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Monday, August 11, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: CURTAINS (1983)





CURTAINS
(Canada - 1983)

Directed by Jonathan Stryker (Richard Ciupka and Peter R. Simpson). Written by Robert Guza Jr. Cast: John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson, Anne Ditchburn, Lynne Griffin, Sandra Warren, Lesleh Donaldson, Deborah Burgess, Michael Wincott, Maury Chaykin, Kate Lynch, Calvin Butler. (R, 89 mins)

"Fans have made this movie a lot more intricate than it is.  Because there's nothing to understand" - Paul Zaza, CURTAINS score composer


"It's such a mishmash and such a mess that it's endearing somehow? They love it for the idea of what it could've been" - CURTAINS co-star Lesleh Donaldson

"I started getting e-mails from people wanting to interview me about CURTAINS, telling me it's a big cult movie now, and I'm like, 'This is a cult movie?  Really? CURTAINS?'" - Richard Ciupka, uncredited co-director of CURTAINS


Those are just some of the sentiments of the participants in "The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of CURTAINS" on Synapse Films' just-released Blu-ray and DVD edition of the 1983 Canadian cult classic CURTAINS. It's a bluntness usually not heard in such supplements, which typically resemble pleasant puff pieces about how great everyone was and what a great time they had. But there's a bit of an incredulous streak running through some of the cast/crew comments on CURTAINS that borders on the legendary SNL sketch where host William Shatner yells "Get a life, will you people?" to a room filled with Trekkies at a STAR TREK convention. CURTAINS is a perfect example of a completely forgotten film that bombed upon its initial release inexplicably taking on a life of its own long after the people involved in its creation have put the experience behind them and gotten on with their lives and careers.




Synapse's Blu-ray goes a long way toward making the case that CURTAINS is a film worthy of study, but it's mostly surface and cosmetic.  Zaza's right--there's nothing to understand, and it's probably the ultimate in revisionist nostalgia among children of the '80s who now label every 1980s movie a classic. I don't throw this stone with a dismissive tone from a glass house, either--hell, I bought the CURTAINS Blu-ray. Nostalgia's fun, and it's nice to look back at a time when movies like this were opening in theaters every Friday, but the notion of CURTAINS being a "classic" is absurd. I first took note of just how big this particular facet of '80s nostalgia was becoming back in 2009 when fans were outraged over Lionsgate's DVD release of the 1986 slasher film SLAUGHTER HIGH just being a port of the old VHS transfer, right down to the Vestron Video logo at the end of the movie. First of all, it is outrageous that they'd release a VHS transfer on DVD as late as 2009, but secondly, I thought "People give a shit about SLAUGHTER HIGH?" The story of a persecuted nerd named Marty Rantzen getting revenge on his tormentors at their ten-year reunion was barely a blip on the radar and was in and out of theaters in a week in 1986, and whatever attention it got from Fangoria at the time was due to actor Simon Scuddamore, who played Marty, committing suicide shortly after filming ended in late 1984. SLAUGHTER HIGH was the actor's only film and there was an air of mystery surrounding him and his short life and to this day, very little is known about him.  So there's the Scuddamore factor but beyond that, SLAUGHTER HIGH is not particularly interesting and certainly not an exemplary film in its genre. It's good for some laughs and it's got some gore, but it's really nothing special at all.


