And Then There Were None with a dwindling dramatis personae of aspiring actresses, Canadian cult favorite Curtains seems to actively benefit from what might best be described as its schizoid production schedule. Partway through the shoot, cinematographer turned director Richard Ciupka was given the boot by producer Peter R. Simpson, who then ordered extensive rewrites and reshoots, involving a different set of crew members, and entailing major changes to the architecture of the story as well as its tone. As a result, Curtains vacillates in approach, sometimes erratically, between Hitchcockian psychological thriller and early-’80s-vintage slasher movie, albeit one that’s relatively light on the splashy displays of gore found in Simpson’s earlier Prom Night. The upshot of the film’s erratic shifts in mood and morphology is a free-floating atmosphere of uncertainty, deception, and delusion akin to a fever dream or a nightmare.
Curtains opens with a suitably theatrical bit of psychodramatic psych-out that’s worthy of Brian De Palma. Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) histrionically accuses an unseen lover of infidelity, pulls out a pistol, and lets him have it. Cut to a theater balcony where, standing next to a burning spotlight, impresario Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) opines with stentorian conviction: “I don’t believe it!” Samantha, as it happens, is actually auditioning for the lead in Stryker’s new film, Audra, though he clearly doesn’t believe she’s got the chops for it. So, in an inspired extension of the Stanislavsky method, Samantha has herself committed to an insane asylum in order to immerse herself in the role. You can be sure that the opening scene comes back into play before film’s end.
Playful oscillations between playacting and reality recur throughout subsequent scenes, like the one that toys with the conventions of the slasher genre to amusing effect: Alone in her apartment, an actress named Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess) sips wine and peruses a script, while outside in the darkness a shadowy stalker dons a silk-stocking mask and breaks in. Of course, it all turns out to be nothing more than some rather uninspired erotic role-playing, but then the scene further blurs boundaries by throwing in a dream sequence that puts Amanda in the clutches of a particularly needy sad-faced doll. Such an intricate Chinese-puzzle-box structure lends Curtains unexpected charm and unpredictability, whether or not it came about intentionally or accumulated by mere happenstance during the film’s prolonged production history.
All this would be enough to recommend Curtains to genre aficionados. But there are other reasons to savor the film’s haphazard appeal. Factor in a strong cast: Besides veterans Eggar and Vernon, there are familiar genre faces like Lesleh Donaldson (Happy Birthday to Me) and Lynne Griffin (Black Christmas), as well as bit parts for Michael Wincott (perhaps best known for Strange Days) and the late Maury Chaykin. Or consider the truly great hag mask the killer wears. And then there are several standout set pieces: the infamous ice-skating sequence, a scene that tinkers around with the shower scene from Psycho (complete with a particularly nasty surprise twist), and another set in an empty prop shed that’s so well-stocked with dangling mannequin parts as to palpably suggest the influence of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace.
Synapse has done a commendable job cleaning up Curtains for its Blu-ray debut. Picture and sound quality on this 1080p/AVC-encoded disc are predictably superior to previous subpar home-video releases. Color density and saturation are noticeably richer, enhancing an arresting color palette dominated by snowy whites, eerie blues, and neon pinks. Fine details like the striking Art Deco décor in Stryker’s weekend retreat register more vividly. Blacks are satisfyingly solid, and grain levels look suitably cinematic. The Master Audio surround mix, created especially for this release, improves on the original mono by dispersing the portentous score and some clever off-screen sound effects across the peripheral channels.
The audio commentary with actresses Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin makes for a lively listen, conveying lots of information about the Canadian film industry’s production methods in the late ’70s and early ’80s, concentrating in particular on Curtains’s torturous production history and lengthy reshoots. The alternate audio track runs about an hour, providing additional perspective from producer Peter R. Simpson and actress Samantha Eggar. Rather than being a true commentary, the track consists of a pair of telephone interviews that have been stitched together. Simpson drops some interesting tidbits of trivia, especially about Shannon Tweed’s role as a body double in a scene that was ultimately never used, while Eggar provides more of a career overview, having little to say about a film she obviously cares for very little. "The Ultimate Nightmare" is a solid making-of doc with contributions from cast and crew members including composer Paul Zasa and "Act I" director Richard Ciupka. Ciupka is also the focus of a vintage featurette that overviews his career as cinematographer for the likes of Louis Malle and offers fascinating glimpses at some of the location shooting for Curtains.
Synapse’s impressive, nearly pristine Blu-ray presentation reopens Curtains for a fresh round of appreciation for its slapdash charms.