Curtains (1983) Blu-ray Review: A Shining Example of “Less Is More”

If there’s one memory I tend to cherish more than most others, it would be the amount of video stores we once had in the small but very spread-out community I grew up in. Why, there were three small independently-run places in the tiny town I lived near alone in the ’80s, while the “heavier populated” area had its own larger mom and pop stores. As my eye for entertainment progressively turned more toward the section marked “Horror” (which, in some places, was directly below those special ones with the very large boxes boasting peculiar imagery of people in compromising, clothes-less positions), I discovered there was a venerable treasure trove of obscure goodies to be discovered.

In many cases, I would only see a certain movie at a specific store, and would then have to try to figure out how to convince my parental guardians to get a rental account at that place. Sadly, such an act of adolescent cunning rarely reached fruition. And then there were those movies that I saw at just about every store I walked in, such as a number of Vestron Video titles. Why, even when I wound up eventually being employed within the realms of my then-dream job as a clerk at a new video store a good decade later, many of those same Vestron movies – which were now not only on moratorium (or, “OOP”, as the sellers on eBay advertise today) but just old and seemingly uninteresting, to boot – seemed to follow me there like a creepy doll.

One such VHS had just that on the cover: a creepy doll. The title itself was known as Curtains, which I had never bothered to rent because, for some reason – it couldn’t have been the artwork or anything – I somehow managed to confuse it with another Vestron Video release called Dolls (which I also never rented). It wasn’t until these old out of print videocassettes once again became popular with purists and collectors that Curtains finally started to appear on my list of “Things to Look for at the Thrift Store” – though by that point, these once-common analog antiquities had become rather hard to find (or “HTF”, as the eBay dealers also like to advertise).

Well, after all this time, I’ve been able to cross Curtains off my list of “Movies I Should Have Watched All Those Years Ago.” Much to my surprise, it turned out to not be a supernatural evil doll movie after all. Rather, Curtains surprised me as being not only a slasher film, but quite the fun one to boot. My feeling of “Huh, who knew?” quickly grew once I observed that Curtains was a motion picture from our good-natured brethren in Canada, originally produced during the heyday of the early ’80s Canadian horror movie boom, wherein fan-favorites such as Happy Birthday to Me, Terror Train, and Prom Night were born. In fact, Curtains featured many of the same faces (and bodies) from several of those other, more-popular movies.

The story here opens with aging method actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) committing herself to an asylum in order to further develop her character for an upcoming project. But her director/lover Jonathan Stryker (the great John Vernon) ultimately decides to leave her there when she becomes more and more distant from being around such crazy people, causing her to escape. Meanwhile, Stryker has invited six younger actresses – ranging from professional to less-than-novice alike – to audition for the part at his isolated mountain mansion. While I’m fairly sure you can piece together what happens next, allow me to clarify: people become dead. To be more precise, a maniac in an old hag mask is lurking about the premises, dispatching anyone with so much as a pulse with whatever sharp object happens to be handy.

Linda Thorson (the other other actress from The Avengers), Anne Ditchburn, Lynne Griffin (wearing the exact same sweater she wore in Strange Brew, by the look of it), Sandee Currie, Lesleh Donaldson, and Deborah Burgess portray the actresses, Michael Wincott has a very brief bit Vernon’s houseboy, and Maury Chaykin can be seen as an agent in the beginning of the film. Reportedly, Shannon Tweed worked uncredited as a body double. Ironically, an early scene with a creepy doll on the side of the road is one of several highlights of this surprisingly light-on-the-blood feature, which ultimately boasts so many familiar classic slasher movie elements – including the all-time personal favorite, breasts – that you really have to wonder why Curtains wasn’t a bigger hit.

So then, why did Curtains not wind up being as famous? Well, it turns out that the condition commonly referred to in the industry as “creative differences” is not just something prissy Hollywood royalty suffer from. After being shot the first time in 1980 as an artistic psychological thriller by rising cinematographer Richard Ciupka, Curtains was drastically re-cut, re-edited, and re-shot by producer Peter Simpson (the man behind the entire original Prom Night quadrilogy), who turned it into a more marketable slasher flick in the process. Unfortunately for just about everybody involved, Simpson’s go at making it more marketable proved to have quite the opposite effect.