CURTAINS falls under that same category:  it's not a great movie or even a good one, though admittedly, its infamously troubled ordeal of a production and its lengthy journey into theaters make it an interesting curio. Synapse's Blu-ray is a case where the supplemental features are actually more interesting than the film itself, though in this beautiful, newly-restored 1.78 transfer, it does play a lot better than it did on the murky old Vestron VHS at 1.33:1, which was the source for CURTAINS' appearance on a 2010 Echo Bridge four-film bargain bin DVD set and on free cable VOD services like Verizon's ViewNow. Donaldson has a good point in that fans love CURTAINS for what it could've been, but it's probably more of a love for the time that it was released. It takes us back to our formative years as horror movie fans, when everything was new and every trip to the video store in that golden age was an adventure. It didn't even matter if the movies were good. It was the thrill of discovery...of directors, actors, subgenres, styles, etc. Home video was a revolution whose impact is easy to forget now and it just isn't understood by younger people who've only known a world where everything is a click away. You can't explain to them the hours spent browsing the shelves of video stores.  That's why there's the whole VHS nostalgia craze.  It's certainly not for the picture quality, although that's what the hipsters might try to tell you.  The nostalgia is for the boxes themselves. Cable exposed us to a lot of new things, but video stores offered a seemingly bottomless treasure trove of choices when we were used to whatever was on late-night TV or Saturday afternoon Creature Features. For example, my favorite Lucio Fulci film is CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), which was released in the US in 1983 as THE GATES OF HELL. CITY is one of his essential films, but it's probably not his best. I suspect the reason CITY (which I still find myself calling THE GATES OF HELL, even though no one refers to it as that anymore) still resonates so strongly with me is that when my dad got a video store membership, the first movie I picked was THE GATES OF HELL, in that old Paragon big box. I was ten years old and it was the most gloriously disgusting movie I'd ever seen. From that moment on, I was hooked. I knew the old Universal horrors of the 1930s and the Hammer and Amicus titles of the 1960s and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and JAWS and HALLOWEEN and ALIEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, but this was something else entirely. To an impressionable ten-year-old, those other films were merely gateway drugs and now there was no turning back. For me, it was THE GATES OF HELL, but someone else's cult movie epiphany might very well have been SLAUGHTER HIGH or CURTAINS.  The point is, this kind of nostalgia is like comfort food. The key is avoiding the hyperbole and the tendency to anoint everything "classic." I love the era of CURTAINS as much as anyone, but that doesn't make CURTAINS good. Let's not pretend this is a brilliant film awaiting critical reassessment. It's not without its effective moments, which seem like happy accidents considering how chaotic the shoot was--including one legitimately terrifying scene that's usually the only thing anyone remembers from it--but let's not kid ourselves about this being a good movie. The people involved in it don't even have your back on that claim.


As CURTAINS opens, famous actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) feigns a breakdown in order to get admitted to a mental hospital to research the title role in AUDRA, the next film by famous director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). She ends up escaping when she reads in Variety--which is apparently delivered to the asylum--that Stryker is casting for AUDRA and has no intention of having her released from the institution. Samantha shows up at Stryker's mansion, where he's auditioning five actresses for AUDRA: aspiring stand-up comedian Patti (Lynne Griffin), ice skater Christie (Donaldson), dancer Laurian (Anne Ditchburn), party girl Tara (Sandra Warren), and embittered Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson, best known for replacing Diana Rigg on THE AVENGERS), a veteran actress on the outs in the industry and desperate for a comeback. A sixth actress, Amanda (Deborah Burgess) is killed before she even gets to Stryker's house, and that same killer, wearing a horrific hag mask, starts offing the actresses one by one. Is it one of the actresses eliminating the competition?  Is it Stryker? Is it red herring caretaker and Tara's hot-tub buddy Michael (Michael Wincott)?  It's doubtful even the filmmakers knew until the footage was assembled.


