“Have you ever wanted something so badly, you’d be willing to do anything for it?”
That’s the central question posed by the aspiring actress, Patti, in Richard Ciupka’s 1983 slasher mystery, “Curtains.” When the line comes early in the film, Patti is feeding clunky one-liners to drunks in the smoky nether regions of a local comedy club. She tells her audience that she’s only ever wanted to be in the movies (“I was so desperate to be in pictures, I screwed a guy at a PhotoMat”), and now she may finally get her chance: she and five other actresses are about to duke it out to play Audra, a mentally unbalanced crone, in a film to be directed by the legendary Jonathan Stryker. It’s the role of a lifetime, and the best chance for Patti and her competition to change their fortunes in Hollywood. The trouble is, Stryker has already promised the role to the seasoned diva, Samantha Sherwood, his muse and occasional lover.
Hellbent on understanding Audra’s deep psychosis, Samantha has Stryker commit her to a mental institution. Ever the sleaze, Stryker leaves her there to suffer the pain and madness of patients with very real issues, and gathers his harem of actresses at his isolated country estate for a little masochism, role play, and deep sexual manipulation. Not that any of the women—including an aging actress, a dancer, a professional ice skater, and a musician—isn’t willing to do what it takes to get the part. Vicious sniping and Machiavellian drama ensue, until Samantha shows up at the house, claiming to have escaped the institution, and threatens to bring the curtain down on the whole show. With the set-up out of the way, a killer in a creepy Audra mask is free to start checking names off the call sheet by way of various sharp and rusty instruments.
Sounds like your run-of-the-mill slasher flick, right? Well, not quite. “Curtains,” like “Black Christmas” before it, is a surprisingly smart movie that relies as much on its Ten Little Indians-style mystery and character development for success, as it does its slice-and-dice DNA. Ciupka and screenwriter Robert Guza, Jr., allow each of the characters plenty of time and space to live and breathe—at least to a degree uncommon for a genre film—so that we feel engaged by them, both before and after they’re finished off. They don’t feel like standard slasher movie archetypes, written into the screenplay for no other reason than to be murdered in a gruesome way.
Samantha’s Shakespearean battle of wits with Stryker is a lot of fun to watch, there’s an interesting (if somewhat puzzling) sexual tête-à-tête late in the film, and the movie features two bravura extended set-pieces, including the now-famous ice-skating sequence, and a chase scene in an abandoned prop room that proves, yet again, why a ventilation shaft is never a good place to hide. And that Audra mask? It looks like an old lady’s face melting off its skull, and when I say it’s creepy, well, just watch the movie and tell me you disagree.
Arriving as the slasher craze of the 1980s had already died, “Curtains” came and went with little notice, and within a few years, could be found wasting away, sad and alone, on video store shelves across America. Over time, those tapes suffered the humiliation of being chewed up in so many VCRs, and by the 1990s, “Curtains” had all but been forgotten by everyone except those (like me) whose passions lay deeply in obscure genre films.
But now, after decades of neglect, “Curtains” arrives in a pristine high-definition Blu-ray print from the brave folks at Synapse Films, who clearly understood from the start that they were dealing with the Holy Grail of early-80s horror. I’ve never seen the movie look this good. Every frame is crisp and clear, the colors are rich and deep, and the DTS-HD soundtrack is so clean, I was nearly jumping with delight at nuance I’d never heard before. It’s an astonishing print—one of the best I’ve seen from any of the houses now re-mastering long-lost horror gems. This is the way “Curtains” was meant to be seen, and I hope that with this remarkable release, it will find a whole new generation of fans.