CURTAINS (1983) Blu-ray
Director: Jonathan Stryker (AKA Richard Ciupka)
Synapse Films

Synapse Films puts a Canadian horror sleeper back in the limelight with a high definition facelift of CURTAINS on Blu-ray.

When icy director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon, CHAINED HEAT) doubts famous actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar, THE COLLECTOR) is up to the task of playing a mentally unbalanced woman in his planned project AUDRA, they hatch a plan for her to be committed to an asylum to fully embody the role. Unfortunately things work to well and Samantha starts to mentally deteriorate and AUDRA is shelved. Years later, Stryker decides to resume the production and searches out a new lead, inviting six hopefuls to his snowbound country house for a rigorous weekend audition: comedian Patti (Lynne Griffin, BLACK CHRISTMAS), seasoned actress Brooke (Linda Thorson, VALENTINO), ballerina Laurian (Anne Ditchburn, SLOW DANCING IN THE BIG CITY), musician Tara (Sandee Currie, TERROR TRAIN), naïve ice skater Christie (Lesleh Donaldson, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME), and aspiring actress Amanda (Deborah Burgess, RUNNING). One of them doesn't make it to the gathering, having been brutally murdered by an assailant in an old hag mask; but Samantha has shown up to fill the spot – having escaped from the asylum after reading in Variety of Stryker's intentions to recast her role – game for Stryker's particular brand of auditions which take the form of psychodramas intended to push the actresses to their psychological limits. Unfortunately, the masked, sickle-wielding killer has also joined the party. Samantha is arrogantly confident in her abilities as an actress though jealous of Stryker's attentions to the other ladies, but is she as sane as she appears? Is Stryker disposing of the actresses who disappoint him? Or, has one of the Audra hopefuls been driven over the edge and literally slashing the competition?

One of many troubled productions from Canadian producer Peter Simpson (PROM NIGHT), CURTAINS was an attempt at a more adult thriller with a higher profile cast, but the uneasy mix of arthouse psychological drama and stalk-n-slash was further exacerbated by radical reshoots by Simpson himself after cinematographer-turned-director Richard Ciupka. Accounts suggest that Ciupka, who had worked as camera operator on Chabrol's BLOOD RELATIVES and VIOLETTE before graduating to DP with titles as disparate as ILSA: TIGRESS OF SIBERIA, Louis Malle's ATLANTIC CITY, and then MELANIE – where he was asked to direct a complex multi-camera sequence after Simpson had fired director Rex Bromfield – was more interested in doing an art film while Simpson wanted more of a slasher. The original script by PROM NIGHT scribe/later GENERAL HOSPITAL head writer Robert Guza Jr. was reportedly about a banshee, and the clash of genres must have been evident in subsequent drafts. Although inexperienced as a director – as he candidly admits in the vintage film profile (see below) – Ciupka is well-supported by Vernon and Eggar (Thorson, Donaldson, Griffin, and Curee also acquit themselves well but they are given less opportunity to stand out apart from the slasher motions of screaming and running) as well as the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Paynter (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) and Art Nouveau production design of Roy Forge Smith (FUNERAL HOME), both of which one can finally appreciate in this new transfer. While the reshot scenes might not all be obvious in terms of their content – apart from one scene burdened with unnecessary exposition (we don't need a scene of Samantha explaining her reasons for escaping when we've been shown an issue of Variety with the AUDRA cover story lying on her abandoned asylum bed) – but the work of promoted camera operator Fred Guthe (THE PIT) does clash with that of Paynter (although the latter does impress during the climactic stalking sequence). The reshoot was so extensive that the crews for each shoot are divided into "Act I" and "Act II" in the closing credits, and Guthe receives an "additional photography" credit in the opening. When I first saw the film – after catching the creepy theatrical trailer at the tail end of either Vestron's tape of HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW or Lightning's A BLADE IN THE DARK – I thought it was dull, but it's now more interesting in light of the more we know about its production, for what it could have been as an intense arthouse drama (Ciupka wanted Klaus Kinski as Stryker) rather than a slasher, and for the ways in which its disparate elements do occasionally come together.

