• Gabe Powers

Curtains Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)

A group of women gather for a weekend casting call at the secluded mansion of director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). He’s searching for the perfect woman to play the role of the crazed character, ‘Audra,’ and these women are just dying for the chance to play her! Stryker’s last star, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar), is so determined to get the part that she committed herself to an asylum to prepare for the role. Unfortunately for all, a crazed killer in a disgusting ‘hag’ mask is viciously murdering everyone one by one. Who will survive the final curtain call? (From Synapse’s original synopsis)



My frantic, some might say compulsive desire to see as many horror movies as I can get my hands on usually leaves me well-prepared to review most of the catalogue titles I’m sent from studios, like Blue Underground, Severin, Scream Factory, and Synapse Films. But there are still plenty of genre gems to be discovered. Richard Ciupka’s Curtains (1983) is the latest such feature. Despite a relatively strong reputation as one of the better films of the ‘80s slasher cycle, Curtains languished in relative obscurity. Before it disappeared into the æther, Cipuka’s film was reportedly a difficult production, one that required extensive re-writes, re-shoots, and a release delay of at least two years.


Ciupka, who shot under the pseudonym Jonathan Styker (the name of John Vernon’s character in the film), was a Belgium-born filmmaker that made his feature debut with Curtains following a blossoming career as director of photography in a number of Canadian films, including Jean Lafleur’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS sequel, Ilsa the Tigress of Siberia (1977). He continues working on French Canadian television productions to this day. His work on Curtains is crisp and classy without being particularly flashy. The stalk-and-kill sequences owe a significant debt to the pre-slasher Italian gialli, including stark shadows, garish colors, and scenes shot from the killer’s point-of-view. Further visual nods to the likes of Dario Argento include a Deep Red-like doll that appears before kills, a black-gloved murderer, and Suspiria-like baroque interior lighting. There are also a number of Mario Bava-inspired motifs, specifically a number of Kill Baby Kill (1966) and Blood and Black Lace (1964) lifts that appear during the climax. But, for the most part, Ciupka isn’t blindly mimicking other filmmakers. Curtains is a refreshingly unique variation of various suspense and horror recipes. At the very least, the iconic, slow-motion pond skating chase/murder deserves special credit for creating a stylishly tense moment in stark daylight, against a backdrop of white driven snow.



The script, credited to Prom Night (1980) and General Hospital writer Robert Guza Jr. (though there were probably at least a few uncredited rewrites), is a combination of melodrama and convoluted plot twists, but not otherwise interchangeable with too many other era slashers, though the genre signification is an oversimplification of Ciupka and Guza’s influences. The first act, where Samantha fakes her way into an insane asylum, appears to be in reference to Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), while the rest of the film is clearly inspired by Agatha Christie’s various body-count stories (Stryker actually states ‘and then there were four’ at one point, if there was any doubt). The punchy drama of struggling actresses vying for the same part under the heel of a manipulative director is pure soap opera fodder (it’s here where the better-than-average cast makes all the difference). The horror and thriller elements are so different in terms of design and storytelling conventions that they sometimes feel as if they were added months after the initial production had already wrapped – which, in this case, some of them were (the Shock Corridor and Bava stuff that bookends the film was apparently part of producer Peter R. Simpson’s reshoots). This probably should’ve proven disastrous (by all accounts, the cast and crew thought it would be), but the warring parts actually complement each other, despite the hodgepodge visual natures. Ciupka and his editors, Michael Laverty and Henry Richardson, do a great job amping up the more hallucinatory horror elements as the film starts chugging towards its big reveal.


Curtains belongs to a small subset of slashers modeled on a show biz backdrop, including John Lamond’s Nightmares (aka: Stage Fright, 1980), Ulli Lommel’s Boogey Man II (aka: Revenge of the Bogey Man, 1983), Michele Soavi’s Stagefright (aka: Aquarius and Bloody Bird, 1987), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and Scream 3 (2000), Rick Jordan’s Stage Fright (2005) and Jerome Sable’s recent musical slasher spoof, Stage Fright (2014 – do note that none of these films are remakes). I’m not sure if slasher writers and directors are just prone to self-reflection, but the setting certainly supplies a valid excuse to include beautiful yet intellectually vapid characters and offers a chance to trap them in a definitively theatrical location.



