commentary. Those prayers have finally been answered in the form of Synapse’s gorgeous 2K high-definition transfer from the original vault materials, and it’s quite literally like seeing the film for the first time.

The transfer and colors look amazing, the snow sparkles off the rooftop, our creepy doll’s downturned lip glistens in Burgess’ headlights, and each crease on that horrid hag mask seems freshly limned. We can even see Donaldson’s makeup-covered cut on her chin following her ill-fated maiden voyage on the blades. (Despite several training sessions, rough ice and a nasty tumble led to her scenes being covered by a skating double.) Not enough praise can be given to Jerry Chandler, Don May, and the entire Synapse team for a breathtaking restoration, revealing this Hidden Horror to the world once again.

Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures (in association with Aine Leicht) presents the 35-minute making-of doc, “The Ultimate Nightmare,” assembling the talking heads of Ciupka, Donaldson, Griffin, editor Michael MacLaverty, effects man Greg Cannom, and composer Paul Zaza to reflect on the troubled production. None of them seem to regard it with any fondness; indeed, the prevailing sentiment seems to be bewilderment that it should have generated any kind of following whatsoever. MacLaverty, in particular, champions Simpson’s decision to rework Ciupka’s cut, while the director predictably expresses frustration over the process. For his part, Cannom comes off as unusually grumpy, although Eggar’s refusal to wear the Oscar-winner’s prosthetic “banshee” design and certain unnamed actresses’ requests to “only have blood right here” might have something to do with his negative attitude.

Donaldson and Griffin team up with The CineFiles’ Edwin Samuelson for a commentary track, enjoying a few laughs at memories of Eggar’s rejecting her wardrobe options, but their memories about the shoot are sketchy and their reception is one of justifiable puzzlement and confusion. “Why am I doing that? How long does this scene go on?” Samuelson does his best, but all too often there’s no answer to the questions posed. There is one memorable moment, however, where Griffin’s mother Kay shows up as the “puzzle piece thief” in the asylum with Eggar, a cameo which the delighted actress had clearly forgotten about. “That’s my mom!”

By contrast, the second audio track features an isolated 40-minute interview with Simpson (described by Zaza as “250 pounds of gristle and decibels”) who pulls no punches, suffers no fools, and apologizes for nothing. He reveals that Ciupka originally wanted Klaus Kinski to play Stryker, that future Playmate Shannon Tweed’s body-doubling left breast shows up at one point (although it’s obvious that Warren did most of her own nudity), and that contrary to popular belief, the decision to replace Celine Lomez with Thorson was not because of the former’s refusal to do full frontal, but because “she couldn’t fucking act!” with her pronounced French accent. (Interestingly, both he and Ciupka claim to have shot the famous ice-skating scene, so at least some mysteries remain alive.)

A short chat with Eggar follows, though it is much less illuminating, with the actress remembering little and clearly not holding her genre appearances in high regard. (All the same, she does speak well of David Cronenberg and her experience on The Brood.) These interviews come courtesy of The Terror Trap's Jason Knowles and Cinema Retro’s Todd Garbarini – though I’m not sure who does which – and are completed by the 55-minute mark.

There is also Gordon Thorne’s interesting vintage short, Richard Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition, which documents the rookie helmsman’s move from established cinematographer to director for Curtains. (It would be another nine years before he directed another feature.) Watching, we get the distinct impression that he is more comfortable setting lights than doling out direction, his terse, no-nonsense style and fierce personal vision almost overwhelming at times. (Watch veteran Vernon bridle at Ciupka’s line-readings.)

One final bit of trivia: there is a “William Marshall” listed as playing the asylum attendant. However, despite the erroneous IMDb credit, this is not the same distinguished gentleman who starred in 1972's Blacula (since, well, both the onscreen attendants are WHITE). Instead, it is William Marshall, sometime actor and co-founder of the Toronto Film Festival. Just thought we’d clear that up.

Curtains is available now on Blu-ray from Synapse Films and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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