Those who consider themselves collectors and/or historians have an affection for old technology. In the music world, vinyl records are once again in vogue, the black-plastic discs are selling in second hand stores better than almost ever, turntables are back in fashion and indie bands who want to improve their cred will press their own singles and 7”. At the same time, this nostalgia hasn’t been revisited upon the 8-track or the cassette tape, but a quick glance at the gamer world reveals a yen for the simpler time of chunky 8-bit Atari games and even text-based adventures ala Zork. And though Betamax died a painful, lingering death (much like HD-DVD), for movie buffs there will always be love for the Laserdisc, no matter how blue our rays may be. But for lovers of trash, the obscure, the grotesqueries and hidden treasure, no format has endured at conventions and on Craig’s List like VHS. In the ‘90s the DVD boom ensured that these sturdy plastic bricks with their colorful sleeve covers filled landfills across the world by the millions. But because of the staggering home video revolution of the decades prior, it will be a very, very long time before the format vanishes from the face of the earth. VCR/DVD combos continue to sell at Wal-Mart right next to top-of-the-line DVRs and “Cash-In Culture” stores all over the US line their shelves with videotapes, the covers sun-drenched and color-drained, their recorded images fuzzy and smeary, often the tracking has been shot to hell. But like the imperfect pops and hiss of vinyl recordings, there’s something comforting and familiar about VHS. Maybe because its understandable or maybe because it was so essential to the formation of the Gen-X film-lover’s DNA. As we of the Reality Bites generation approach our forth decade on the planet, we sway in our rocking-out chairs and reminisce about the glory days of the mom-n-pop video stores with their Nirvana of oddities that you just can’t find on DVD.
Which is likely the crux of the VHS phenomenon. Because of the home video boom, stores were desperate for content. In the ‘80s, when YouTube was something beyond the scope of even the great visionary George Lucas, the hunger for near-instant satisfaction was growing. The phrase straight-to-video was concocted out of sheer necessity. Lorenzo Lamas’ entire career hinged upon it! The format brought forward rainmakers like Tim Ritter, Kevin Lindenmuth, JR Bookwalter, Ron Bonk, Jeffrey Arsenault. A whole new industry of entertainment (and “entertainment”) thrived during these years. “I have to return some videotapes,” wasn’t just Patrick Bateman’s catchphrase, it was a declaration of responsibility, maturity, and independence—you were taking your own entertainment requirements into your own hands. Sure, the porn industry was the real pioneer of this era, but it was the zeitgeist seized by low budget horror that propelled it forward. As far as labels like Vestron were concerned, every VCR-owning household in America should have a pneumatic tube system installed right next to it, so that the latest goreflic—Truth or Dare, Killing Spree, Blood Diner, Woodchipper Massacre, The Video Dead—would just suck away the minute it was kindly rewound, to be replaced just as quickly with a satisfying plunk. Wouldn’t that have been heaven, ‘80s babies?
For all its technological wonder, DVD never reached the frenzied heights—or depths—of the VHS era. So those bricks of the by-gone days filling under-the-table cardboard boxes marked “$1 each”, ubiquitous at garage sales and flea markets, are truly archeological finds. And for every die-hard horror fan, there’s a personal holy grail. For some, it’s Killer Party, for others, it’s Curtains.
At a time when slasher movies were a dime-a-dozen, renting Curtains would have netted you change. Despite the grotesque cover—often the best part of these VHS treasures (I’m looking at you, Richard Corben’s painting for Spookies)—the back of the box didn’t promise much. A killer in an “old hag” mask, a hand-held sickle, Samantha Eggar. So far, not sold. But hell, it’s in, it’s a three-day rental, and you have friends coming over. What the hell? Maybe there will be some good gore.
What we get, after the FBI logo and the requisite trailers for other offerings of low-rent joy, is an opening credits sequence involving Eggar berating someone off screen. She points a gun into the air and as the camera pulls back, she’s revealed to be alone on a spotlit stage. Her antagonist stands in the shadows behind the balcony klieg, urging her to go farther, to find “Audra”. Eggar is acclaimed actress Samantha Sherwood, and with her director, the extremely intense Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), she’s about to embark on some unique research for what will surely be the role of her career. To play the emotionally-damaged “Audra”, Samantha allows herself to be institutionalized, with Stryker signing as her executor, so that she can study the other inmates of the asylum.
But then Stryker pulls a dirty trick on her. He abandons Samantha in the grim little nuthouse and turns his remote cabin into a beautifully-furnished casting chateau, inviting six eager starlets to a week-long audition session, so that he might “find the right ‘Audra’.” Among the invitees are stand-up comedienne Patti (Lynne Griffin), aging soap star Brooke (Linda Thorson), casting-couch regular Tara (Sandee Currie) and figure skater/aspiring actress Christie (Lesleh Donaldson). In addition, there’s a dancer with little dialogue, a potential leading man with no lines (Michael Wincott, who gets a hot-tub sex scene with Tara but no close up) and a sixth woman into rape games who never makes it to the party. She’s stabbed to death soon after her “whatever works for you” fun-n-games, and the murderer steals from her room the creepiest, most horrible-looking china doll ever created. The doll pops up throughout the film at the moment of someone’s death—which is preferable than looking at the miserable-looking porcelain waif. Stryker’s biggest surprise comes when Samantha shows up completely unexpectedly. It’s revealed that she had managed to escape from the asylum and has no intention of Jonathan casting anyone but her in the part of the demented ‘Audra’.
