Color, 1983, 89m.
Directed by Jonathan Stryker (Richard Ciupka)
Starring John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson, Annie Ditchburn, Lynne Griffin, Sandra Warren, Lesleh Donaldson, Deborah Burgess, Michael Wincott
Synapse (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9) / DTS-HD 5.1, Echo Bridge (US R1 NTSC)
Lost in the shuffle of the early '80s slasher boom, Curtains is a Canadian horror film unlike any other. Originally intended as a grisly supernatural yarn, the film then became a arty psychodrama in the hands of first-time director Richard Ciupka, a cinematographer whose range went from Atlantic City to Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia. The film was shot in 1980 with a relatively prestigious cast, but when Ciupka's cut was deemed unsuitable by producer Peter R. Simpson (who was fresh off the success of Prom Night), the director was fired with Simpson himself taking over extensive reshoots continuing on and off for two years. The end result rolled out in theaters in 1983 as a full-fledged slasher film complete with a killer trailer and memorable poster art, though the patchwork nature of the film itself killed off word of mouth almost immediately.
However, Curtains found a new life on home video and cable TV as it gradually built up a fan following both for its handful of standout horror sequences (including an outdoor ice skating bit as good as any in slasher history) and its dreamlike plotting, with elements like a creepy doll, flashbacks, dream sequences, and arbitrary plot twists turning it into a kind of an accidental work of surrealism. The final product (credited to Jonathan Stryker, the fictitious director in the film) simply refused to die despite sporting one of the worst transfers in home video history, a colorless and muddy mess carried over to a handful of legit and bootleg DVDs; furthermore, a string of interviews and background pieces by The Terror Trap finally gave some context to the madness, explaining this haunting little oddity actually came into being. Tantalizing photos of deleted scenes and discarded endings continued to add to the mystery, making the film a cult item for what it should have been as much as what it actually is.
When extreme method actress Samantha Sherwood (The Brood's Eggar) decides she wants the title role of Audra in the latest film by Stryker (Vernon), who isn't convinced she's up to playing a mentally unbalanced woman. They decide to book her in a mental institution temporarily so she can get a grip on the role, but when she actually seems to be losing her mind, Stryker decides to leave her confined and find another new star instead. He announces an unusual casting session by inviting the top hopefuls to a two-day retreat in the snowy wilderness, with prospects including stand-up comic Patti (Black Christmas' Griffin), aging and mercenary Brooke (The Avengers' Thorson), sexual assault fantastist Amanda (Burgess), professional dancer Laurian (Ditchburn), vocalist Tara (Warren), and pretty ice skater Christie (Happy Birthday to Me's Donaldson). However, when Samantha manages to escape and starts burning headshots of the actresses in a fireplace, it's clear this weekend is going to be more dangerous than planned. Poor Amanda doesn't even get to make the trip as she gets knifed while packing (after suffering from an eerie nightmare involving that famous doll in a rainstorm), and the other ladies find themselves trading barbs, smoking pot, and testing out the jacuzzi while a killer in an old hag mask starts to pick them off one by one.
The central premise of Curtains is a terrific one, and even if the production difficulties prevented it from cohering into a satisfying whole, the elements are still strong enough to make it a tremendously entertaining little gem whose weirdness resonates long after its more traditional counterparts faded from memory. It's exactly the kind of film you stumble upon accidentally late at night and wonder whether you dreamed it all the next day, with the mixture of elegant visuals and seedy thrills (including that old favorite, a severed head in a toilet) combining to create a mood that's not quite like any other film of its era.
The aforementioned lousy video transfer of this film dating back to its Vestron days on VHS has been a major problem for decades, and even its first legit appearance in 2010 from Echo Bridge (in a four-film set with three really lousy, more recent horror films) turned out to be a massive disappointment as it looked no better at all. (Even worse was a bootleg edition from "Blackhorse," pawned off as an import by Substance, a.k.a. Jef Films.) When Synapse Films announced the title for a 2014 release, you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief that this often maligned film would finally get a respectable home video release. That definitely turned out to be the case with their separate Blu-ray and DVD editions, with the former not only looking spectacular in 1080p but tossing in a terrific exclusive extra as a bonus. (More on that in a minute.) The transfer didn't have much previous competition to deal with, but it's really glorious to behold from start to finish and also beats out the mediocre 35mm U.S. prints with a wide range of colors and details never seen at all by most viewers.
Audio options include the original mono track and a tastefully effective 5.1 remix (both DTS-HD on the Blu-ray), with the latter mainly spreading the music score and sound effects around while throwing in a few nifty off screen voice effects. You also get a great audio commentary with Donaldson and Griffin, moderated by Edwin Samuelson, and anyone who's followed Donaldson's wildly entertaining Facebook page should have an idea of what to expect here as the pair rattle through the entire turbulent experience with good humor. (Donaldson's oft-repeated tales about her skating lessons are always welcome, too.) Then there's a second chat track that isn't a scene by scene commentary, but rather a fusion of interviews with Simpson and Eggar conducted by Jason Knowles (co-founder of Terror Trap) and Todd Garbarini. These were conducted via telephone and are a much bumpier listen, but the material is great as you get another perspective on the film's evolution with numerous reshoots and reconceptions along the way.
Running just under 36 minutes, "The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains" is a new Red Shirt Productions piece about the film with a focus on the bizarre, highly problematic production. Present for new interviews are Ciupka, Donaldson, Griffin, makeup artist Greg Cannom, composer Paul Aza, and editor Michael MacLaverty, who talk candidly about the seemingly neverending process of getting the film finished. Some nifty stills and a few scraps of surviving cut footage paint a compelling portrait of the film's various incarnations, with anecdotes covering everything from the aborted previous endings to scenes dropped from the final assembly, most notably an elaborate stunt gag involving actor Michael Wincott and a snowmobile. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is "Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition," a fascinating 16mm featurette running 15 minutes with loads of footage from the original shoot. Directed by Gordon Thorne, it's a wild counterpoint to the troubled tone of the rest of the disc as we see the smiling director and producer interviewed in an excited mood about the project, not to mention great footage of cast members like Griffin and Vernon being directed through their paces. The image quality is understandably rougher than the rest of the disc, but it's a very valuable addition in every possible way. Finally the set rounds out with the great theatrical trailer, which left a deep impression on more than a few viewers back in the early '80s. (Sadly, a licensor in charge of the film tossed out the unused scenes shortly before Synapse got its hands on the title, a sobering reminder of the treatment still heaped upon some of the less respected horror titles out there.) Simply put, this is the killer presentation horror fans have been waiting for, and it couldn't come more highly recommended.