It sometimes seems as though Canada doesn’t get the attention or respect it deserves in regards to their contributions to the horror genre. The nation has, after all, given us one of the earliest and best slasher films (Black Christmas), one of the best werewolf films (Ginger Snaps), one of the best ghost story movies (The Changeling), and the entire catalogue of David goddamn Cronenberg (not to mention his son Brandon, also a kick-ass horror director in his own right). Yet time and again, many horror movies that emerge from our neighbors to the north fly somewhat under the radar; and even when one of them occasionally breaks through to the mainstream, people tend to forget the thing’s Canadian and just lump it in with the American releases.
The slasher subgenre, though, is pretty well represented by some standout Canadian films. There’s not only the popular Prom Night, and the aforementioned Black Christmas (which of course came out four years before John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween, and set the template for the holiday slasher going forward), but we also got underrated gems like My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday To Me, and Visiting Hours.
And then we have the odd hybrid film we’re discussing today, 1983’s slasher psychodrama, Curtains. Directed (sort of) by Richard Ciupka, the movie had a notoriously troubled production that in many ways is just as interesting as the film itself. The concept behind Curtains was hatched back in 1980, after producer Peter R. Simpson scored a success with Prom Night and was looking to cash in with another slasher film, albeit one in a slightly different register. Bringing on writer Robert Guza Jr., who had co-written Prom Night with William Gray, Simpson was keen to avoid the more teen-oriented angle of the recently released Terror Train, and tasked Guza with penning something aimed toward a more adult audience.
That’s not to say that Simpson didn’t want something commercially viable, however; he still wanted it to be a traditional slasher movie, just one that would appeal to an older crowd. Director Richard Ciupka seemingly wanted the same thing, but clashes soon ensued over his vision of the film, which was less slasher movie and more arty thriller. Eventually, after only shooting about 45 minutes’ worth of footage, Ciupka quit and Simpson took over the director’s chair. Ciupka, in fact, was so incensed by the whole shitshow that he asked for his name to be taken off the film when it was released; the director of Curtains is credited as “Jonathan Stryker,” which is the name of the fictional director character in the movie.
This conflict between the two differing ideas behind Curtains left its bloody fingerprints all over the final product, as did the fact that the thing was shot in fits and starts over a period of roughly three years and went through numerous rewrites and reshoots. Given the shambolic nature of its creation, it’s actually pretty amazing that Curtains is as coherent and as relatively enjoyable as it is; don’t get me wrong, it’s no lost classic, but if you’re in the mood for a slow-burn psychological thriller set in the backstabbing milieu of stage and screen, that also contains some mild slasher elements, then it might just be your cup of tea.
The story centers around a famous and somewhat imperious actress named Samantha Sherwood, played by Samantha Eggar, who is probably best known to horror fans for her fantastic turn in David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Eggar, by the way, has gone on record as saying that she hates this film, and only did it for the paycheck, but honestly, I think she’s selling herself (and the film) a bit short.
Anyway, Samantha is the muse for director Jonathan Stryker (played by John Vernon of Animal House, Dirty Harry, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space, though the part was originally written for Klaus Kinski), who is working on a film called Audra as a vehicle for his favorite leading lady. Because the title character of the film is a madwoman, method acting Samantha opts to have herself committed to a mental hospital so she can really get a handle on the role.
Unfortunately for her, Stryker is a total shitbag who seemingly had no intention of having Samantha star in his movie, and he leaves her ass in the asylum while he selects six younger women to travel to a remote country house for a prolonged audition session. Said session also involves him seducing some of the ladies, because of course it does.
We see early on that the resourceful Samantha has escaped the hospital with the help of a friend, and she vows revenge on Stryker, as well as on the beautiful actresses that are all gunning to take her place. This whole first act plays out as though it’s setting up the motive for Samantha, who we’re led to believe is going to end up being the killer, but the movie actually has some twists up its sleeve in that regard.
