18 September 2014

(1983)

An unnoticed little film at the time of its original release, the Canadian slasher Curtains was co-directed by Richard Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson, and remains one of the tastiest genre treats for those who prefer their horror low-key...but with a nasty kick.

A cinematographer, Ciupka's most notable previous effort was photographing Atlantic City, the well-received 1980 film that garnered Academy Award nods for stars Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. Producer Simpson had given the world 1980's Prom Night.

Disagreements between Ciupka and Simpson about the vision of Curtains resulted in a half finished product. After Ciupka left in midshoot, Simpson shot additional scenes and backstories for the characters.

At any rate, the production was indeed troubled enough that Curtains wouldn't see a theatrical release for another two years...and the director was ultimately credited under a pseudonym: Jonathan Stryker.

Stryker is the name of the director within the movie and was portrayed by John Vernon, perhaps best known for playing Dean Vernon Wormer in the smash box-office hit National Lampoon's Animal House.

Among the cast are Samantha Eggar, whose role in David Cronenberg's The Brood had been unforgettable - and Linda Thorson, Diana Rigg's replacement in TV's The Avengers. Fans of Black Christmas will recognize Lynne Griffin in a decidedly different role.

With a group of attractive women, inventive killings, and a subtle and memorable score by Paul Zaza, you have to wonder why this one isn't better regarded.

Samantha Sherwood (Eggar) is a well-known and respected actress. She very much wants the lead in a film called Audra, the latest project from director Jonathan Stryker (Vernon). Samantha has worked with him in the past and believes it's just the role that can jumpstart her career.

Her audition doesn't go well. Stryker is not convinced she can pull the part off - so a scheme is hatched to better prepare Samantha for the demanding role. Since Audra is a former mental patient, they plan to check her into a psychiatric hospital and pay a visit to Dr. Pendleton (Calvin Butler) to make the arrangements.

The unsuspecting doctor tells Samantha her condition does not look as bad as was reported to him. Although Stryker informs him that Audra has been shelved temporarily, Dr. Pendleton says he sees no reason why she can't be back in front of the camera for the project.

In an attempt to please the gods of realism, Samantha leaps up and tries to stab Stryker with a letter opener. She is immediately restrained and put into a straitjacket. "I see what you mean," Dr. Pendleton says to Stryker.

The director asks to speak to the patient alone and the two enjoy a good laugh. "Audra herself couldn't have done it better!" he tells her. Although Stryker is apprehensive about having her committed, Samantha says it's all for the good of "research."

She is placed in the institution but soon starts to feel uneasy about her decision. Stryker visits and tells her the doctor says she's doing well. "Crazier than ever...that's what you wanted, isn't it?" she asks

Soon, Samantha has trouble sleeping. She's constantly awakaned by the screaming of other patients. One day, she's delighted to see herself on the televison in the recreation room. The other inmates recognize her...and their reactions make her uncomfortable.

Stryker begins to notice a change in Samantha. She is becoming all too convincing and he tells her to save her energy for the film.

Finally, he realizes she may have gone off the deep end and he decides to leave her in the asylum indefinitely. Samantha reads in an issue of Variety that her "friend" is moving ahead with the Audra project.

One of the contenders for the lead is Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin), a stand-up comedienne. During a nightclub routine, she tells the audience about the upcoming tryout at Stryker's home. "Six actresses going to the same house to auditon for the same part. Sounds like a lot of fun...if you like bloodbaths," she jokes.

Another actress desperate for the part is Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson). She's furious and humiliated that she must audition, telling her agent Monty (Maury Chaykin), "Who does he think he is? Who does he think I am?"

Monty concedes that Stryker has "strange ways" but it's worth it. He pretends to know that she is actually his first choice. "It's you, cuckoo head!" he screams over the phone.

The agent tells Brooke she would be perfect for the role, especially now that Samantha Sherwood has pulled out because of "health problems." The acting offers haven't exactly been pouring in and she agrees to go through with it.

With the help of a friend, Samantha escapes from the sanitarium. Somehow, she has managed to acquire 8 x 10s of each of the actresses vying for the coveted part of Audra.

One by one, she throws them into her fireplace. When her (unseen) friend reminds Samantha that she helped get her out because she pitied her...Sam replies, "Stryker is the one you should feel sorry for. This time he's gone too far."

A third woman up for the part is Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess), who contemplates the upcoming audition by enjoying a glass of wine as she takes a relaxing bath. She lives with her boyfriend Peter (Booth Savage), who likes to play kinky games with her...such as pretending to be a rapist intruder.

Amanda has a nightmare the night before she is set to leave for Stryker's place. She dreams that she is driving to the secluded house on a rainy day. The road is deserted and she stops when she sees something up ahead.

