It is the role they all want. It is the role they all covet. It is the role they all desire so badly they would do anything to secure it. The question is how far will any of them actually go to make it happen?
The role is Audra, a mentally unstable woman so completely pissed off at her constantly cheating lover she wants to kill him. In the opening scene of Curtains, British actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Egger) auditions by delivering Audra’s penultimate speech in front of the film’s watchful, Machiavellian director, Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), while standing on stage in an empty theatre.
After she pulls the trigger of her prop gun, from the balcony he is coldly dismissive: “I don’t believe it.” (I didn’t, either. Some of her dialogue feels overwritten and she lacks true intensity.) “Audra would never pull the trigger.” Sherwood is amused but not hurt. She just thinks he doesn’t understand women or love or even herself. (They have a complicated history, you see.) Despite her being willing to improve her own performance with the added benefit of lighting and camera tricks he suddenly shuts off the spotlight from the balcony, gets very quiet and disappears. (Well, alright, then.)
A fitting moment since that’s when this movie goes completely off the rails. Desperate to land Audra, Sherwood cooks up a ridiculous scheme with Stryker to get herself institutionalized so she can study the cartoonish, one-note patients who live there. (Is this really necessary?) After signing the official papers to make this doomed idea a reality, she lamely tries to stab Stryker. While fighting her off, she is ultimately restrained by several hospital workers and put in a strait jacket. (Why is she even doing this when she’s already in?)
Stryker absurdly requests a private moment with his potential leading lady after everything settles down. Incredibly, he’s granted one. (Guys, she could still kick and bite him if she really wanted to, you know.) He gives the giddy Sherwood (who looks like David Bowie and sounds like Joan Collins) an undeserved rave review. She’s clearly wrong for Audra.
Sherwood’s experience in the mental hospital, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a nightmare. She can’t sleep thanks to the screaming weeper in the bed next to hers. She can’t do a jigsaw puzzle in peace. She can’t escape the clutches of a humming, tickling giggler while another hummer strokes her hair. And she can’t even watch herself in a old movie on TV without being laughed out of the room.
Despite kissing up to her during repeated personal visits (Sherwood sees right through his blatant flattery on one particular occasion), Stryker completely screws her over by ultimately abandoning her. (That’s the thanks she gets for buying him the rights to film Audra, originally a novel, in the first place.) Thanks to a mysterious friend whose face we never see she learns in Variety that he’s moving on without her.
With understandable vengeance on her mind, her mysterious friend helps her escape the mental hospital (are the real ones as lax as the fictional ones in horror movies?) and makes her way to his secluded mansion where he’ll be hosting a most unusual weekend casting session. An awful stand-up comic, an ok figure skater, an ok interpretive dancer, a musician and an insecure, looks-obsessed Brit all hope to replace Sherwood as Audra in a bizarre, highly manipulative two-day endurance test that is more fishy than sincere.
A sixth contender never even makes the trip. Before she’s stabbed to death in her own apartment there’s a horrifying scene where she’s being stalked by some creep wearing pantyhose over his head. He eventually breaks in and rapes her. Or so we think until we’re shocked to learn this is just a bored couple role playing. Oh, you wacky kids!
How the deadpan, deep-voiced John Vernon maintains a mostly straight face in all of this ridiculousness is a testament to how good he is as the unethical Stryker. Clearly and calmly in control at all times he seems far more interested in screwing with his actresses, both mentally and literally, than making an important casting choice for his movie. (When the annoying stand-up comic jokes about giving him a blowjob to get hired, he smoothly responds, “That shouldn’t be necessary, but I’ll keep it in mind.”) When he’s not putting them through completely pointless exercises (Wear this hideous hag mask and seduce me only with your eyes and mouth! Touch her breast like a man would!), he’s taking complete advantage of their collective vulnerability. The powerful creep ends up bedding two of the more desperate contenders, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Sherwood. Call me crazy but sometimes you wonder if making a movie is his real priority here.
Meanwhile, someone in that hideous old lady mask is eliminating the competition one by one. Circumstantial evidence clearly points to Sherwood who has two very strong motives. But considering how at times the film challenges the audience’s expectations (the surprising rape fantasy sequence, for instance), Sherwood’s possible culpability seems a bit too obvious to be accurate.