Video

Contrary to Synapse Film’s press release, Curtains was released on DVD via gray market copyright ignorers Echo Bridge, in 2010 as part of a Midnight Horror Collection four-movie set. You would be forgiven from never knowing this, because the disc’s cover art does everything it can to make Curtains look like a newer movie. I can’t find specs for the disc, but most accounts state it isn’t much better than the old Vestron VHS release. Synapse’s remastered Blu-ray was a long time coming and was twice delayed because the company head, Don May, Jr., personally disapproved of the initial results of the 2K scan. In an address to fans on the official Synapse website, May said:

… the film stock was incredibly grainy and, when we got our first encodes back, honestly, I thought they could be better. The encoder wasn’t handling the grain structure well and it was softening the grain enough for me to take a couple more cracks at the compression. It looked really good for the most part, but when paused, I was seeing breakup in the grain that I wasn’t too fond of.

You can read the rest of what he had to say here, complete with samples of the original master and two encodes for comparison’s sake.


The 1080p, 1.78:1 image (I’ve seen specs that list the original aspect ratio at both 1.85:1 and 1.66:1) is somewhat grainy, but no more grainy than I’d expect from any other low-budget film of its age. The grain levels remain relatively consistent, only clumping up a hair during darker scenes and close-ups. Details are generally better in wide-angle shots, where the deeper focus helps to differentiate patterns and objects. The softer focus and pulsing grain dull some of the more delicate textures. Cinematographer Robert Paynter’s garish, giallo-inspired colors are quite vivid and the more subdued scenes are pretty consistent, depending on lighting sources (outdoor, daylight skin tones are, of course, different than those shot under dim studio lights). There are a few odd shots that appear muddy and discolored, due to increasing grain levels (a couple of establishing and dissolve shots come to mind). Compression effects are not an issue on my 50-inch set, so it appears that the ‘second crack’ at encoding did the trick. The bulk of the print damage artifacts are made up of small flecks, but also includes a handful of shots with some kind of water damage. The edges and corners of the frame are sometimes overtly shaded, which I believe is an intended effect (like a more subtle iris effect), though it may be a sign of further image degradation.



Audio

Synapse has taken the extra effort to remix Curtains’ original soundtrack from mono into 5.1 surround. Presented in uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio sound, this remix is a fine effort, but not what I’d consider a necessity. Fortunately, for completists, Synapse has also included the original mono track, which is also presented in DTS-HD MA. For the sake of this review, I mostly listened to the remix, and didn’t notice any ‘canned’ effects that were added for the sake of five-channel immersion (for example, the sounds of a storm and a revving car engine are basically identical between the 5.1 and mono tracks during a particular scene). Generally speaking, the two tracks feature the same centered dialogue and effects with only minor directional spreads found in the new mix. The discrete center channel is a plus in the 5.1 track’s corner, as is the extra oomph the discrete LFE channel offers the musical score. Composer Paul Zaza – who wrote the scores for a number of your favourite Canadian films, from Prom Night, to My Bloody Valentine (1981), and Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981), A Christmas Story (1984), and (sigh) Baby Geniuses (1999) – does a wonderful job underscoring both the melodrama and horror with string and piano motifs.



Extras

  • Commentary with actresses Lesleh Donaldson & Lynne Griffin, moderated by documentarian Edwin Samuelson – Samuelson does a decent job prodding the actresses at the beginning of this track, but the actresses eventually get into the swing of telling behind-the-scenes stories and giggling about the good ol’ days.

  • Vintage audio interviews with producer Peter R. Simpson (courtesy of Jason Knowles) and actress Samantha Eggar (courtesy of Todd Garbarini) – These two interviews are available on another audio track. They are not scene-specific as a result. Simpson’s interview, which runs about 45 minutes, fills in some of the blanks in the production history. Eggar’s 10-minute chat is more interesting in terms of its archival value.

  • The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains (35:50, HD) – A new retrospective featurette that includes interviews with Ciupka, cast members Donaldson & Griffin, editor Michael MacLaverty, special make-up effects creator Greg Cannom, and composer Paul Zaza. The interviewees recall they’re careers, the difficult production process, casting, technical elements, make-up effects, reshoots (including a still from an alternate ending), and release (no one seems to have enjoyed it). There’s no mention of the Italian filmmakers I see in the production, but people praise Ciupka’s highly technical filmmaking and compare it to the work of Hitchcock (a more buzzword-worthy filmmaker, I suppose).

  • Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition (15:10, HD) – This vintage documentary short from 1980 follows the director’s early career as a cinematographer, including behind-the-scenes footage and clips from some of the films he worked on, like Curtains.

  • Trailer



Overall

Without the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations, Curtains probably would’ve been either a mediocre melodrama or a mediocre slasher movie. But the haphazard slamming of two mediocre films together resulted in a charming and artistically ambitious mishmash that stands apart from genre distinctions. Synapse has done a spectacular job remastering the less that ideal source material and has included a decent stack of extras, including a cast commentary, interviews, and a retrospective documentary.


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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