Actress Celine Lomez (THE KISS) was replaced early on by Thorson, and there have been conflicting accounts of why. According to producer Peter Simpson, the issue was with her French-Canadian accent ("she could either act or speak English") while other accounts have suggested that she was fired over her refusal to do frontal nudity (Thorson doesn't do nudity in the film either). In the new featurette discussed below, Ciupka supports Simpson's account despite their own falling out (while Donaldson and Griffin on the commentary track do not recall shooting any scenes with Lomez suggesting she was replaced very early on); although another reason might have been the chance to get another big name (Thorson gets second billing while Eggar gets a prominent "and" billing over the title). Michael Wincott (THE DOORS) has a small, wordless role as Stryker's randy handyman while prestigious Canadian actor Maury Chaykin (the voyeuristic filmmaker of Atom Egoyan's THE ADJUSTER) makes a brief appearance as Brooke's flamboyant agent. The few gore effects on view, as well as the hag mask, were the early work of Greg Cannom (BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA). The atmospheric score is the work of Canadian stalwart Paul Zaza while composer Carl Zittrer (BLACK CHRISTMAS) is credited as music consultant (they had previously worked together on Simpson's PROM NIGHT and MELANIE, as well as GHOSTKEEPER and a couple Bob Clark productions). Best boy Adam Swica has since become George Romero's DP of choice for his Canadian works including BRUISER, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD. The song Christie skates to on the frozen lake is "You Saved My Soul" by Burton Cummings – lead singer of The Guess Who – who had acted and sung in MELANIE, the Simpson production on which DP Ciupka was charged with directing a complex multi-camera sequence after Simpson fired the director.

Released stateside by Jensen Farley Pictures (one of six films they released in their last year of operation including Greydon Clark's JOYSTICKS), CURTAINS reached most stateside viewers via Vestron Video's dark and dull VHS release (and Canadian viewers via heavy cable play). CURTAINS got its first DVD release in the UK as an unauthorized disc of poor quality from Blackhorse Entertainment (a division of Orbit Media). The film's first official stateside digital release surprisingly came from Echo Bridge – who specialize mainly in budget multi-film packs for the Walmart and Target bins – licensed from Canadian owner Alliance Atlantis (from which they also licensed PROM NIGHT for an anamorphic but PAL-converted single disc and a double feature with PROM NIGHT II utilizing a tape master rather than former rights holders MGM's digital anamorphic widescreen version). It was part of a four-film double-sided BLOODY SLASHERS disc set with the more recent DTV flicks HOBOKEN HOLLOW, SECRETS OF THE CLOWN, and ROOM 33. Derived from a tape master, it had slightly better colors than the Vestron disc but was even darker (perhaps Vestron's dull colors were the result of them brightening the master). The film's original negatives seem to be lost, and Synapse's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray is meticulously restored from a 2K scan of the original interpositive. For starters, you can actually see the curtains behind the opening titles (at least to my eyes on the Vestron, it looked like the blackness behind the titles simply parted in an animated effect to resemble opening curtains). It is really no exaggeration to call this one a stunner. One can't merely say that the transfer finally does justice to Paynter's photography as none of the earlier examples offered us any indication that the film was in keeping with his professional standard (the same can be said of our opportunity to finally appreciate Smith's production design which must have been a chunk of the film's four million dollar Canadian budget). Audio options include the original mono track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 as well as a new 5.1 remix that is very respectful to the original mix (without gimmicky added effects and generally giving the mix and the stings of Zaza's score more breathing room).

Sadly, the lab that kept CURTAINS up until the nineties destroyed a number of assets associated with the film for space reasons including ¾" and 1" tapes featuring the 105 minute workprint, outtakes, trailers and various TV spots. While it is disappointing to not have these included, Synapse have brought us a respectable set of extras starting off with an audio commentary by actresses Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin (moderated by Edwin Samuelson using notes by diehard fan Todd Gabarini). Griffin is pleasantly surprised to see her own mother Kate as an extra during Samantha's asylum stay (her mother was an actress who ran a talent agency now run by Griffin's sister) and recalls liking the project because it was a departure from her usual victim roles (not just in the horror genre), being particularly proud of her tense scene with John Vernon and her stand-up act (which she wrote and performed for the camera at a real comedy club). Donaldson recalls being in awe of Eggar, Vernon, and Thorson, learning to skate (and being doubled after falling flat on her face), and her death scene (and the subsequent discovery of part of her body). Donaldson had also seen the film recently at a New York screening, so she keeps Griffin informed about what's happening in it (since they are watching it without sound). Samuelson also prompts them about the reshoots. Although Donaldson's skating sequence was supposed to be part of the original film, it had to be shot much later due to the scheduling (she even recalls being called to set a year later and staying there for a week in which they still did not get around to the scene). She also recalls a flashback scene in which she has been having an affair with one of her professors (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE's Peter MacNeill) to provide context for her sleeping with Stryker that never made it into the finished film. Griffin recalls not only the new ending, but an alternate version of the final scene (the featurette discussed below has a still photograph from this scene). Although it's not a comprehensive track – understandable since the shooting experience was just as confusing as the final film – it's an entertaining listen with two pleasant actresses who deserve better recognition for their contributions to slasher cinema.