CURTAINS began shooting in Toronto in October 1980. Producer Peter R. Simpson just had a big hit with the HALLOWEEN knockoff PROM NIGHT and was finishing production on the child-custody drama MELANIE, which was eventually released in 1982. Simpson fired MELANIE director Rex Bromfield and assigned the film's cinematographer Richard Ciupka to handle some post-production reshoots involving a character played by Guess Who frontman Burton Cummings. The Belgian-born Ciupka was making a name for himself in the Canadian film industry with numerous Canadian/French co-productions: he was the chief camera operator on two Claude Chabrol films (BLOOD RELATIVES and VIOLETTE, both 1978) and was promoted to director of photography on Nicolas Gessner's IT RAINED ALL NIGHT THE DAY I LEFT (1980) and, most importantly, Louis Malle's ATLANTIC CITY (1980). After agreeing to finish MELANIE for Simpson, Ciupka was rewarded with what was to be his official directorial debut with the $4 million CURTAINS. Working from a script by Robert Guza Jr, who would go on to be the head writer on GENERAL HOSPITAL from 1984 to 2011, Ciupka shot CURTAINS, with Simpson frequently checking in but more or less leaving him alone to work, as he was a businessman who had other projects going on at the same time and Ciupka knew what was expected of him. When shooting was finished and Simpson asked to see Ciupka's rough cut, their relationship quickly soured. According to editor Michael MacLaverty in the "Ultimate Nightmare" supplemental feature, Ciupka made an art film when Simpson wanted a slasher thriller, and on top of that, "it was only 45 minutes long and it was boring."


Simpson immediately shelved the film and it was over a year before he reassembled the necessary cast members for reshoots--without Ciupka--in March 1982, taking over the direction of CURTAINS himself. He completely overhauled and restructured the story, adding the slasher/gore elements that Ciupka didn't include, and it was Simpson who directed the film's most famous sequence: Christie's ice-skating encounter with the killer. Donaldson says that Simpson shot an entire subplot about her character that was ultimately not used, but all told, in its final cut that was finally released in US theaters on March 4, 1983, Ciupka and Simpson each directed about half of the 89-minute film, which was credited to one "Jonathan Stryker," after Vernon's character, when a disgruntled Ciupka refused to sign off on the paperwork required by the Director's Guild. Simpson basically took the 45 minutes that Ciupka assembled and created a beginning and ending around it, plus the ice-skating sequence, which happens around the 40-minute mark. Ciupka is interviewed for the Blu-ray, and states that his work is mostly confined to the middle of the film (he doesn't claim to have directed the ice-skating sequence here, but he has in the past; Donaldson says it was part of the 1982 reshoots, when Ciupka was no longer around), and that nothing in it is his until roughly 21 minutes in, when Amanda finds the doll in the middle of the road during a storm, a sequence that Simpson re-edited to appear as a dream. Though he added a beginning and an ending, Simpson's final cut of CURTAINS has haphazard seams and stitching showing all over the place, not just in terms of hairstyle changes from 1980 to 1982 and other continuity mishaps, but with Simpson completely forgetting about the Michael character, who has no dialogue and disappears until he turns up dead (on the commentary track with Griffin and Donaldson, Griffin has a vague recollection of Michael being Samantha's son in the script, but it's never mentioned in the film). Elsewhere, most of Ditchburn's scenes were cut as she has no dialogue in the released version, but she does get a memorable death scene as Ciupka slowly, almost hypnotically, moves in on her wonderfully expressive face, accompanied by Zaza's haunting piano theme, before the killer's black-gloved hand enters the frame and covers her mouth--it's another example of a powerful moment indicating what could've been. There's another scene where Samantha is burning photographs of the other actresses and talking to a woman who helped her escape.  We only see this other woman's legs and hear her voice.  This mystery woman is neither seen nor mentioned again (Griffin on the commentary: "Who is this woman supposed to be?").  Simpson's closing scene is an effective reveal that works well, but still feels like a last-minute decision on who the killer should be.



