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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Curtains Jonathan Stryker 1983

Drawn and Quartered

There was a time when a horror film could have drama, class, gravitas, and “chops”, and at the same time be absolutely ludicrous. Before the age of self-referential, “ironic” horror, it was not hard to find major actors and actresses taking roles in films of, shall we say, “questionable generic pedigree.” We have Faye Dunaway and her cross-dressing assistant being stalked by a slasher in Eyes of Laura Mars. There’s silver screen siren Lauren Bacall turning up in the trashy homo-fest The Fan, wearing metallic lame and belting Marvin Hamlisch. Even films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?, though camp as a row of tents by today’s standards, were played very straight. And what a contradiction in terms that is…

I think the issue at hand is what I’ll call “forced class”. Attempting to make a slasher movie that is anything but base, dirty, and prurient is incredibly misguided. The Grand Old Dames of Drama and men with chainsaws are simply not compatible bedfellows -- sure, respected drama like the works of Shakespeare and Brecht often featured violent ends for the characters, but the violence always happened for a specific reason (jealousy, rage, political ambition), and with a certain degree of restraint. Wanton, gratuitous violence on the level of the horror film is, simply, gauche. So to cast Julie Andrews as the lead in an I Know What You Did Last Summer film (while admittedly a fabulous idea) would be an attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, by anyone’s standards.

So let us then speak of fabulous attempts at classy slashers gone wrong. Brimming with steely stares, eyebrow acting, dramatic entrances, and more scenery-chewing than feeding time at a beaver conservatory, these films have such lofty ambitions as “legitimate” thrillers that use old-fashioned Acting to “elevate” the otherwise tawdry business of teens, sex, and bloody murder to something “acceptable” that when the ambitions topple, they have a hell of a long way to drop. You know how taller people are more likely to injure themselves skiing because they have farther to fall? Imagine Lauren Bacall playing a famous movie star making her Broadway debut while being stalked by a gay psycho, and you’ve got one very tall skier indeed.

Before I actually get into reviewing Curtains, I’ll name a few sure-fire elements that will unquestionably enter any film into the forced-class category.

1. Set the story in the world of film, theatre, modeling, figure-skating, or any other peacock-laden form of pageantry. People who think that other people are looking at them are by nature a ridiculous bunch, and so actors (who know people are looking at them) playing characters who think that people are looking at them are doubly likely to be preposterous. It’s math, people.

2. Cast a brittle, teeth-gnashing middle-aged woman as your Final Girl. I initially typed “has-been” and “over-the-hill diva” in that sentence, but opted against them, as many Final Matrons have been at the heights of their careers and merely in their fifties. Shoulderpads, hairspray, and copious eyeliner are more essential than the co-stars. The more doors there are to slam, the better.

3. Mansions, manors, or anything smacking of wealth are almost guaranteed sticking-points. Try though they might, horror films almost always fuck up anything trying to be lofty or elegant, probably because horror films are usually made by people from New Jersey, or Canadians. Luckily, horror films are also usually watched by people from New Jersey, or Canadians, so the wretched attempts at opulence often play successfully.

4. Cast someone French.

Now – on to Curtains.

Curtains is an exercise in piss-elegance. Loaded with deliciously overwrought moments, preposterously heavy dialogue, and more tacky setpieces than Elton John’s living room, Curtains plays like a Cleveland Playhouse production of The Mousetrap, if the entire cast were on mushrooms. It also happens to be a slasher movie with some surprisingly disturbing and effective moments. And somehow this combination of hammy acting, bizarre location, slapdash imagery and plot (elements arrive and disappear with the regularity of soap opera characters), and Canadian pathos works for me, and is, indeed, one of my favorite horror films of the period.

The setup is excruciatingly fertile for histrionics and such: sadistic film director Jonathan Stryker (the gravel-voiced, heavey-lidded John Vernon, looking drunk as ever) has his star actress, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar, mad as a fruitbat) committed to an asylum to “prepare” for the role of Audra in his smashing new film, “Audra”. But instead of getting her out, as they had planned, Stryker leaves her in the nuthouse and moves on with the project without her, calling a casting session at his mountain mansion for a handful of hopefuls from different attention-begging fields: an actress, a dancer, a musician, a figure skater, a comedienne, and another one. I think she’s French. Anyway, they all arrive at the house and are as surprised as Stryker to find out that Legendary Actress Samantha Sherwood has invited herself to the pajama-party and intends to win the role of Audra back, fair and square.

Honestly, can you think of a better setup for a film? You’ve got a houseful of people who are both eccentric and emotionally desperate (a potent combo) falling over one another to impress a blatant sociopath, and a woman recently sprung from the booby-hatch who has a huge and legitimate axe to grind with the lot, all set at a remote location in a grey, Canadian winter. When a masked figure starts appearing and chopping the ladies to bits, it’s not altogether surprising, but it should be – if we weren’t told from the start that this were a slasher movie I would think that it would come as something of a shock to have the Winnipeg Slasher suddenly drop into what has thus far played out like a Miss Marple mystery. Tempers flare, heads roll, and the show, indeed, goes on.

