Director: Richard Ciupka (as Jonathan Stryker) Peter R. Simpson (Additional Direction)
Writer: Robert Guza Jr.
Cast: John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson, and Lynne Griffin
Length: 90 mins
Label: Synapse Films
Release Date: July 29, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English:DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
- The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains
- Ciupka: A Film-Maker in Transition
- Audio Commentary with Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin
- Audio Interview with Producer Peter R. Simpson
- Audio Interveiw with Actor Samantha Eggar
- Theatrical Trailer
In light of the vast number of problems involved in the making of the 1983 Canadian slasher Curtains, it is not the film itself which is bewildering but the fact that there is a coherent narrative at all. Starting under the guidance of veteran cinematographer and first-time director Richard Ciupka, the film was originally envisioned as an artsy psychological thriller. However, producer Peter R. Simpson had a different vision for the film. Re-cutting, and even directing new segments, Simpson transformed Ciupka’s arthouse rendition into—what he believed would be—a marketable slasher film. While the final product bears the mark of two distinct voices—and entire subplots are abandoned or left unexplained—there is coherence in the narrative. In a way, the ambiguous elements even add an ethereal quality to the film. With production beginning in 1980, and ending sometime in 1983, the film was released theatrically between 1983 and 1984 to lackluster reviews. As they do, the film picked up a cult audience but has proven itself difficult to see over the years. With a few various VHS and DVD releases—of inferior quality—Synapse Films’ announcement of their plans to re-release the film, in a manner that hadn’t been seen since the film’s initial theatrical run, came as welcomed shock to the horror community. Now the film, for the first time since 1984, can be experienced as originally—or, at least according to Simpson—intended.
Desiring to enact the role of her career, actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) concocts a plan to have herself committed to an asylum in order to obtain the essence of mentality instability. The role in question is the lead in the new Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) film, Audra. However, despite assuring her that she would have the part, once Sherwood has successfully convinced the staff that she is unstable and in need of care, Stryker begins the process of casting the film without her. Inviting a group of actresses to his secluded manor, Stryker begins his strange psychological audition process. Catching wind of Stryker’s plans, Sherwood escapes from the asylum, however due to the environment of the asylum, her sanity is now in question. Joining the group of ambitious actors and the arrogant Stryker, Sherwood is determined to prove that the titular role in Audra is hers. From here, the film descends into the typical slasher fare, with each actress being picked off one by one and the remaining players’ motives suspect.The strongest sense of what Curtains may have been is exhibited in the film’s opening half hour. While we will never know, Ciupka’s directorial debut could have made for a strong reflexive stab at the highbrow world of film. While abandoned almost as quickly as it is introduced, the film uses the opening and closing of curtains as a transition between scenes, reminding the viewer that they are indeed watching performances. This reflexive technique is successfully deployed, and while it would become tiring if overused, its complete abandonment is somewhat disappointing. Other than a comment on the role of acting and directing, Ciupka seems to be setting up the beginning of an examination on mental insanity. The brief scenes inside the asylum, alongside Sherwood’s possible decline into instability, seem to point to elements of the plot that would have existed had Simpson not stepped in. While the end of the film will still see the plot exploring the idea of insanity, the comment is underdeveloped in light of what perhaps should have been. But, it is unfair to judge the film on speculations of what could have been and focusing on what is available reveals more than enough quality to go around. One aspect of the film that sets it apart from the average early ’80s slashers is the dedication by the actors. While the film can’t completely remove itself from elements of camp, the acting is reserved in a way that is uncommon for slashers. Already a figure of importance in the horror world for her poignant performance in David Cronenberg’s The Brood, Samantha Eggar is a surefire treat in the film. The strength of her performance is in her subtle hints of potential duplicity. The film’s whodunit premise relies on the principle characters being probable suspects, and the film more than leads the viewer to believe that Eggar is the most logical. Her careful, nuanced performance rides the line between determination and psychosis in a seamless manner. Similar in scope but not as effective, John Vernon, as the egocentric Stryker, does great work to keep the film from pandering; probing the difference between genius and insanity that Simpson appears to have downplayed with his alterations. Also stepping up, Lynne Griffin, as comedian Patti O’Connor desperate to be taken seriously, gives a strong performance, both funny and convincing. As can be understood in this brief assessment of a few key roles, there is a strong sense of character motivation—which, granted, at times may seem a bit uneven as the film has conflicting drives—that doesn’t have to be explicit but is captured in the nuanced embodiments of the characters.
