Thursday, February 25, 2010

Curtains (1983): or, A Madness to Her Method

Yes, my faithful congregants, The Vicar is back, and nearly in fighting shape after spending more than half of the year 2010 in chronic nerve-pinching pain. My ultimate recovery can doubtless be credited to all the prayers offered up for my healing by my caring and concerned parishioners--or else to the benefit of more than 400 years of scientific and medical advancement, the good fortune of being born in a first-world country and having a day job that offers insurance. But let's not split theological hairs!

While I was laid up and tripping on generic Vicodin last week, I finally got around to revisiting a relatively obscure cinematic slasher from the golden age of the subgenre: Richard Ciupka's debut effort from 1983, Curtains. This was one of those movies I remembered having enjoyed back in the burgeoning home-video boom times, and wondered how it would stand up after all these years.


In the flick's first act, hot-shit movie director Jonathan Stryker (played by delightfully menacing character actor John Vernon, last seen around the vicarage as the old gruff cop-cum-ventriloquist dummy in Killer Klowns from Outer Space) has rented out a theater to go over script ideas with his lover, super-famous method actress Samantha Sherwood (Cronenbergian baby-licker Samantha Eggar). Sam has acquired the rights to a play about a man-hating psycho named Audra, who in a climactic monologue verbally emasculates her cheating boyfriend before pumping him full of hot lead. She wants this to be her next star vehicle, but Stryker is not convinced she's quite got a handle on the insanity into which her character must fall in order to be believable. Whatchagonnado?

Well, if you ever had a sleepover at your friend Susan Strasberg's house and took acting tips from her dear old dad, yagonna get yourself committed to an insane asylum and spend the next several months figuring out what it's like to be a real-live looney! Sam and John think this is the best idea since Smell-o-Vision, and she pretends to try to murder him in front of the head of the psychiatric hospital, for authenticity's sake. Once she's in a straightjacket, Sam laughs with John about the boffo start to her method training, and he leaves her in the hospital to hone her craft.

Unfortunately their decision not to let the doctors know this is all theatrical research proves to be a SHOCKINGLY bad one. After a few weeks, the strain of listening to her dorm-mates gibber and screech starts to wear on poor Sam. John notices her performance getting better and better every time he visits, until finally he's so convinced that he callously moves on with the Audra project without her, leaving her committed so that she can get the help she now appears to actually need.

Purple Nurple Therapy: GO!

The idea of being the only sane person in the asylum is an affecting one--it's the old "but how can you prove you're NOT crazy?" dilemma. Ciupka evokes the dread and hopelessness well in these scenes, particularly when the still-sane Sam is confronted by her truly disturbed fellow patients--one of whom triumphantly hides her jigsaw puzzle pieces, one of whom comes back from shock therapy a mindless husk, and another who stages a manic tickle attack on the hapless actress! Sam seems stuck--after all, the doctors assume a smart crazy person will say anything to convince them she's not crazy, so how do you get around that?

Well, in this case you get around it with a daring and completely off-screen escape, aided by a faceless female friend. It happens fast: one minute Sam's in the asylum seething over John's betrayal, and the next she's in a hotel room with her unnamed, unclad companion, thanking her for the help in getting out. Like mine, your mind is probably jumping straight to the "unknown lesbian lover who will later be revealed as one of the principal characters" trope, but don't hold your breath. Having done her part to move the script along, the woman disappears, never to be seen again--or really at all.

We now move into Act II of the flick (seriously, even the end credits designate "Act I" and "Act II" personnel) , where we discover that Stryker is trying to cast Sam's replacement in the role of Audra. Not quite sure what he wants, the director has invited six starlets to his country estate for a Casting Weekend, which will doubtless be completely on the level and above-board, right? The memo to each girl to bring extra towels and moisturizer is surely just a standard rider.

One of the people in this photo had beans for dinner. Can you guess which one?

For a little while we follow a few of the prospective Audras as they prepare for the weekend. Chief among them are lower A-list actress Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson), stand-up comic Patti O'Connor (Strange Brew's Lynne Griffin), and blonde sexpot Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess). Rounding out the group (and largely unexplored in this prologue) are figure-skater Christi Burns (Lesleh Donaldson, the superstitious heroine of1980's Funeral Home), dancer Laurian Summers (Anne Ditchburn), and musician/nympho Tara DeMillo (Sandee Currie).

After watching Patti deliver some of the un-funniest expository stand-up ever, we follow Amanda as she takes a bubble bath, drinks wine, and goes over the script in her apartment. Things take a turn for the SVU when a stocking-masked stalker invades her home and gets all rapey on her--but the tension dissipates when the attacker is revealed to be Amanda's boyfriend, the awesomely named Booth Savage. It seems Amanda's into the kinky stuff--though when Booth offers a sex fantasy based on video-game sensation PAC-MAN (I shit you not), even she gives him the ol' stinkeye.

She used to be a Tight End, but now she's a Wide Receiver

After ill-advisedly bedding down next to one of the creepiest life-sized free-standing toddler dolls ever made, Amanda has a nightmare: she's driving out to Stryker's house when she sees the aforementioned doll in the middle of the road, reaching out to her. Getting out of the car to investigate (like you do) she is grabbed by its lifeless claws while the car starts up and runs her over! If I was having dreams like that, I'd think about curtailing my rape-before-bedtime activities a bit. The point is moot, however, since shortly thereafter Amanda is stabbed to death in her living room by an unseen assailant, and poor Booth's unspoken Frogger-based sex fantasy goes forever unfulfilled.