Of the six women summoned to the audition, one never even makes it there: Amanda (Deborah Burgess), after having a bizarre dream in which she’s driving to the audition, only to stop the car at the sight of a creepy doll in the road and subsequently get run down by her own vehicle, wakes up and shakes off the nightmare. She then indulges in a weird rape fantasy with her boyfriend, and later gets murdered by a killer wearing what is actually a pretty scary hag mask. The killer swipes Amanda’s creepy doll (the same one that made an appearance in her dream) and presumably makes their way to the house where the auditions are taking place.
The five remaining candidates arrive for their shot at stardom under the sleazy ministrations of Stryker. There’s comedian Patti (played by Lynne Griffin from Black Christmas); dancer Laurian (played by Anne Ditchburn from Slow Dancing in the Big City); musician Tara (played by Sandee Currie); naïve ice skater Christie (played by Lesleh Donaldson from Happy Birthday To Me); and veteran Brooke (played by Linda Thorson from the last season of The Avengers). Already at the house is caretaker Matthew (played by Michael Wincott from The Crow and Strange Days), who wastes little time jumping into the hot tub with Tara and getting down to business.
While everyone sits down to dinner, getting acquainted and recounting the shameful (and possibly illegal) things they would do to get this part, who should show up unexpectedly but Samantha, who sashays right into the dining room like she owns the place and calls Stryker out for his treachery. Stryker is furious, but manages to keep his temper mostly in check until later, when he lets Samantha have it in private. Their argument is overheard by Christie, but Stryker tells her it was just a scene from a play they were rehearsing. After Christie goes to her room, Stryker slimes his way in and has sex with her, undoubtedly telling her that she’s gonna have to fuck if she wants the role bad enough.
The next morning, Christie gets up early and goes out to practice her skating routine on the ice nearby, but in the film’s best sequence, she is initially unsettled after her music shuts off and she notices a doll’s hand poking out of the snow near her boom box. She digs the doll out of the snow, and of course it’s the creepy doll from Amanda’s dream earlier; Christie then turns to see a figure in a hag mask skating toward her in slow motion, brandishing a sickle. She’s able to fight off the killer and flee into the woods, but the hag ultimately catches up to her and slices off her head. This particular scene has appeared on several “scariest horror movie scenes” lists, and deservedly so; it’s deliciously eerie, and although the rest of the film isn’t as striking or effective, it’s a pretty great bit while it lasts.
As the story goes on, as is common in slasher films, the victims get picked off one by one by the masked killer, though unlike other examples of the genre, the kills are largely tame and nearly bloodless. Matthew, in fact, is murdered off screen; his death scene was filmed, apparently, but didn’t make its way into the final cut. The only somewhat gory event is the finding of Christie’s head in the toilet in Brooke’s bathroom, and even that’s not terribly graphic. So don’t expect a great deal of gruesome slashing in this quasi-slasher, or you’ll definitely be disappointed.
At last, the character count is down to the final two, and while we’ve been primed during the entire film to suspect Samantha is the killer, the truth actually ends up being slightly more complicated, and I’ll admit I didn’t entirely see the reveal coming. I will note, though, that I was expecting a twist, as I didn’t think they would set up Samantha so obviously as the culprit and then have her, y’know, actually be the culprit all along. So the ending wasn’t completely unexpected, but it also wasn’t totally expected either, if that makes any sense.
While Curtains isn’t a traditional slasher and will probably just frustrate fans looking for a typical body-count bloodbath, there is some good stuff in here that makes it worth a watch. Sure, the pacing is uneven and a little sluggish at times, and it often seems to lean much more in the direction of a drama or a revenge thriller than a straight horror movie, but it does have some chilling sequences, such as the previously mentioned ice-skating kill and the final chase scene with one of the characters being pursued through a creepy prop shed. The acting in this is also far, far better than many other slashers of the era, which lends the whole enterprise a touch of class you don’t usually see much in this subgenre. Besides that, the hag mask look of the killer is original and genuinely frightening, and the doll that turns up here and there is pretty eerie too, though I wish more had been done with it. All in all, not a magnificent film, but an interesting one nonetheless, and one I’d recommend for admirers of Canadian horror.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.