As far as slasher fare is concerned, Curtains does not disappoint. Like many of the iconic slashers, Curtains is marked by an effective killer design. The decrepit, wrinkled, yet slightly realistic, mask seems to have an uncanny valley effect that results in horror. In one of the film’s best scenes, the killer is shot slowly—in an almost graceful manner—skating towards Christie (Lesleh Donaldson), as she is practicing her ice-skating routine. The scene balances the almost dreamlike quality with the impending doom, the juxtaposition of conflicting atmospheres results in a visceral experience that is almost unrivaled in the subgenre.The film is not without its faults, but even the faults have an appeal. The clear issues reside in an inconsistent storyline with elements that fall in and out of place. While I would argue that by the end of the film the viewer is less concerned with these plot holes, they do warrant mention. One of the most intriguing plotlines that is left abandoned is the killer’s strange doll. The doll is simply not explained by the film, and while it graces the cover art, it plays less of a role than you would imagine. The best thing that can be done is to accept it as a red herring of sorts, and enjoy the eerie aura it helps to create. The film’s alterations are also more noticeable towards the film’s conclusion. By the end, a sense of dual authorship is more perceivable. All in all, the film is not flawless by any stretch, but in light of its history it is amazing what was actually achieved. Perhaps one of the most successful examples of an over zealous producer ramping up the horror elements in order to create a larger market, Curtains defies the odds, becoming an enjoyable watch.
Synapse is renowned for their careful attention to detail. They pride themselves on obtaining, not only great films, but impressive transfers. Curtains is no exception. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer, from a 2K scan of the original filmic elements, is gorgeous. There are very little problematic elements to comment on, with the exception of minimal areas where a few specs of dust or scratches can be seen. Other than these minor issues, the print is crisp and sharp, retaining a beautiful sense of film grain free of any signs of digital sharpening. While there are moments where the film’s color palatte is subdued, a rich tapestry of blues and red, when available in the set, pop off the disc. Contrast is outstanding, resulting in strong black levels and never allowing the highlights to become blown out. Synapse’s restoration of Curtains proves that even the most overlooked of titles can be saved and presented in a beautiful fashion. We have only the highest of praises for Synapse for their work done here.
We are hard pressed to find anything to complain about in terms of audio restoration. The mix is dynamic and bold, dialogue crisp and clear, and the score strikes the proper balance needed to drive the emotions forward. The 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes are handled in as effective a manner as the video. There are no signs of age related damage to report.
By and large, the most rewarding element in the included special features is the 35-minute The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains featurette. It is in this short documentary that the cast and crew document the issues on set and discuss the improbability of the film’s existence. A humorous reflection of a doomed project, the piece is the perfect accompaniment to the film; helping the viewer to understand the film, as it exists. In addition to The Ultimate Nightmare, a commentary track with actors Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin moderatedby Edwin Samuelson, two audio-only tracks that features separate interviews with both Simpson and Eggar, and a featurette on Ciupka, help to add more honest depictions of the cast, crew, and state of the production of the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer. Despite the film’s numerous delays, the final product’s extra features were certainly worth the wait.
Whether you’ve managed to see a version of the film before or not, Synapse’s release of Curtains is worth the investment. While inconsistent at times, the film is nevertheless entertaining. With excellent performances by the principle cast and strong direction, Curtains rises above its production glitches. Synapse’s exhaustive attention to detail and quality make this Blu-Ray one of the best horror releases of the year—helping to solidify Synapse’s place among the best independent horror distributors in the country. If this is a snapshot of what is in store next, you can bet that we can’t wait.