Curtains is one of the strangest, most confusing slasher films I’ve ever seen. (Even a rare, second screening didn’t answer all my questions.) Shot and reshot over two years with two different crews and directors plus one notable casting change, there were so many alterations made that when it was finally completed the finished result bore very little resemblance to its original story.
Essentially, it’s two seemingly incompatible ideas (a deliberately slow paced, pretentious, twisty psychodrama and a standard slasher thriller) merged into one rather screwy whole. It isn’t particularly scary (the hag mask gimmick, complete with the killer’s heavy breathing, is a blatant, uninspired rip-off of Halloween’s Michael Myers) and there are many unexplained moments.
Consider Michael Wincott. During the dinner time sequence where Stryker introduces himself to the five contenders, in walks Wincott looking a lot like the love child of Sid Vicious and Keith Richards. After ogling one of the women, he ends up fooling around with her later that winter’s night in the outdoor Jacuzzi. (He has exactly one line of dialogue: “Hey!”) Then, while gathering firewood, we see him watch the figure skater walk to the frozen pond for a fateful training session (even though she left a note for Stryker saying she was leaving the mansion for good) and later, he drives away on a snowmobile for some reason.
We have no idea who he is and why the hell he’s at Stryker’s mansion. Is he a friend? His son? Hired help? Personal assistant? Secret gay lover? It’s never explained.
Meanwhile, there are other unresolved matters. Did Stryker have Sherwood institutionalized because he never really wanted her for the part in the first place and this was the best way to squeeze her out? Since the ruse, if it was one, didn’t exactly work why does he allow her to participate in the mansion casting sessions anyway?
How the hell did the killer a) retrieve that decapitated head from the toilet without leaving a mess (and where did it go?) b) squeeze through that tiny bathroom window without getting caught while the insecure Brit is doing her nails? c) find another way into the prop room vent to murder one of her cowering competitors? d) manage to drag the body of one of the victims to hang in the prop room undiscovered? And e) not immediately execute the most obvious threat to her professional future?
In the years following the film’s forgotten, short-lived theatrical release (despite being filmed in Toronto with a mostly Canadian cast it was curiously released here a year after its American debut) it has grown in popularity thanks to home video & Television re-airings, much to the surprise and amusement of some of its surviving cast & crew who appear in the entertaining DVD documentary. (Most were embarrassed and disappointed by it. I don’t blame them.)
Despite its resurgence as a cult film, Curtains never really had a chance to be a good movie or a logical one, for that matter, thanks to the constant tinkering of the story and the endless reshoots. I will say this for it, though. It’s a bit more ambitious than your typical 80s slasher movie, thanks to the considerable portion uncredited Belgian director Richard Ciupka was responsible for (the middle 40-50 minutes (it runs 89), he says on the DVD). Strangely, instead of using “Alan Smithee”, the film credits “Jonathan Stryker”, John Vernon’s character, as the official director.
In between the usual horror clichés, it tries to be surprising during other scenes, setting up our expectations for predictable resolutions only to throw in unexpected curveballs at the end of them. The problem is most of these swerves don’t work or leave you shaking your head like that bizarre rape fantasy sequence that really perturbed me during my initial screening or Sherwood’s needless, fake murder attempt on Stryker at the nuthouse.
Speaking of Stryker, it’s a testament to John Vernon’s much missed professionalism (he died in 2005) that his performance as the manipulative, shady director is the best one, even though he’s not always written smartly. Surely realizing the silliness of his character’s often questionable antics he nonetheless plays him absolutely straight. Even though I laughed when he convinces the eavesdropping, naive figure skater that the very real fight he just had with Sherwood in her old bedroom was merely a private audition, he never betrays his remarkably good deadpan. As the wise Costanza once observed, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
As an aside, it’s refreshing to see so little gore and hear no misogynistic dialogue here, two unwelcome, longterm elements of the genre I’d love to see retired for good. That said, the women hungering for the role of Audra aren’t exactly feminist or sympathetic or bright. Before they even meet Stryker, they ponder numerous ways in which they’d sell out for him. It sounds like they’re half-joking but as the movie progresses, it’s clear some of them are not.
In the end, Curtains is a curious mess, a meandering mishmash of conflicting approaches that only hint at more compelling possibilities. Instead of burning all those head shots until they pop, the filmmakers should’ve torched this movie instead and start all over again.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 20, 2015