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Synapse Films // R // July 29, 2014
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 1, 2014 | E-mail the Author
It's hardly just another movie. Parts like the leading role of Audra come around once in a lifetime, and that's if you're lucky. Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) fought like hell to get her hands on the film rights to the legendary play, and she's willing to go to whatever extreme lengths are necessary to see it done justice. Taking The Method to a whole other level, Sherwood pretends to be consumed by homicidal rage and has herself committed. It's the only way for her to truly inhabit the psychotic character of give her the insight into what it's like to spend however many years locked away in an asylum. When Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) -- her wildly eccentric and more than a little Kubrickian director -- first comes to visit, Sherwood looks back at him with a mischievous glint in her eye. What starts as a thrilling, terrifying, indescribably exciting adventure quickly begins to take its toll. The façade is stripped away. That sparkle fades. Stryker is left staring back at an all-but-catatonic lump during his increasingly pointless visits.

Like the man says, though, the show must go on. Stryker has a shortlist of actresses in mind to star as Audra. Rather than go through some routine audition process in a faceless office park in Culver City, Stryker instead invites them to his hopelessly remote mansion. It's a grueling weekend of competitions and mind games for these six...errr, make that five very different women. Stryker clearly doesn't have a particular type in mind to star in Audra, bringing in a middle-aged British actress, a twentysomething year old ballerina, a cute, waifish comedienne, and a figure skater, among others. This is a role to kill for, and...well, it looks like that's exactly what's going on here. A murderer hiding behind a rubbery hag mask is slaughtering these actresses, one by one. Maybe it's another of Stryker's bursts of eccentricity. It could be that one of these actresses is ruthlessly knocking off the competition. Then again, Samantha Sherwood is technically an escaped mental patient these days...

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Curtains may be the single most underappreciated and most criminally overlooked slasher of the early '80s. For one, it boasts higher production values and a more accomplished cast than most of what was getting churned out during the Golden Age of Slashers. Curtains is directed at least in part with a wonderfully cinematic eye, more artful than these traditionally run-and-gun productions. It has a premise that lends itself to toying with the gulf separating perception and reality. Even the whodunnit angle is more engrossing than usual. As you'd hope for, the movie boasts several memorable and unnervingly suspenseful sequences. The ice skating scene would undoubtedly be one of the most iconic stalk-and-slash moments of the era if only Curtains had been more widely seen, and the climax in the prop house is nailbitingly intense even for a seasoned slasher fanatic like myself. All that's true, and yet its approach is more psychological than most, amounting to more than just another masked lunatic running around with a machete. It's remarked in the extras that Curtains owes more to the gialli of the '70s rather than the Friday the 13th crowd, and that's pretty much on the money. Sometimes slashers can be a slog between kills, but at no time is Curtains even boring, brilliantly holding my attention even though the first kill doesn't come until close to the half hour mark. Part of that's because of its unique dynamic. Stryker aside, every character of note is female. Some of them get short thrift -- I kind of forget that Anne Ditchburn is even in the movie -- but the rest are fleshed out with greatly varied and impressively well-realized personalities. So many slashers are about revenge or predation, but the idea of fiercely competitive women turning on each other, of actresses whose identities may be as illusory as the characters they play: that's something different.

The centerpiece of this disc's extras is a half hour retrospective that's mostly the cast and crew grousing about what a disaster Curtains is. Its first director only managed to get around half of his arthouse suspense film in the can before production came to a close. A year or two passed, and then producer Peter R. Simpson shot a slasher around all that footage. It's a head-on collision of two directors making two very different movies, and yet somehow it works astonishingly well. The closest thing to a complaint I can muster is that some concepts are abandoned. There's recurring imagery of a creepy doll that's never explained and doesn't amount to all that much. The only other male character at the mansion disappears and has no real bearing on anything that goes on. I don't even mind that the kills are tame enough that they'd slink by with a PG-13 rating these days.

