By con­ven­tional stan­dards, Curtains shouldn’t even be watch­able.  It was the result of a tor­mented pro­duc­tion, com­plete with artis­tic dis­agree­ments between the direc­tor and the pro­ducer as well two sep­a­rate shoots spread out over a cou­ple of years.  By the time it made it to the­aters, the result­ing film had been com­pre­hen­sively rewrit­ten to the point that it opened and closed with 35 min­utes worth of scenes not in the orig­i­nal script.  The end prod­uct was dis­owned by direc­tor, cast and sev­eral crew members.

Curtains-posAnd yet, Curtains has attained a spe­cial cult sta­tus amongst fans of ‘80s hor­ror.  Despite the chaos of its pro­duc­tion, the film boasts a unique com­bi­na­tion of addi­tional fac­tors that give it a styl­ish, haunt­ing feel that eas­ily allows to stand out from the remain­der of the early ‘80s slasher glut.  In fact, you could say it is the Canadian tax shel­ter film system’s answer to Italy’s giallo film.

The premise of Curtains is as twisty as a drawing-room mys­tery.  It bor­rows a page from Shock Corridor for its open­ing, which has Machiavellian direc­tor Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) com­mit­ting actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) to a men­tal insti­tu­tion.  Though she is pre­tend­ing to be insane, she is actu­ally just research­ing her lead­ing role in Stryker’s next film… or so she thinks.  Things get grim in the insti­tu­tion and Stryker begs off on get­ting her out until he can finally aban­don her.

Curtains-01A short while later, Stryker invites a vari­ety of actresses to audi­tion for the part orig­i­nally intended for Samantha: the ros­ter includes stand-up come­di­enne Patti (Lynne Ramsay), ingénue Christie (Lesleh Donaldson) and emo­tion­ally brit­tle pro actress Brooke (Linda Thorson).  Stryker has all man­ner of head games planned for the prospec­tive lead­ing ladies and those games become fur­ther com­pli­cated when Samantha gets out of the insti­tu­tion to join the group audi­tion.  Needless to say, the part these ladies are will­ing to fight for ends up become one that many will die for before the tale reaches its grim finale.

Though it was mar­keted as a slasher film, Curtains stands apart from that sub­genre in many ways: the char­ac­ters are adults instead of slasher-flick teeny­bop­pers, the dia­logue is wit­tier, the psy­chol­ogy is more com­plex and there is a deli­ciously malev­o­lent sense of play in how it han­dles the razor edge between real­ity and psy­chosis.  Screenwriter Robert Guza Jr. went on to a long career writ­ing and pro­duc­ing soap operas and his Curtains-02char­ac­ter­i­za­tions and dia­logue show a flair for the charm­ing bitch­i­ness that fuels that genre.  Transposing that style to the slasher film, a genre not usu­ally known for such nar­ra­tive panache, gives the pro­ceed­ings a def­i­nite lift.

Curtains also has a dream­like style that nor­mally eludes the more work­man­like approach of the slasher movie.  Direction was divided between cinematographer/first-time helmer Richard Ciupka and pro­ducer Peter Simpson (who helmed the new footage that opens and closes the film).  Despite the split-authorship  — or per­haps because of it — the film has an eerie feel of a Freudian night­mare, com­plete with a killer in a hag­gard “old woman” mask and a creepy doll intrud­ing upon the grown-up night­mares that its cast are deal­ing with.  Slick lens­ing from Robert Paynter and an ele­gantly creepy score from Canadian hor­ror vet Paul Zaza help build the atmos­phere the film’s ever-shifting mood relies upon.

FinallCurtains-03y, Curtains boasts one of the finest casts in any­thing ever mar­keted under the “slasher” ban­ner.  Vernon has one of his bet­ter ‘80s-era roles here, using his steely, impos­ing pres­ence to great effect as the manip­u­la­tive direc­tor, and Eggar makes the ideal foil by giv­ing an oppos­ing per­for­mance that is ele­gant yet fueled by its own quiet fire.  Elsewhere, Ramsay is charm­ing as the wit of the actress group (she also gets a great straight-drama scene with Vernon) and Donaldson gives her scream queen all in a scary set­piece on a frozen lake.  Fans of Canadian fare will also want to keep their eyes peeled for a brief cameo from Kate Lynch as a sec­re­tary and Maury Chaykin in a scene-stealing bit as a flam­boy­ant agent.

In short, Curtains is a for­got­ten gem that deserves to be redis­cov­ered by fans of ‘80s hor­ror,  a film with a style and hyp­notic power that belies its “slasher” tag.  If Dressed To Kill is America’s answer to the giallo film then Curtains eas­ily qual­i­fies as Canada’s response to this style.