Horror fans have Canada to thank for a lot of their favorite movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Black Christmas, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine — all these fright flicks and more were in fact made in Canada. And for a lot of these vintage movies, they were produced in the Great White North because of an enticing tax incentive. It was all part of a desire to fire up the country’s movie industry. And so long as these potential productions were chiefly shot and edited in Canada, as well as starred mostly Canadian actors, the movies’ costs were up to 100% tax deductible. Like those before him, producer Peter R. Simpson (Prom Night III: The Last Kiss) acted on this attractive business offer, though his timing could have been better. By the time Curtains came out in 1983, Canada’s most significant era of “B” movies was all but coming to an end, and slashers weren’t exactly hard to come by.
The idea of a banshee had reportedly been thrown around in the early days of Curtains, but ultimately this 1983 movie became a whodunit. The story begins with famous actor Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar, The Brood) preparing for the lead role in a melodrama called Audra. With the help of her friend and director, Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon, Killer Klowns from Outer Space), Samantha is checked into a mental hospital. It’s all part of her method acting, but Samantha’s stay is longer than originally planned. Nevertheless, the show must go on.
Audra is eventually put back in production, and Stryker needs someone to play the namesake now that Samantha is “unavailable.” A group of actresses is then invited to a secluded mansion by Stryker, where only one of them will be awarded the highly coveted part. Among them is comedian Patti (Lynne Griffin, Black Christmas), ballerina Laurian (Anne Ditchburn), musician Tara (Sandee Currie, Terror Train), ice skater Christie (Lesleh Donaldson, Happy Birthday to Me), and veteran actor Brooke (Linda Thorson). Another candidate was invited, Amanda (Deborah Burgess), but she never shows up on account of her fatal encounter with the movie’s masked antagonist.
The road to completing 1983’s Curtains was not without its bumps. While filming commenced in Ontario in 1980, the shoot was shut down for about a year after the original director Richard Ciupka (credited as Jonathan Stryker) parted ways. There were apparently clashing opinions about what kind of movie Curtains was going to be. Producer Peter R. Simpson was evidently after another mainstream slasher in the vein of Prom Night, but one aimed at adults. Whereas Ciupka preferred an arthouse approach and tone. “He was more worried about shot composition than he was with the energy,” Simpson said of Ciupka.
Once filming resumed with Simpson now in charge of directing, there were changes all around. Brooke’s original actor Celine Lomez had been replaced with Linda Thorson because Simpson was dissatisfied with her performance. New and old crew members were all brought in to complete the half-finished Curtains; the movie reflects these distinct production periods with the “Act I” and “Act II” sections in the ending credits. Screenwriter Robert Guza Jr. also returned to revise the script, which included both new scenes and adjustments to Ciupka’s footage. Editor Michael MacLaverty had his work cut out for him as he frankensteined two different movies, though the final product is a testament to his abilities. Only someone very aware of the behind-the-scenes issues would pick up on the discrepancies in style and source material.
As if having desperate actors all vie for the same high-profile role isn’t tense enough, Eggar’s character drops in unexpectedly, seeking the same part once intended for her. How she managed to escape the hospital, however, is unclear; a plot hole comes up when Samantha’s faceless and partially off-screen “roommate” mentions helping her get out, only to then never be brought up again. From here on out, Curtains digs its nails into an unspoken yet loud narrative about what it takes to be a woman in Hollywood (or Hollywood North). Every entrant here degrades herself in some way, physically or emotionally, in order to impress Stryker. Watching Samantha and the others “sell” themselves for a job becomes the most unsettling, not to mention timeless, aspect of the story.
Supplementing Ciupka’s bid for refined psychological terror are Simpson’s flagrant displays of commercial horror. Curtains’ most memorable set piece is undoubtedly Lesleh Donaldson’s skate sequence. Editor MacLaverty was surprised by how much fans enjoyed this scene; he only sees the technical flaws, while audiences are won over by the eerie day setting, slow motion, music, and, most of all, the killer’s mask. The hag visage, although not the first of its kind in the horror genre, is haunting. Not only does the mask evoke surface discomfort, it’s a perfect embodiment of the fear of growing old. After all, it’s the younger characters who are all pursued by the killer hiding behind a wizened veneer. Simpson’s other notable directed scene is Sandee Currie’s long and beautifully creepy chase scene inside the prop house.
The technical tussle between old and new footage can be seen occasionally. Two characters’ deadly fall from the second story is edited in such a bizarre manner that it defies logic, but clearly no one was too wrapped up in everything making sense or being seamless at that point. And despite the rumor of there being multiple endings shot, each one with a different killer, the definitive villain was known from the start. There was even an alternate ending where the killer stands among their victims’ corpses on stage. Simpsons’ wife supposedly found that conclusion to make the least sense from a rational standpoint. Keeping it would have only added to the movie’s surreal quality, though.
It’s unclear if Ciupka’s original vision for Curtains was as unfeasible as Simpson claimed; there is no chance of seeing that movie now. Yet Simpson did a laudable job of salvaging what almost became an abandoned movie. He, the crew and the cast made the best of a troubled production, and the end result is shockingly better than it has any right to be, in light of every issue and obstacle that came up during shooting and post production. The acting talent is stellar for this kind of movie, and Simpson augments Ciupka’s groundwork.
Despite their obvious “tax shelter” purposes, many of these Hollywood North horror movies are now considered both classics and comforts in the genre. 1983’s Curtains doesn’t get anywhere near the same treatment as its contemporaries, however that may be because for the longest time, it was so hard to get a hold of. And without a doubt it got lost in the shuffle upon and after its limited theatrical release. Now thanks to Synapse’s gorgeous restoration, people are discovering — or in some cases, rediscovering — this unsung horror.
Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.