As is the normal course of action, one by one, each of our little budding ingénues gets picked off in increasingly-violent manners by a killer wearing an “old hag” mask that Stryker uses in acting exercises. The highlight best-remembered by the ‘80s gorehounds is Donaldson’s ice-skating routine interrupted by the hag on her own pair of skates, dashing towards the shrieking Christie like an deleted scene from Slap Shot.
Unfortunately, the movie bounces here and there without much thought towards either suspense or resolution. When he isn’t seducing his actresses, Stryker’s humiliating directing methods would make Josef Von Sternberg say “dial it down”. Meanwhile, those not being seduced, humiliated or murdered pontificate about the “type” of woman “Audra” might be and what they would do to get the part. “I was so eager to get into pictures, I slept with a guy from Fotomat,” says Patti during her routine. “You know how they say your pictures are in and out in 24-hours? He was in and out in 24 seconds.” Laughs, applause. And when there isn’t pontificating, characters vanish for long, long periods of time. Eggar, our prime suspect, is missing from the screen in order to cast suspicion upon herself. Others just stop being in the movie here and there. Wincott’s character is last seen driving drunkenly into the woods on a snowmobile, while Patti…who knows. Takes a long bath? Gets caught in the pantry? Explores the wonders of nature? For the last act of the film, she ain’t there.
The admittedly-tense and off-putting climax involves Tara in an annexed props warehouse, hiding from the hag amidst hanging costumes and mannequins, all the well fully aware that the hag is in there somewhere too. The claustrophobic setting, the creepy lighting, the misdirection, all elements for a perfect climax! But as more than one reviewer has pointed out, by this point, it no longer matters who the killer is because it could literally be any of them. We’re given nothing to hang our hats on in terms of character development and the actresses are clearly on their own to make the most of their roles. By the time Christie’s head pops up in Brooke’s toilet, the viewer is actually hard-pressed to remember just who that Sani-Flush-soaked face belongs to.
As it turns out, this befuddlement isn’t really the movie’s fault. The movie tries hard. The performers did their best. But Curtains, apparently, had a very troubled production history. Filming began in 1980, with Prom Night wunderkind Peter Simpson as producer, and acclaimed composer Paul Zaza behind the piano once again, to conjure moody musical atmosphere, just as he had done on other Canadian chillers like My Bloody Valentine and the aforementioned Prom Night series. At the helm was cinematographer Richard Ciupka (Atlantic City) making his directorial debut, with a script in hand by Robert Guza, Jr. (General Hospital and, oh yeah, Prom Night). Considering that Prom Night was such a moneymaker, this seemed like the perfect team to recreate slasher magic.
Problems began when Ciupka’s original choice for Brooke, Celine Lamez (The Initiation), reportedly “pulled a diva” on set. The pair allegedly had problems relating to each other on a professional level, but the final straw came several weeks in when she refused to do an agreed-upon nude scene. Production shut down, Simpson and Ciupka recast Linda Thorson, and much of the film had to be reshot, restaged, or scrapped. During all this, director and producer also, allegedly, clashed over the type of film they were making. Simpson, apparently, wanted another Prom Night, a money maker. Ciupka, however, also apparently, wanted to explore the psychology of actresses and their relationship with demanding directors, and how far “the method” should be employed by emotionally unstable thespians. Ciupka wanted long, langorous tracking shots (and many survived); Ciupka wanted the smash cut, the startle, the scream. In the end, Ciupka’s contract was cancelled, his directing credit is billed to the fictitious Jonathan Stryker (nice of ol’ Jonathan to continue directing even after he’s murdered in the third act), Simpson and his producer brother Richard finished the film as quickly as possible and, as a result, Curtains is a bit of an opening-night closure.
And perhaps, in the end, Simpson was right. When Curtains concentrates on the stalk-n-slash elements, the movie excels. The gore is minimal, but the scenes build with suspense and bring those familiar giddy chills so familiar from its VHS horror ilk. When the movie focuses on the brief and protracted relationships between Stryker and the actresses, the pace flounders, as if the movie itself is uncomfortable with this part of the story. There are also numerous plot holes shot through the narrative due to the mangled production schedule—the most glaring involving an exposition scene with Samantha not too long after her escape from the asylum, where she feeds the actresses’ headshots into a fireplace while discussing her escape and plan for revenge with a woman hidden half-off screen, allegedly her accomplice in the escape. This scene is never followed-upon and never referenced again. So, of course, because we horror fans are such typical humans, this now-throw-away scene is the most intriguing aspect of the story.
According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Echo Bridge released Curtains as part of the Midnight Horror Collection: Bloody Slashers DVD collection in 2010, but with crummy, non-lurid cover art, a lousy transfer (likely from a VHS dupe) and a handful of other movies that may have been cool to discover on some dusty back room, but not necessarily worth digging around in a discount bin to retrieve. Because of the troubled production, or perhaps because of other rights issues, or perhaps just due to lack of interest, Curtains remains in its VHS limbo. Copies can be found, if this is indeed your Grail, and it is fun to watch overall. But its status as “lost gem” may stem more from its unavailability than its content. Still, the DVD boom was definitely the poorer of the gold rushes due to its distinct lack of little oddities like this. Sure, Blockbuster shelves were filled with DVDs of Daddy Day Care, but post-Gen-Xers never experienced the little thrill of finding something weird and lurid lurking near the back of the brightly-lit, corporate and sanitary store. The big business of DVD just didn’t appreciate shadows in its stores.