This leaves an open spot at the mansion, and who should arrive to fill it but the original Audra herself, Sam Sherwood! Sam marches in like she owns the place, ruthlessly belittles the talents of the other actresses, and takes every chance she has to remind Stryker of the fact that he left her to rot in the looney bin. Jonathan tries his best to carry on the casting by having the girls participate in acting workshops in his dance studio--usually improvisations in which one girl is tasked to seduce Stryker without words, or two girls are paired up and challenged to seduce one another (sensing a theme)? Christi the ice-skater takes on a little extra credit assignment by actually having sex with Stryker later that night.

The next day Christi goes out to skate on a frozen pond near the mansion, and thanks to her Olympian dedication is rewarded with the most memorable death scene in the flick, as she finds Amanda's creepy doll buried in the snow! Moments later the killer, dressed in black and wearing a fantastically creepy old woman mask, skates toward her in slow-mo and hacks her with a scythe! I can see why this scene made such an impression on so many viewers--it really is quite creepy in a nightmare/funhouse way.

Death Came Skating

Things have been a little draggy up to this point--nearly an hour in and only two kills--but events pick up as we go barrelling toward our conclusion. Laurian does an interpretive dance that expresses the emotion one feels when being garotted, and Brooke finds an unwelcome surprise in her dressing room:

We're gonna need a bigger plunger.

Of course when Stryker comes to investigate the head is gone, and he comforts the hysterical actress by prescribing her a megadose of his penis. He's packing up the wedding tackle when the killer comes in and shoots both of them Audra-style, sending them flying out the window in a slow-mo double-defenestration--which is really the only way to do it.

Now it's time for the "heroine discovers all the dead bodies" scene, and here the director makes a bold choice by designating as heroine Tara DeMillo--a character who we as the audience still know absolutely NOTHING about! Somehow Tara stumbles into an alternate-dimension warehouse/funhouse/theatrical museum Stryker has on the premises, a real netherworld of old props and sets that reminded me a little of Mickey Rooney's pad in The Manipulator--but just a little. After finding a couple of corpses and being stalked by the old-lady-masked killer, Tara gets away by hiding in an air conditoning vent...OR DOES SHE?


Since there are only two characters left we figure one of them has to be the killer, right? Unless (spoiler coming......) they both are! As it turns out, Sam and Patti have been knocking off the competition, not working together as one would expect, but totally independent of one another--which is kind of a neat idea, but so out of nowhere as to be robbed of whatever effectiveness it might have had.

Curtains is not really that bad a movie, but it's no great shakes either. Ciupka does a good job with some of the scenes, particluarly in the madhouse, that show-stopping ice-skating attack, and the final other-dimensional tour through Theater Hell. The use of closing-curtain wipes on some transitions seemed a little cute, but I could forgive it for sheer ostentatiousness.

The problem is, with so many characters and so little time devoted to each one, it's really hard to care that much about what happens to any of them. Of the girls on the Designated Victim menu, Amanda is given the most backstory, and she's butchered before she even gets to the house, rendering all that time we spent with her pretty much pointless. Laurian gets maybe five lines total before her death, and Final Girl Tara gets even less attention before that last stalk-and-slash. Ciupka has a flair for suspense, it's clear, but the lack of character development really impairs the audience's ability to give a shit.

The Director appreciates constructive criticism.

The acting is hit and miss, as usual. Vernon is good playing the type of deadpan menacing character he always plays, and Eggar gets to chew the scenery like it was a foetal manifestation of her crippling psychoses...or something. The other actors are forgettable, but that's probably more a criticism of the script than of their thespian chops.

Also hurting the slasher-fan interest opportunities is the relative lack of gory kills--it's mostly stabbing and strangling, and one character (an actor-for-hire Stryker's invited to help with the workshops who doesn't get a single line I remember) dies completely offscreen. There are a couple of brief nude scenes, but nothing particularly worth noting.

One last note--Ciupka's name does not appear under the director's credit on screen; rather, the movie claims to be directed by Jonathan Stryker! Whether this is a meta in-joke or the director's way of distancing himself from a disappointing first flick is unclear.

I didn't hate Curtains, but I didn't love it, and there are many more entertaining slasher flicks from the period. The poster is great, the mask is creepy, and the opening concept could have been fun, but ultimately, I'm afraid, it's just not. 1.25 thumbs.



kindertrauma said...

I think this one had a ton of problems during the production and unfortunately it shows. Still, I have a soft spot for the snowy atmosphere and that skating/pond attack is just plain stunning. I wish the whole movie was on that level because it really does work. Can you imagine what it would have been like if they utilized that old hag mask more often? Glad you're feeling better and even though you were not too happy with this one, you've inspired me to watch it yet again. (It's the perfect weather for it here!)-Unk

Al Bruno III said...

I have to agree with you that CURTAINS is not a great film but the ice skating attack is one of the freakiest scenes in horror film. I named a regularly occurring character in my NICK OF TIME stories Audra in honor of that scene.

Also as a lad I thought Lynne Griffin was quite fetching.

I am also glad to hear you are feeling better instead of feeling parishioners.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@kindertrauma--You're absolutely right about that skating scene, and about the tragic underuse of the Old Hag mask. Really one of the more striking slasher disguises in the genre, but not utilized nearly to the appropriate levels. I thought Stryker's utilization of the mask in that weird acting workshop was going to be tied in later, but then it was just dropped. Was it the same mask? Or did he just shop at the same Walgreens as the killer? The world will never know, sadly. :P

@Al Bruno III--I really need to watch STRANGE BREW again; I can only assume Griffin was better in that, eh? :)

And just because I'm feeling better doesn't mean I'm NOT feeling parishioners! The relationship between the two is much more likely to be the inverse of your formulation... ;)

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