Synapse's Blu-ray presents CURTAINS in a way you've never seen it before, finally making it watchable and proving that, yes, it is at least a visually competent film. The muddy-looking VHS that everyone's been watching for 30 years was so dark at times that it was hard to tell what was going on and which characters were alive or dead. In this HD remastering, the film plays a lot like a Canadian giallo, particularly in some of Ciupka's very atmospheric framings and willingness to let things play out slowly. Simpson mimics that to a degree in his initial set-up of the ice-skating scene, which lasts about eight minutes, though the finishes of his kill scenes have an aggression to them that Ciupka's do not.  It works both ways, as demonstrated by Laurian's murder as she rehearses, dancing for several minutes as Ciupka very deliberately moves the camera in. Some of Ciupka's decisions have an understandably European feel to them in a way that was at odds with the in-your-face slasher movies of the sort Simpson was expecting. The end result is a confused mix of styles, but at least as far Ciupka's work is concerned, there's an argument that CURTAINS attempts the now in-vogue "slow burn" horror a few decades before Ti West made it hip, and maybe Ciupka's contributions influenced that to some degree. Again...the film that could've been... And that's not even taking into account all of the footage--Christie's subplot, a completely different ending, and more--that Simpson shot and never used.  All of that material--various rough cuts, alternate takes, scenes shot with Quebec actress Celine Lomez before she was fired and replaced by Thorson early into shooting, any unused footage--was destroyed by the rights holders during a vault-cleaning in 2009. As Synapse head Don May posted online at the time: "All gone...destroyed by someone who had no idea what they were getting rid of."


In addition to "The Ultimate Nightmare," there's also two commentary tracks, though one consists of a 45-minute phone interview with Simpson from 2004 (he died in 2007), and a ten-minute audio interview with Samantha Eggar by CURTAINS superfan Todd Garbarini, where she talks mostly about her past career and doesn't recall much about CURTAINS. The actual 2014 commentary features Griffin and Donaldson and is moderated by Edwin Samuelson, a regular fixture in the world of Blu-ray/DVD supplements. Samuelson was a last-minute replacement for planned moderator Garbarini who, for unspecified reasons, couldn't make it to the recording. Samuelson uses some of Garbarini's prepared notes and obviously knows the movie, and he does a decent job considering he probably woke up that morning with no idea he'd be recording a CURTAINS commentary before the day's end.  He asks the expected questions of the actresses, and sometimes it goes nowhere--Samuelson brings up future makeup effects guru Greg Cannom, who worked on the movie, and Griffin and Donaldson have no clue who he is--but the actresses are entertaining to listen to and come off like two old friends shooting the breeze.  Samuelson tries to keep them on subject, but he doesn't really have to--the two have a natural chemistry together and sometimes their asides and wanderings have an emotional, real-world resonance to them, as when Griffin, having not seen the film in many years, is surprised to see her late mother in a background bit part ("That's my mom!  Hi, Mom!"), and Donaldson being able to pinpoint exactly when a particular scene was shot because "we were working on this when we heard that John Lennon was killed."


Exclusive to the Synapse Blu-ray edition is a 1980 short film about Ciupka, then a hot commodity after his ATLANTIC CITY cinematography accolades, and his debut effort with CURTAINS. There's some great behind the scenes footage of Ciupka directing Vernon and some of the cast during the dinner scene.  What's most fascinating is that even during production, Ciupka is already openly questioning and pretty much regretting his decision to become a director, saying he was much happier as a D.P. and misses working with his crew and that sense of collaboration, feeling more like a manager now that he has to oversee everything on the set as director. He's clearly not happy (one shot catches him sitting alone, thumbing through a copy of the script and looking almost longingly at the camera crew as they adjust some lighting) even though, at least according to Donaldson, the cast was behind him and they were disappointed when shooting reconvened in 1982 and Ciupka was no longer their director. It's no surprise that he went back to being a D.P. after CURTAINS, waiting another decade to direct again and even then, only very sporadically and, aside from one episode of the late '90s Showtime erotic horror anthology series THE HUNGER, all French-language, Quebec-shot productions that never got US exposure. CURTAINS rarely works or makes any sense, but Synapse's stunning presentation of it and its informative extras come dangerously close to making a believer out of even the most ardent detractor.


2 comments:

  1. Great review Mark, and proof positive why this is one of the best review sites online.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the kind words, sir!

    ReplyDelete