Enjoyment of this film relies heavily on your tolerance for Eggar (equally insane in The Brood, among others), who I think is simply fantastic in just about everything -- her combination of severe, taut beauty, unexplained (and generally unnecessary) intensity, and old-school dramatic abandon is hard to top. Sure, she overacts at the drop of the hat, and half of the time her performances are a blur of eyes and teeth; but I like to think that she's just "playing to the balcony". Granted, this is a stage analogy that has nothing to do with film, so it's entirely inappopriate, but so is Curtains: with its heavy reliance on stage imagery (the opening monologue takes place in a theatre, at the close of which Stryker turns the stage lights off on a confused Sherwood; there's an extensive chase scene in a props storage area; stage curtains are used throughout), you almost forget that Stryker is casting for a film here, not a theatrical role. As long as Eggar keeps appearing in doorways and staring daggers into the other women, I could give two shits about consistency.

And it's no wonder that the film is inconsistent: the product of a handful of directors, Curtains was eventually credited to Jonathan Stryker, Vernon's character in the film. That the film even makes vague sense is nothing short of a miracle, as they clearly had no idea who the killer was and apparently rewrote the script a dozen times over the ridiculously long shooting period. They say that too many cooks spoil the stew, but in this case it wasn't spoiled, just unusually pungent. And likely gassy.

So let's talk about the other women, shall we? There's the wide-eyed Lesleh Donaldson (of Funeral Home and Happy Birthday to Me) as a figure skater who makes an ill-advised attempt at landing the role by boffing Stryker (a horrifying notion -- one of the other girls quips that she "pirouetted into bed and skated on his face", whatever the fuck that means...). She gets hers in one of the more audacious scenes of the film, where -- on a frozen pond in broad daylight -- she is stalked by the killer, who wears a hag mask, carries a sickle, and comes after her on iceskates. When's the last time you saw a slasher villain actually learn an Olympic-level athletic skill in order to corner and dismember someone? Lesleh ends up with her head in the crapper (her head ends up in the strangest of places -- remember the fake noggin scene in Happy Birthday?!), where people would presumably be doing far more than skating on her face.

There's also plucky, vaguely anemic Lynne Griffin as Patti, the stand-up comedienne who is neither and actress nor funny, making why she's even there in the first place is a complete mystery. Self-depricating and painfully awkward, she is given a wonderfully dramatic intro (live on-stage in front of a crowd of people apparently laughing at someone behind her) and seems like she might be our familiar in the group: her desperation to be watched and accepted for some reason seems a little more sane than the rest of the girls, who are all either too bitchy and jaded or pathetic and sad to identify with. We'll soon realize that this is a clever sleight-of-hand, as Patti turns out to have secrets of her own which are even less funny than her act...

The other girls are really pretty badly-used and hard to tell apart, to be honest; but it's hard to concentrate on anyone other than Samantha Eggar, whose performance is the equivalent of somone tapdancing in the corner of a funeral hall wearing nothing but lit sparklers. She literally commands every scene she is in, and from her lips such preposterous lines as "I want to act!" and "You don't know much about women... or love.... or me." actually work. Eggar never shows a crack in her facade, and you honestly think that she might just be batshit enough to pull the whole thing off. As to whether she would go so far as to kill off her competition, that's another story -- this woman is also classy (although her tendency to linger in doorways is a sure sign of poor breeding) and you wonder if she'd stoop to such tactics when she obviously has so much faith in her dramatic skills.

There are also a few queer elements at work that are nicely low-key and not too flashy. For one, a recently de-institutionalized Samantha sits by a fire burning headshots of competitors while talking to a mystery woman who lounges just out of sight. It's never mentioned who this dark lady is or what the nature of their relationship might be, but I don't think I know many women who hang out in the dark before a roaring fire wearing chintzy nightgowns with their agents. Also amusing and eyebrow-lifting is a scene in the middle of the film that begins with two of the women in a bathroom having a lesbian encounter (one touches the other's bare breast), which is revealed to be a rehearsal of a scene. When John Vernon's walnut-like head pops into frame it certainly breaks the mood, but for a moment there it's actually kind of hot...

Although some of the scare scenes seem tacked-on (there's far too much attention paid to some of the peripheral characters in fairly standard scenes) and the visual metaphors and imagery are wildly uneven (a creepy doll appears first in a dream to one girl, then in reality -- to someone else -- and then disappears entirely, only to resurface on the poster), I still think that Curtains, with all its misguided ambition and ham-fisted intensity, is a unique and very worthwhile addition to the slasher pool, and definitely worth a look. Ten bucks says you'll be reciting the opening monologue to your friends within hours...

Rating (out of 5):