Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Shocktober Review: Curtains

 Curtains is (by some) a much beloved slasher / thriller from the "first wave" that came in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Had I not known the story behind the film before watching it, Curtains may have been more confusing. Characters are introduced and then disappear at random, there are abandoned subplots and radical tonal shifts, and at least one kill that defies the laws of physics. And yet, I really, really enjoyed the movie. Frankly, considering its tortured production existence, I'm amazed the movie works at all, let alone as well as it does.

 Originally, director Richard Ciupka and screenwriter Robert Guza, Jr. designed Curtains to be a psychological thriller, one built around director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) casting his film Audra. His original choice for the lead, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) went so far as to have herself committed to an asylum for "research," but Stryker grew tired of her erratic behavior while locked away. He invites five women to audition at his secluded mountain home: actress Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson), figure skater Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), ballerina Laurian (Ann Ditchburn), comedian Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin), and aspiring actress Tara DeMillo (Sandra Warren). His sixth choice, Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess), never makes it to the house - she's murdered inside of her apartment.

 It seems like much of Curtains was supposed to be about Stryker's mind games with the girls, particularly after Samantha (who escapes from the asylum with the help of a woman whose face we never see) crashes the auditions, hoping to reclaim the role. Traces of that film are still in Curtains, but producer Peter R. Simpson was unhappy with Ciupka's early cut of the film in 1980 and brought the cast back together in 1982 to reshoot large portions of the film, in the hopes of making a more commercially viable slasher movie. The credits actually feature two separate production crews, and Ciupka had his named removed from the film (instead crediting Curtains to "Jonathan Stryker"), and while the seams are at times painfully apparent, somehow the bastardized hybrid of Ciupka and Simpsons visions works.

 Throughout Curtains, there is a palpable sense of tension, even during the prologue (introduced, as many transitions are, by curtains framing the image). Samantha is onstage, and clearly not impressing Stryker, so the two cook up a scheme where she goes "insane" and he sends her away for her own good. Unfortunately, being left to her own devices among actual mental illness does Samantha no favors. Whether Stryker expected her not to be able to leave or if it's just another game on his part, he simply gives up on his part of their charade. We never find out who helped Samantha escape - the scene is clearly designed to set up either a red herring or an accomplice - but her presence at Stryker's home doesn't amount to much by the end. There's some dramatic satisfaction on her part (contrast her first scene with Stryker with her last), but it's much ado over nothing.

 Similarly, the inclusion of Michael Wincott as Matthew, Stryker's groundskeeper, seems to be more important than his character ends up being. It's possible he never existed in Ciupka's cut - Matthew is mostly there for a sex scene with Tara in the hot tub and then to disappear for the middle of the film, only to show up (SPOILER) dead in a cut-away. There's even a scene where the masked killer watches Matthew ride off on a snowmobile that hints at a kill we never see*.

 After watching Curtains, I thought I had some idea of what was Ciupka and what was Simpson, but after watching The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains, it turns out I had it all backwards. The opening and closing 15 minutes were all added by Simpson, which means everything in the asylum and all of the "prop room" scene in Stryker's garage weren't originally part of the film. The latter, I suspected, but the former was a little bit of a surprise. Apparently the dead giveaway in the very last scene is that one character's hair is considerably shorter, so I missed that. Chalk it up to me being invested in the story, or just no eagle-eyed enough.

 Ciupka explains that his Curtains begins with Amanda's dream sequence, but he isn't clear about any of what happens to her before the dream starts. Amanda's section in the film is limited to two locations (her apartment and the side of the road) and nobody else from Curtains appears. Most of the scenes play close to the "slasher" angle: Amanda is stalked by a man in a mask who, it turns out, is her boyfriend (she has a weird "rape" fetish that admittedly makes the scene a little uncomfortable), and wanders around drinking wine and reading Stryker's script. In what turns out (SPOILER) to be a dream, Amanda is driving to Stryker's house when she notices the creepiest doll ever in the middle of the road. She stops to pick it up, but it grabs her and won't let go, and then her car pulls forward and hits her - smash cut to waking up. The creepy doll is still next to her bed, and she's stabbed mysteriously by a stranger.

 It's odd, because it feels like this part was included post-completion, but according to Ciupka most of the middle of Curtains is his cut of the film. I had thought that Simpson used the reshoots to include doll and the mask Stryker has Samantha put on as the "tools" of the murderer. The doll shows up buried in snow when Christie goes to practice, and the killer is wearing the mask in every scene other than Amanda's death. It seemed like since we're introduced to the mask before we know what's it's in the house for, you can either take it as a red herring or a dead giveaway of the retroactive adjustments made in rshoots. But apparently that's not the case. Instead, quite the opposite. I'm looking forward to watching the film again and try to figure out how the original narrative worked (Ciupka doesn't mention his original ending, or beginning, for that matter, only the changes). A mystery inside an enigma wrapped in of a puzzle box, this Curtains.

 That said, I really don't have many problems with Curtains. It may seem like the jumbled nature of its production would stop the film dead in its tracks, but the truth is that Ciupka creates an off-setting tone, where it's unclear what is and isn't happening, and Simpson's more over, "slasher" sections are dripping with tension. At a certain point I didn't even mind the mishmash of styles, and despite the fact that much of the cast and crew don't have kind words to say about the end result, I really thought Curtains worked. It's the exception rather than the rule when it comes to this much interference and revisionism, but somehow, some way, it prevails as a pretty damn good entry when slashers were a dime a dozen.

 * Technically, Ciupka / Simpson intended for Matthew to be a body introduced near the end of the film, but not in the hot tub. His snowmobile-related death was replaced, in a manner of speaking, by making the Stryker's physically impossible fall out of one window and into another.

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