Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Curtains  (Canadian 1982, dir: Richard Ciupka; cast: Samantha Eggar, John Vernon, Linda Thorson, Annie Ditchburn)



One of the most underrated slasher films of the early 1980s, Curtains has been dissed by many genre critics, but is tops with me. John Stanley's Creature Features movie guide says of Curtains: "Irritating Canadian slasher film paints characters in muddy fashion. ... There's nothing clever or suspenseful about the murders, and the climax is neither riveting nor surprising. Jonathan Stryker's direction rambles."

The Overlook Encyclopedia laments: "After a conspicuously implausible red herring opening ... Curtains takes off into a drearily pedestrian variation on the masked-marauder theme. ... the script has not bothered to provide [the killer] with a semblance of motivation, any more than it has contrived any logic or suspense in the plotting of the attacks."

I first praised Curtains in the 1980s, in The Journal of Horror Cinema, then in the 1990s in Horror magazine and Horrorfind.  And at least some critics agree with me. In Slasher Films, Kent Byron Armstrong says: "Curtains is a very good slasher film." [Although he misspells Samantha Eggar's name throughout as Egger.]

Incidentally, contrary to Stanley's remarks, Jonathan Stryker is one of the film's characters, not its director. I'd thought it was an "inside joke," but Adam Rockoff reports in Going to Pieces that the real director, Richard Ciupka, was fired or quit mid-shoot "depending to whom you speak". Rockoff regards Curtains as "a decent slasher [film], but one that occasionally hints at greatness that could have been."

Well, I see more than hints at greatness. There is much to recommend Curtains, beginning with Samantha Eggar (The Brood, The Uncanny, Demonoid: Messenger of Death), who here portrays Samantha Sherwood, a classy fortysomething actress at her peak and imminent decline. Curtains also has a sociological dimension, examining two Hollywood customs practiced mostly by men: Riding a superstar wife's coattails to success, and dumping an aging wife. These customs are not necessarily connected. The discarded wife is often a quiet helpmate, not a star. But Curtains combines these themes to fine effect. And finally, there is a generous body count.

In Curtains, film star Samantha Sherwood buys the film rights to Audra (a hot play about a psychotic) for director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). It remains unclear whether they are (were?) married, but it seems they shared "something." A house in the wintry woods, for instance.

Feigning insanity, Samantha checks into an asylum to better understand her Audra character.  Jonathan leaves her there to rot and sets about casting for a new and younger Audra. Six nubile actresses are scheduled for "a weekend audition at his house." An unknown woman (we never see her face) liberates Samantha from the asylum. Samantha arrives at the house to audition.



Everyone playacts in Curtains, on and off stage. Samantha feigns insanity. Jonathan feigns his intent to release her. An actress is "raped" by a burglar, who turns out to be her boyfriend playacting their usual sex game. O'Connor (the comedian in the group) playacts sex games with hand puppets, the dog cajoling a snake to "give head." (Like many comedians, O'Connor hides her pained neuroses and burning ambition behind jokes.) When the ice-skater discovers Jonathan and Samantha arguing, Jonathan claims they were rehearsing an old play. After Jonathan abuses O'Connor during an interview, she accuses him of playing directorial mind games. He smiles, mum. When Brooke becomes hysterical, claiming to have seen a severed head in her toilet, O'Connor accuses her of "putting on a show, acting like Audra."

Curtains is about people so desperate to "make it" in Hollywood that they are always "in character," their personal identities as contrived as the characters they portray, their selves hidden behind curtains of their own making. After Jonathan has Samantha audition in a crone mask, he yanks off the mask, forces Samantha to face a mirror, and states, "This is a mask too."




Curtains examines those willing to do anything to "make it." It's the theme of O'Connor's standup act. "Have you ever wanted something so bad you would do anything to get it? Me, I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be in pictures so bad, I screwed the guy from Fotomat." Hollywood encourages self-deception, and with this attitude the playacting is constant. One is always in character, projecting an image, the Self ever more elusive.

Samantha suffers and sacrifices to maintain her star status, including the sojourn in the asylum. But the stay affects her, the patients both frighten and move her. "So sad. Even when they're laughing they're sad." She advises O'Connor to forego a career in show business, to "get married and grow old together."

O'Connor suspects Samantha of trying to thin the competition, but more likely Samantha is stating what she might do if she could begin again.

Sociology aside, Curtains is an effective slasher film. The wintry location creates a coldly beautiful isolation, reminiscent of The Shining, Ghost Story, and The Brood. The slasher's crone mask, worn to hide her identity, also augurs these pretty young actresses likely fate, when they too will be discarded. Killings are stylized, shot with lyrical slow-motion. One actress is chased backstage amid mannequins, discovering a dead actress hanging among them (sagacious commentary on Hollywood's meat market?). The subsequent stabbings (off camera) are punctuated by quick jump cuts amid the mannequins. Unlike many slasher films, Curtains's killer is difficult to identify (there's a reason for that).

Curtains also functions as commentary on Samantha Eggar's own career. Named Best Actress at Cannes for her work in The Collector (1965), by the 1980s she had gone to slumming in Canadian slasher fare (to the genre's benefit). Notably, Eggar's character shares her first name. Curtains has other curious "insider" attributes. Actor John Vernon portrays the fictitious Jonathan Stryker, yet Curtains is credited to director "Jonathan Stryker." (Actually directed by Richard Ciupka).

Curtains opens with Samantha playacting a scene from Audra. She finds closure by performing the scene for real. What has she learned? "That an actress must always be in control," she tells O'Connor. It may be for naught. The final survivor in Curtains, the one who has what it takes to "make it" to the end, ends up in an asylum.

Both as a rumination on the relative values of fame and family, and as a tense and gory slasher film set in beautiful wintry isolation, Curtains delivers.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos


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