The film can also be viewed with another optional audio track featuring two vintage telephone interviews (circa 2004) with producer Simpson (for the first fourty-five minutes) and Eggar (for ten more minutes) before the track reverts to the film's mono mix. The outspoken producer (and uncredited director) is forthcoming about the film's troubled history (and the numerous reshoots on other Simcom productions) as well as its merits (including the effectiveness of the killer's mask and the doll). He's more charitable in his discussion of Ciupka than of the actresses, but he does contend that the film was always meant to be a more adult thriller that would also appeal to slasher demographics rather than an art film. His memory is not infallible as he was surprised when seeing the film again recently that the sequence with Christie and her professor present (it does not appear to be in any version of the film). He also reveals that actress Currie's breast double was none other than Playboy model/direct-to-video erotic thriller queen Shannon Tweed. Eggar's interview is a more general overview of her career because she has little recollection of her later low budget work in the states and Canada, most of which she took because the short shooting schedules meant that she could spend more time with her then school age children. It's too bad that she has not revisited some of these films recently, but it's not surprising given CURTAINS troubled production and limited release that it had not been on her radar.

"The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of CURTAINS" (35:51) is a brand new documentary featuring director Ciupka, actresses Donaldson and Griffin, composer Zaza, prosthetics artist Cannom, and editor Michael MacLaverty (TANYA'S ISLAND). Ciupka recalls his impressions of Simpson while working as a cinematographer for him on MELANIE, and then his subsequent run-ins with the producer on CURTAINS. Ciupka did not see CURTAINS until the director's guild sent him a VHS cassette to sign off on the edit and was shocked by all of the reshooting. He posits that roughly thirty-five minutes of the movie was reshot by Simpson while his surviving forty-odd minutes was itself butchered. The first shot he recalls directing in the final edit is the scene in which Burgess encounters the creepy doll on the rainy road (which was meant to be an actual death scene rather than a nightmare), meaning that all of the asylum scenes with Eggar were shot by Simpson. Curee's extended stalking scene as well as the surprise ending were also not his work. Zaza – who would not walk away from a production but was hoping to be fired from this one – recalls sitting down with editor MacLaverty – who figured a low budget film with a short shooting schedule would be easy to assemble – to what needed to be done to complete the film after Ciupka left and before Simpson came on, while Cannom recalls the effects he created for the film that were not used (including a full body cast of Donaldson for a reveal of the whereabouts of the rest of her character's corpse). Griffin and Donaldson repeat some stories from the commentary, but in general inject some lightness into the proceedings (having been mostly unaware of the tension on the set) and are pleasantly surprised by the film's shelf life (while the crew members are more bewildered by it).

Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the vintage featurette "Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition" (15:09) in which the subtitular transition is Ciupka's graduation from director of photography on producer Simpson's MELANIE to director of CURTAINS. Composed of behind the scenes footage from both films – including the choreography of the climactic gunplay in the latter film – it's not a piece of presskit fluff, but a candid profile in which Ciupka talks about adjusting to focusing on the actors rather than the lights, the big picture rather than shot-by-shot, the actors (Vernon seems amazingly patient as Ciupka overdirects his line delivery), and his estrangement from his crew members as he as director must manage rather than collaborate. He admits that he will likely return to cinematography after the film (a likelihood also voiced by his regular gaffer/now prolific TV cinematographer John Berrie). Of course, this all came before his falling out with Simpson and the reshoots. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (1:44, actually about thirty second shorter without the MPAA card and the Jensen Farley logo) which makes use of the opening curtain animated effect and emphasizes the creepy doll (as did the poster art) while suggesting nothing of what the film was really about. (Eric Cotenas)