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Clearly a passion project, Synapse Films has done far more than just rescue Curtains from obscurity. The end result is one of the best looking and best sounding films of the early 1980s across any budget or genre, and a slew of extras have been unearthed and newly-produced alike. It doesn't matter how many times you've devoured that sixth generation VHS bootleg; until you've experienced Curtains in high definition, you really haven't seen it. An essential discovery for anyone with even a little bit of interest in slashers, and unique enough to intrigue even those who normally scowl at the subgenre. Highly Recommended.

Early scans from Curtains' interpositive were making the rounds on Synapse Films' Facebook page literally a year in advance of this Blu-ray release. I had twelve full months to gawk at those unbelievably gorgeous teaser images -- which hadn't even been retouched, fully color-corrected, and all that -- which sent my expectations soaring somewhere in the upper stratosphere. As dizzyingly high as my hopes were for Curtains, Synapse has completely eclipsed them.

Just look at it.
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Sure, we're talking about a movie that's spent the past three decades basically unseen outside of VHS bootlegs, with even Echo Bridge's shovelware DVD ripped from a muddy, faded cassette, but there's no need to grade on a curve here. This disc outclasses pretty much everything that's passed through my hands for ages. Curtains boasts an astonishingly vivid palette that practically leaps off the screen. That pink snowcap pictured above might be one of the most gorgeous looking things I've ever seen committed to film. I tend to think of early '80s slashers as looking a little soft and murky, but Curtains is in a whole other league: surreally crisp, detailed, and exceptionally well-defined. Great pains have clearly been taken to preserve Curtains' natural filmic texture, boasting grain that's as tight and masterfully rendered as anything I've come across on Blu-ray. No wear, damage, or speckling ever threaten to intrude. The authoring of this disc is world-class, not dragged down by any excessive filtering, digital manipulation, or any missteps in its high-bitrate AVC encode. It's tough to clack away at my keyboard while my jaw's scraping the floor like this. I'm not a reviewer who'd say this sort of thing lightly, but this Blu-ray release of Curtains really is as perfect as it gets. Absolutely extraordinary, even by Synapse's exceptionally high standards.

Every last trace of audio on this disc is lossless, with even its extras accompanied by 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. Even better, Curtains sounds every bit as good as it looks. Synapse has not only restored the film's original monaural soundtrack, but they've also assembled a brand new 5.1 remix. Each track has its own very distinct character; it's not as if the two-channel mono track is the same thing roaring from fewer speakers. As nicely restored as the monaural audio is, it's the warmer, more inviting six-channel remix that impresses me the most. Every element in the mix is startlingly clean and clear, not marred by any intrusive hiss, dropouts, or so much as a flicker of distortion. Reproduction of the music can vary somewhat, but the fidelity of the snarling strings in the score is almost always outstanding. The same goes for the clarity of the dialogue, which greatly belies its age and is balanced flawlessly in the mix. As far as the 5.1 treatment goes, it's very respectful. Bass response is healthy enough without being overcooked. The use of the surrounds is often fairly subtle but can be really effective in establishing a sense of place. There's even directionality to some of the dialogue, most memorably as Stryker and his shortlist of actresses walk out of the frame while the camera remains fixated on Sherwood. Once again, this is phenomenal work, ranking among the best sounding releases from the early '80s across any genre.

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Curtains also boasts a set of optional English (SDH) subtitles.

This would've been a far more lavish special edition if Curtains' licensor hadn't chucked so much material in the garbage just a few years ago. This includes who knows how many deleted scenes, a ghoulish alternate ending, and a significantly longer workprint of the film. Despite those painful losses, Synapse Films has still managed to assemble a hell of a special edition.
  • Ciupka: A Filmmaker in Transition (15 min.; HD): Remastered in HD from decades-old 16mm footage, this vintage featurette catches up with then-not-uncredited director Richard Ciupka on the set of Curtains. This mini-doc charts Ciupka's career as a cinematographer and his uneasy transition to the director's chair. A far cry from the usual smiles-and-rainbows-and-sunflowers tone to most modern featurettes, this one's impressively frank, making it clear that this isn't something that Ciupka is all that comfortable doing: the difficulty being a director, the very different relationship with his crew, the dramatic shift in responsibilities, and the uncertainty if this is even something he'd want to continue to pursue. Of even greater interest is a metric ton of behind the scenes footage of Curtains.