In fact, when it finally did receive a very limited distribution in 1983, by which time neither director had their name attached to the project. Instead, the name of John Vernon’s own character – Jonathan Stryker – is credited as the director of the finished work, which so barely resembles what it originally was supposed to be that most of its cast and crew either like to pretend or wish that it just didn’t happen.

Well, how’s about I just go ahead and cut to 2014 now – wherein Curtains has not only amassed a sizable cult audience by people who saw much more in what little it really had to offer (and who obviously didn’t confuse it with Dolls), but has received a Blu-ray release with an outstanding new High-Definition transfer from the folks at Synapse Films. Bringing the final Simpson cut of the film back to life, Curtains undoubtedly looks the best it ever will in this form, boasting a positively beautiful 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer that looks like it could have been filmed yesterday, and shows everything – including the boo-boo on Lesleh Donaldson’s chin from a dynamic skating faux pas achieved during the first round of filming – in glorious realistic detail.

Accompanying the striking (or should it be “Stryking” for this one?) video presentation here are two audio choices: a newly-mixed (and done darn right, I might add) DTS-HD MA lossless 5.1 mix, and a DTS-HD MA lossless 2.0 Mono selection for those of you who like to keep it simple. Nice bold white English (SDH) subtitles are also on-hand here, just in case Deborah Burgess’ onscreen rapist-boyfriend’s Canadian accent is just too thick for you to understand. Sadly, despite all of Synapse’s efforts, any of alternate footage from Curtains first cut could not be located for this release, and was reported to have been tragically destroyed in 2009.

While this is indeed unfortunate, Synapse still gives us the goods here, beginning with an audio commentary by the very lively Lynne Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson, as moderated by filmmaker/fan Edwin Samuelson. A second bonus audio option actually consists of two separate phone interviews – the first with producer Simpson (who died in 2007), the second with actress Eggar – edited together and played out over the course of the film. A vintage Canadian 16mm featurette made around 1980 is a mini-documentary about director Ciupka’s career thus far, and gives us some rare behind-the-scenes footage of Curtains being filmed. The title was a last-minute addition to the Blu-ray, and is not included on the DVD version from Synapse.

A second featurette, The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of “Curtains” clocks in at just under thirty-six minutes in length, and gives us the oft-harrowing accounts of the making-of the film by various cast and crew. The delightful Red Shirt Productions ditty features interviews with Griffin, Donaldson, Ciupka, composer Paul Zaza, (credited) editor Michael MacLaverty, and make-up artist Greg Cannom (who created a number of effects that went being unused). It’s a fun watch unto itself, and offers a lot of insight into a film with a production history even more troubled than the scythe/knife/axe-wielding mask-wearing maniac from the feature film. The Blu-ray concludes with film’s theatrical trailer, which is about as typical of the time as you can get.

Curtains itself, however, is not so typical. Between the director’s attempts at making it a more artistic, thinking-person’s thriller, and the producer’s insistence at it becoming a straight up-and-up horror flick, something else emerged in the very end. Between people simply disappearing and subsequently getting dispatched simply by walking off-screen, a noticeable lack of gore or the more explicit variety of sex we’re used to seeing in slasher fare, and the fact that a snowmobile crashing through a window suddenly and inexplicably becomes a body in the next shot, the final product is about as bumpy and uneven as the frozen pond poor Ms. Donaldson took a header on all those years ago.

And yet, it has a certain delightful charm about it all the way around (something that has only gone on to surprise the men and women who made it). It’s a nifty little thriller than surely surpasses the limits that were set and/or inflicted upon it, and has instead aged as well as a modestly-priced bottle of wine can do over time.

Frankly, it was worth the long, long wait that it took for me to finally get around to watching it. Recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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