When she has herself committed to a psychiatric hospital to prepare for a film role, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) is abandoned there by treacherous director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), who then invites six other actresses to an isolated mansion to audition for the role. One by one, they are stalked and murdered by a mysterious killer sporting a creepy old crone mask and seemingly seeking revenge...
Curtains is an interesting, if not always effective slasher film that possesses a few untypical aspects, such as an older cast, higher production values, snide asides at the superficiality of the film industry and celebrity culture, and some light commentary on the downside of over-ambition. The first act focuses on the duplicitous actions of Samantha as she is determined to snatch that starring role. When it appears she actually slips into catatonia during her stay at the facility, and is abandoned by the director, the stage is set for murder and mayhem as the action relocates to the isolated mansion and the plot moves firmly into more familiar slasher territory. As the cast are whittled down, paranoia and suspicions run high as the surviving women suspect each other of killing off the competition.
Sadly, Curtains never quite lives up to its potential, nor is it even as theatrical or camp as one might imagine, given the many catty interactions between the histrionic director and the desperate actresses. These moments never go far enough, and any humour elicited is largely unintentional, as the film takes itself quite seriously. While this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if there were more in the way of suspense, as it is, it just ends up being quite arduous for long stretches, as too many dull talky scenes disrupt the pace. As events unravel at the mansion, the narrative also gets a little muddled as several characters who were never properly developed enough to even be memorable (to the point that I couldn't even remember when they were introduced) are killed off-screen. The disjointed feel wasn’t helped by a troubled production, as there were artistic differences between director Richard Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson. Ciupka wanted to create a dark, psychological ‘arthouse’ chiller, while Simpson allegedly wanted to cash in on the success of his previous film, Prom Night (1980), with a more conventional slasher narrative. The result was myriad rewrites and reshoots that spanned several years, and Ciupka eventually disowned the film (he used the pseudonym of Jonathan Stryker, the name of the director in the film).
This is all quite disparaging of Curtains, which is not without its merits. There are a number of well-staged moments of creepiness and tension, including the standout scene which comes when Christie (Lesleh Donaldson, Happy Birthday to Me ) goes ice-skating on a frozen pond and is menaced by a masked figure who comes skating across the ice after her (in slow motion) brandishing a large sickle. It’s an audacious image, chilling and absurd. The climax chase scene, which takes place in a creepy props store, also provides a few atmospheric delights. The cast mainly throw themselves into their roles, but Eggar (who was particularly memorable in David Cronenberg’s The Brood ) and Lynn Griffin (Black Christmas ), who appears as a comedienne who wants to prove herself a serious actress by winning the role, are the standouts. Others are less successful because their characters are never fleshed out, they are only knife fodder.
While there are moments that toy with blurring the edges between artifice, performance and reality - a few dramatic interactions are revealed to be rehearsals, one bizarre altercation is revealed to be kinky foreplay - such moments are undeveloped. There are also a few little flourishes of self-referential humour, such as when curtains literally open and close onscreen during the transition of several scenes. This hints at the theatrical shenanigans at play, but is also suggestive of the act of concealment, alluding to the hidden identity of the killer and the various ‘roles’ characters are playing, including whoever is concealing murderous intentions. In her essay on the use of curtains and drapes in cinema, Hannah McGill notes: "Drapes can evoke surprise and delight but also hint at the threat that lies beyond their concealed interior."*
Sadly, when the curtains that open onscreen to usher us into the world of Curtains, they don’t reveal anything we haven’t seen before. While this slasher is certainly enjoyable, it could have been a campy classic, or indeed, a dark and twisted fable about the bloody, violent things people are prepared to do to obtain their heart's desire. Alas, it is never quite either.
* McGill, H. (2015) ‘It’s Curtains!’, Sight & Sound, 25(5), pp. 8–9.