    The audio is on the rough side, and the featurette opens with a disclaimer about motion errors, but none of that really manages to get in the way.

  • The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains (36 min.; HD): This half-hour-plus retrospective from Red Shirt Pictures is easily the best of the disc's extras. Interviewed here are uncredited co-director Richard Ciupka, composer Paul Zaza, editor Michael MacLaverty, makeup effects artist Greg Cannom, and actresses Lynne Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson.

    It's not a celebration of Curtains so much as a half-embarrassed autopsy. Basically no one on the bill is proud of the film as completed, with Zaza going so far as to say he was hoping he'd get fired somewhere along the way. It's a little jarring being over the moon about a movie and then watching a retrospective where everyone's kind of frowns at it, but that's part of the reason why "The Ultimate Nightmare" is so refreshingly unique. Looking down at my notes, I have basically a full page worth of highlights, so there's a hell of a lot of meat on the bone. The conversation spans just about everything: the state of genre filmmaking north of the border in the tax shelter-friendly early '80s, how quickly production had to get underway, its more artful and psychological bent, the iconic banshee mask stemming from one actress' refusal to wear makeup/prosthetics, and a deep dive into what a profoundly troubled production this was. There are scores of details about switching directors two years after cameras first finished rolling and all the headaches associated with that. Don't get the impression that "The Ultimate Nightmare" is wall-to-wall negativity, though. This retrospective has plenty of terrific stories to go around, from Lesleh Donaldson busting her ass on the ice after three months of skating lessons to Lynne Griffin performing in front of a live audience a standup routine she largely wrote herself. Absolutely essential viewing for anyone picking up this disc.

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  • Audio Commentary: Lynne Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson also sit down to record a really fun, lively commentary track. Among the topics of conversation here are the business end of filmmaking in the Great White North back then, discussing what drew to them to a project whose script is wildly different than the ultimate film, and how they weren't really aware of the director/producer squabbles. Oodles of showbiz veteran in-the-trenches stories are lobbed out here too. The meatiest stuff has already been discussed in "The Ultimate Nightmare", but this commentary is still well worth a listen.

  • Audio Interviews: A pair of audio interviews also play commentary-style over much of the film, though they aren't nor are they meant to be screen-specific. Far and away the lengthiest of the two is a 45 minute conversation with since-departed producer/reluctant co-director Peter R. Simpson. His end was recorded over the phone and isn't the most pleasant thing in the world to listen to, but it's worth it. Simpson owns up to his difficult reputation, clears up some longstanding misunderstandings about Curtains, is very direct about the troubled production, and even snarks about the most underutilized actress in the movie. "Fucking Anne couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time!" I learned about the grabbability of ballerina's asses too, so there's that. You can also look forward to a Shannon Tweed revelation and a pretty great story about a stunt double who wasn't wearing much of anything under her parka. Following after this is a ten minute chat with Samantha Eggar that's no great shakes. The final half hour and change of Curtains play with the movie's regular audio.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last to bat is a high-def theatrical trailer.

The Final Word
There's nothing out there quite like Curtains, and that's saying something for what on paper is an early '80s slasher. Its inspired premise and heavier psychological bent owe more to gialli than the glut of hatchet-and-a-cabin body count flicks littering drive-ins at the time, its production values and particularly talented cast outclass most slashers of the era, and Curtains' iron grip never relents. Sure, the cast and crew may groan about what a mess they think the movie ultimately turned out to be, but I can't begin to tell you how deeply and sincerely I love Curtains. Even better, this unique, suspenseful film has been lavished with the Blu-ray release it deserves and then some. This is a disc I've been looking forward to for a long, long time, and Synapse Films has done their damndest to make it worth the wait. Very, very Highly Recommended.
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