OCTOBER 14, 2012
According to the schedule, Curtains was supposed to start at 11:30, but that didn't happen, so I was able to use it for today's (Sunday) movie - which turned out to be a huge relief since the features at Screamfest (where I'd be spending the OTHER part of my entire day) weren't really horror. Plus it's a golden age slasher, and one of the unwritten goals for the site was to get all of those babies reviewed - sadly it probably won't happen since so many are unavailable on decent formats.
Anyway, Curtains is a title I've been hearing over and over for the past 20 years, but never got around to seeing it - hell I've never even seen a COPY of it. None of my video stores ever had it growing up (unless they were put in the drama section - more on that later), and the only DVD release was a VHS transfer from Echo Bridge. And hell, I only just learned about that or else I would have bit the bullet and watched it that way even though I know it'd look like shit. So hurrah for not keeping tabs on it! I got to see it for the first time in glorious 35mm at my favorite theater.
Sadly, it wasn't worth the "wait". While not without merit, it's a slow, SLOW sorta-slasher that borders on melodrama a bit too often for my tastes. The plot concerns a group of actresses vying for a part in the new project from Stryker (John Vernon), who I guess is like a cross between a genius like Kubrick and a sex god like Warren Beatty. It's kind of awesome seeing John Vernon bed a couple different women in the movie, because he's not exactly who I'd picture if I was just reading the script. And he's a total dick about it, too - at one point an actress he had previously wooed opens a door and sees him in bed with one of the others, and he just gives her this icy look like "You lose, sweetie. Tough shit." It's awesome.
And yet he's probably the most normal, sympathetic guy in the movie. The only other male characters are seen briefly, but long enough to wonder what the hell their deal is. We meet a pervert kid, a mute Michael Wincott (why cast Wincott and not give him anything to say?), and a guy who is the worst rape roleplayer ever, as we see him stalking her from the window and around her apartment for what seems like a full ten minutes before making his move. Now, if he was committed throughout the deed, it'd be one thing, but even though he's doing all this stalking stuff that she can't even see, he "breaks character" like 12 seconds after pouncing on her, which kind of defeats the purpose, I think (she's encouraging it for an acting exercise, for the record - seems like he's doing more acting though?). Oh, and Maury Chaykin as the world's most stereotypical gay/bullshitting agent - I kind of want to see an alternate version of this movie where all of the male characters meet up and discuss how ridiculous they are (while evading a killer, of course).
Now, there's nothing wrong with a movie that favors the women when it comes to screentime, but despite spending all this time with them, they're a bit interchangeable - I guess since they're all up for the same role they WOULD be physically similar, but even their personalities sort of blend together. The main character even comments that they all look alike, which would be more amusing if the script didn't spend so much time on her when the movie isn't really about her after the first act. When the film begins, our heroine pretends to be crazy so that she can be committed and research how real mental patients act for the role, but it starts to get to her, so Vernon leaves her there and assembles the other actresses to take her place. Understandably angry, she escapes, but poses no threat and just sort of hangs out with the other actresses at the remote lodge where everyone has gathered. The best thing they could have done is kept her on the sidelines as a potential suspect, but she's in it so much and says overly silly cryptic things too often, so you know she can't possibly be the killer - it'd be like seriously suspecting Ralph the local nut as the murderer in Friday the 13th. A Psycho-style twist where she died halfway through would have worked too, now that I think of it. Basically, there's a couple ways to do this right, but they did it wrong.
Luckily, it has some terrific slasher setpieces, such as the famous ice skating one and the final chase, which is creepy enough (it takes place around dolls and mannequins, plus corpses dressed to look as such) to forgive the fact that it runs a bit long and should have had the killer's reveal a bit earlier. In a whodunit slasher, I think it's best to have the Final Girl be chased for a bit, then have the reveal, and then a second (shorter) chase. But here, by the time the killer reveals herself the movie is basically over, and it ends without explaining a major element (unless I just missed something; spoiler ahead!). The killer reveals herself, kills someone... and then we see her in an institution, talking to some other patients. Thus, I couldn't tell if the entire movie was in her head, or if she was caught/committed for her crimes. If the latter - why did they skip it? And if the former - why is her delusion so poorly paced?
I also liked the killer's mask, which was probably just bought off a rack somewhere, but it worked - sort of an old crone thing, and it fit the actor poorly, giving it an extra bit of creepiness. The doll stuff also works quite well, even if its connection to the actual plot is never explained - apparently the movie was partially shot, sat on a shelf for a while, and then completed/partially reshot, so there's probably some stuff from the original version that didn't quite fit into the new one but they didn't bother to edit it out. So we have a slasher movie about a crazy actress killing the competition where the scariest bit is a character's dream about finding a child-like doll that proceeds to "attack" her.
But things like that add to the movie's peculiar charm, where the whole thing feels a bit off and dream-like - some of it probably unintentional due to the behind the scenes trouble. And even though there's a lot of talk and not a lot of stalk, the numerous "acting" scenes are fun on their own; I particularly liked when we appeared to be watching a would-be lesbian encounter, only for Vernon to suddenly start yelling at one of them for not behaving enough like a man (I also like that he'd have actresses competing for the same role act as partners in a scene; what is the incentive for the one playing the other role to do well?). The early mental institution scenes are also a delight, particularly the old lady with a habit of tickling folks.
Someday Shout Factory or one of those outfits will get a hold of this one, and I'll pick it up and amuse myself with the bonus features (any movie with this many actresses must have some great, catty stories about the production) while others discover it for the first time. But unless you want the other movies in the set (it's only available in a 4pack, it seems), I wouldn't recommend Echo Bridge's full-frame, likely washed out transfer though - the movie is just OK and thus not worth the eye-strain. You can wait for something better; in fact, next year is the 30th anniversary...
What say you?