The rise of the slasher movie, propelled principally by 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s Friday the 13th, led some filmmakers to create their own version of the eternal killer—such as Wes Craven’s dream menace Freddy Krueger in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, other filmmakers would take different approaches to slasher films. One notable experiment is a Canadian contribution titled Curtains.
Released in 1983, Curtains was in many ways ahead of its time, given that filming began in 1980 and underwent numerous problems, with director Richard Ciupka opting to use the pseudonym “Jonathan Stryker” for the final cut. The writer for this project was Robert Guza Jr., a television writer and producer who was eventually nominated for 20 Daytime Emmy Awards for this work on soap operas, principally General Hospital.
Although set up and structured somewhat under the slasher film formula, it could be argued that this movie instead helped established the formula of the slasher genre. Moreover, at its core there is quite a bit more to Curtains that meets the eye. Indeed, Curtains serves as a scathing indictment of how actresses are treated behind the scenes in television, film, and theater. The movie’s production problems contribute to the disjointed approach to the movie’s storytelling structure, bur enough of Ciupka’s vision remains to ensure that the movie works well. Producer Peter Simpson is no slouch either, but his contribution to the movie as a director (once Ciupka walked) is more straightforward and thus lacks the surreal impact that Ciupka brings to the movie.
The first quarter of the movie involves Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar of The Collector and later in David Cronenberg’s The Brood), who serves as muse for director Jonathan Stryker (well played by the great John Vernon). Sherwood’s method acting goes to the extreme when she covets the lead role in a movie title Audra that she successfully “auditions” and is committed to an insane asylum. It is here that Sherwood discovers the thin line between acting and insanity, and as the line is blurred more and more, she learns that Stryker has abandoned her in the asylum so that he can find another Audra (apparently, in Stryker’s eyes she lacks conviction).
The next “act” of the movie sets up six girls who plan to audition at Stryker’s lush mansion. Like the lead role they intend to audition for, the actresses are all psychologically flawed—Stryker knows this and intends to take advanced of each, either sexually or psychologically. Indeed, Audra will likely never be made and is instead a tool that Stryker uses to get his jollies.
The remainder of the movie explores the psychological flaws of the actresses with various set pieces. For example, Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess) sees herself as nothing more than a doll, and thus she is tormented by a large porcelain doll that contributes to her death even before she arrives at the mansion. Another set piece involves ice skater Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), who is the first to succumb to the slasher in an extended, surreal scene. The slasher in this case has a feminine build, is wearing a grotesque hag mask (another jab at the establishment), and wields a sickle.
The movie shifts gears several times, killing off Stryker and the other women until the serial murderer is revealed. Suffice to say, the killer comes out of left field; however, a coda explains the killer’s motive, and this scene is also priceless. Of course, the lone survivor does not get to play Audra but rather becomes Audra, forever essaying the role in a mental institution. Interestingly, “Audra” in the vernacular is referred to as a woman who can cause great fury.
Although flawed in terms of streamlined storytelling and directing, Curtains is a successful, if not relatively bloodless, slasher movie that is bitter and serves as a brilliant satire of how actresses are used not only by the audience but by the men behind the scenes. The link between acting and insanity is an old one, but the movie makes fresh stabs at the psychological abuse of actresses in terms of age, beauty, wanton sexuality, and of course the obsession to become forever loved and accepted. There are some scenes that go for far too long, but the set pieces are worth the screening alone. The acting is superior here, although some of the girls are amateurish, but the leads—notably Eggar and Vernon—make the film. Those looking for a slasher film with fleshed out actors and a sardonic undercurrent would do well to watch Curtains.