She gets out of her car and walks over to see that it's the doll she keeps in her bedroom. When she picks it up, the doll grabs her and sticks its nails into her arm. As she struggles to break free, someone sneaks into her vehicle and runs her over.

Amanda wakes up and calls for Peter. He's not around so she gets out of bed to look for him. Suddenly, a stranger wearing an old-hag mask stabs her repeatedly. After killing her, the person grabs Amanda's doll and leaves.

The other women make their way to the director's house. Laurian Summers (Ann Ditchburn) is a dancer who remembers reading the Audra book when she was a little girl. Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson) is a demure and insecure figure skater who dabbles in acting.

Patti stops at a gas station to get her tank filled before she makes her way up the hill to Stryker's. When she arrives, she joins Christie, Laurian, Brooke and another woman, a musician named Tara DeMillo (Sandra Warren). The group waits for the director in his dining room.

Tara looks over at Brooke and recognizes the famous actress. She asks her what she's doing there and Brooke says she'd "kill for the part." Tara's retort is that she would "fuck for it." Stryker appears and greets everyone.

He informs Brooke that he has long admired her work and tells Tara he's looking forward to hearing her perform. He takes note of Amanda's absence and introduces the women to his assistant Mathew (Michael Wincott).

As he's talking, Samantha shows up unannounced. She makes a comment about all the actresses looking alike and asks Stryker, "Is this your idea of a casting session?"

Later, Sam watches from her bedroom window as Tara enjoys a naked romp outside with Mathew in the jacuzzi.

Stryker stops by her room and asks her why she's there. Samantha tells him he had no right to bring the other women to his house. After all, she reasons, she bought the rights to the project for him. The director says he is grateful - but the part is no longer hers.

To pass some time, Patti smokes a joint and puts on a puppet show for Brooke. Christie comes around looking for her skates and tells them she usually gets up at dawn to practice. The girl is young and naive...and the two older women gently poke fun at her.

After she has left, Brooke wonders what she's doing there because "she's just a baby." Patti admits she is nervous about the audition and Brooke tells her she herself is "scared to death." "It never gets easier," she adds.

Christie walks by Samantha's room and overhears a heated argument between her and Stryker. The director threatens to send his former favorite thespian back to the asylum.

At that moment, he opens the door and Christie is busted. "I was just passing by and I heard voices," she says sheepishly. Stryker tells her they were just performing a scene from a play he wrote many years ago ("a very BAD play," adds Samantha). Christie believes it and is escorted to her room by Stryker, as Brooke watches.

Now alone, Samantha takes a few pills to calm her nerves. Meanwhile, an unseen figure is sharpening a scythe.

Stryker sleeps with Christie and Samantha sees him leave the girl's room. Christie is in tears as she wonders if her little sexcapade is worth the part in the film.

The following morning, she goes out with her skates to practice on the frozen pond. It's a beautiful cold and sunny day. There isn't a soul in sight, or so she thinks.

The young novice brings along a radio and plays her music as she gracefully skates on the ice. After about a minute, the music abruptly stops. When Christie goes over to see what happened and to check the batteries, she finds Amanda's doll buried in the snow. Puzzled, she pulls it out to take a closer look.

Suddenly, she hears someone on the ice. A person wearing black is coming towards her. It's the killer in the old-hag mask, brandishing the scythe. Christie is horrified and tries to makes a run for it. She slips and the hag strikes her in the shoulder.

Christie manages to knock her attacker down with the doll. She tries to make it back to the house but is dazed and in pain from her injury. While leaning against a tree, the killer grabs her from behind and strikes her in the neck with the scythe.

Stryker assembles the remaining actresses in a room for their auditions. One of them asks about Christie's whereabouts and the director tells them she's gone and that she left a note behind saying she couldn't handle the pressure. "And then there were four," he remarks.

He's about to test Brooke when Samantha walks in and says she wants to act. Stryker asks her to take centerstage. What Samantha doesn't know is that he has something cruel up his sleeve.

Stryker tells her to make herself ugly and throws one of his props at her...the hag mask. She puts it on and is then told to seduce him. Finally, Stryker rips the mask off and holds her face up to a mirror. "This is a mask too," he tells her bitterly.

Stryker meets with Patti alone in the parlor. She tries to be funny but he cancels her audition, believing she's not right for the part. She yells at him and implies that perhaps she should have slept with him to get it. The director ignores her and goes back upstairs.

He enters Samantha's room and accuses her of stealing his mask. "What the hell are you up to?" he demands to know. She denies being up to anything...and instead tells him that he's brought five totally different girls there on a "bogus casting session" for a part that was hers in the first place.

For the next audition, Stryker has Laurian pretend to be a man seducing Tara, a situation that makes both women uncomfortable. Brooke takes a break from studying the script to paint her nails in the bathroom adjacent to her room.

A drop of polish falls on the toilet seat cover. After cleaning it off, she lifts up the lid to throw away the tissue paper and is horrified to discover Christie's decapitated head.

Brooke screams and runs into the room where Stryker is testing the Audra wannabes. In tears, she tells the director that Christie is dead. "You're imagining things," he says. He then tells Laurian and Tara that they will continue later - and takes Brooke back to her room.

When he lifts the toilet cover, there's nothing there. To comfort a frightened Brooke, he sleeps with her and Samantha finds them in bed together. Samantha goes back to her room and throws the script through a window, smashing the glass.

In the kitchen, Tara has a discussion with Patti...who attributes Brooke's hysterics to her heavy drinking and implies that she's "acting crazy" to get the part. Tara mentions some of the odd things that have happened, including the fact that Amanda never arrived and that Mathew has disappeared.

Laurian is alone, rehearsing her dancing. The black-gloved killer enters the practice room and slits her throat.

The psycho then creeps into Brooke's room and shoots her and Stryker, causing them to fall out the second story window. While browsing some books, Tara overhears the gun shots and cries out when the bodies shatter the windows of the library.

She runs outside and tries to start her car but has no luck. She sees Mathew's body lying face down in the jacuzzi with a knife in his back. Next, she goes into the prop house - where she is not alone. The killer in the hag-mask is sitting in the backseat of a prop taxicab.

As Tara tries to find a way out again, the killer leaps up to attack her. But Tara moves out of the way and the "hag" trips. Thinking quickly, Tara takes off her coat and hat and puts them on a mannequin. Her attacker tries to stab her but realizes it was a trick and falls on the ground. Tara tries to take the mask off...but the psycho recovers and attempts to strangle her.

Again, Tara escapes - only to run into Laurian's body hanging among the props. She finally finds a vent to hide in. For a moment, it seems to work. The killer walks by and doesn't detect her. When the coast is clear, Tara starts to crawl out...but is grabbed by her legs from the other side of the vent! The sound of someone being mutilated is echoed through the prop house.

There are only two survivors now. Patti celebrates by opening a bottle of champagne in the kitchen. She's joined by Samantha and the two share a drink. Samantha tells Patti the story of how Stryker had her committed. Patti wonders where he is and Samantha reveals that she murdered him.

However, there's something odd about Patti's behavior. She comes towards Samantha holding a huge butcher knife. As Samantha screams, Patti stabs her in the stomach. In the final shot, the comedienne is finally performing Audra...to an audience made up of patients in an asylum.

The Canadian production was shot in and around Muskoka and Toronto, Ontario. The constant reshoots and a producer unhappy with the director's work...meant the film took well over a year to complete. It wasn't released until March of 1983.

Actress Celine Lomez was originally set to play Brooke, the part that eventually went to Linda Thorson. Lomez did in fact film some scenes - but they were reshot with Thorson.

Major kudos to Canadian horror films that use settings like this one: an old country estate surrounded by snow. It's a wonderful combination of low-key scares mixed with a sleepy backdrop.

It might be noted that several individual bits in Curtains are greater than its total sum. That is, this "little slasher that could" possesses a couple of really frightening moments, beginning with Amanda's dream featuring the spooky doll, as well as her subsequent - and very real - murder.

Of course, the notorious 'old hag on skates' scene is a key sequence alone that makes Curtains worth seeing.

Indeed, it is all the more remarkable because it takes place in the glaring light of early morning. Lesleh Donaldson, one of our favorite scream queens from that era, is great as Christie - and the scene is a genre standout.

Not just a one (or two) trick pony, there's also the prolonged chase in the prop house with Sandra Warren. Terrifically shot and smartly paced, producer Peter Simpson does an excellent job here in terms of building and sustaining suspense.

But there's something else about Curtains that would seem to set it apart from the pack of dime a dozen slashers being produced during this Golden Age of splatter. Something about it that makes it feel like an outsider, even in a game in which it's a rather noticeable player.

Headed by then-middle aged, seasoned veteran actors John Vernon and Samantha Eggar, and rounded out by a cast of early mostly twentysomething females, Curtains isn't your average teenybopper high school bodycount flick.

As such, there's a pervasive air of somber maturity throughout. Sure, there's the half-hearted tittering about "who will sleep with Stryker?" But at the end of the day, these headstrong adult actresses are all vying for their livelihood, their next job, their next paycheck. Real responsibilities. There's no prom here. No teased hair. No disposable rock song.

Just as fellow Canadian horror My Bloody Valentine (1981) took the bodycount formula out of the high school and placed the action in a completely original setting - an underground mine - so too does Curtains play against the grain by focusing on adult women fighting for their lives...both figuratively and literally.

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