Through the Looking Glass, Down the Rabbit Hole: REAR WINDOW

by John S. 

On the surface, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch could not seem to be more different. The former’s oeuvre is largely highlighted by matter-of-fact, propulsively-linear movement. The latter’s is mainly characterized by surreal tangents and dreamy abstractions that can be downright enigmatic. However, look deeper and you will find solid common ground. Hitchcock and Lynch’s films often tackle themes of deceptive facades and the dangers of peeking beneath to discover the truth. These dovetailing themes are never more evident than in Rear Window and Blue Velvet, two movies that may approach the old chestnut of “nothing is what it seems” from different avenues, but end up being classic cinematic kindred spirits.

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To Have THE BREAKING POINT

by Robert Horton

The Breaking Point, a noirish 1950 Hemingway adaptation, received a deluxe DVD/Blu-ray release this month, courtesy the Criterion Collection. An interesting film in its own right, it’s also part of the very entertaining cinematic afterlife of Hemingway’s allegedly “worst” novel (which is not his worst novel). So I take the release as an excuse to write about this afterlife, and the literary original.

To Have and Have Not is a curious book. Ernest Hemingway, already a celebrated figure in American letters, assembled the novel by taking two two short stories and expanding on their main character, a Key West charter-boat captain named Harry Morgan. The book, published in 1937, begins with the two stories and then launches into another plot, so it has a built-in episodic structure. In the longest section, Morgan—left high and dry by someone who commissioned his boat and then skipped out on paying—reluctantly takes a job ferrying a group of bank robbers out to a rendezvous point at sea. This structure can (and has) been criticized as a clunky stapling-together of different pieces, but its radical shifts and disjointedness actually fit Hemingway’s modernist inclinations. Even in the longest section, we’re occasionally jerked out of Morgan’s point of view and into the mind of somebody else—a startling technique, especially when the interior monologue flips to Morgan’s wife Marie, who has her own vivid view on their economically humble lives. Read More

Movie Postmortem #10 – CURTAINS

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Curtains

THE CASE HISTORY: Summer 1980. Halloween’s worldwide success two years prior inspires many other horror/thrillers about teenagers terrorized by masked menaces, usually around some holiday or major event. Two of the better ones manage to find success with North American audiences: Friday the 13th and Prom Night. The latter film is a Canadian production by the SimCom company. Peter Simpson, the company’s lead producer, is eager to follow-up Prom Night’s success with another “slasher” film.

Screenwriter Robert Guza Jr. (who provided the story idea that inspired Prom Night) provides SimCom with a screenplay entitled Curtains. The title has a clever double-meaning: representing the competitive showbiz/theatrical milieu the story unfolds against – and also the popular slang for death. The plot revolves around ruthless, Svengali-like director Jonathan Stryker who is adapting a popular literary novel called Audra, a tragic tale of a woman committed to an insane asylum for killing her unfaithful lover in a jealous rage.

Stryker wants the perfect actress to play Audra, and assembles six hopefuls for an intense weekend casting call at his snowbound country mansion in rural New Hampshire.  Unfortunately, Stryker’s former lover is not pleased. She is former screen queen Samantha Sherwood, and she wants the role of Audra enough to fight her six younger rivals for it. Soon enough, the other women are systematically knocked off by a killer in a banshee mask, each encounter preceded by an eerie wailing right before the attack. Is Samantha behind the banshee mask – or is there more here than meets the eye?

Peter Simpson agrees to make Curtains the follow-up to Prom Night. Simpson hires cinematographer Richard Ciupka to make his directorial debut. Ciupka’s most famous credit is working with Louis Malle on the acclaimed Atlantic City. His involvement promises to give Curtains a classy sheen not usually found in slasher films currently in release. The casting of talented vets John Vernon and Samantha Eggar as Stryker and Sherwood further bodes well for the production.

November 1980. Filming begins and what transpires over the next few months will be the subject of some debate years later. What most can agree on is that director Ciupka and producer Simpson do not see eye-to-eye on how Curtains should turn out. The former wants an arty psycho-drama-thriller, while the latter wants a more straightforward body-count horror film along the lines of Prom Night and Friday The 13th. Hence, throughout 1981 and 1982, Curtains goes through numerous delays and extensive revisions amping up the “slasher” factor. It also spends some time being shelved by SimCom – before undergoing even more reshoots (reportedly handled by Simpson).

Finally, in March 1983, about 2.5 years after the cameras first rolled on it, Curtains is released in the United States with a limited run. Directorial credit goes to neither Ciupka or Simpson but to (in a clever bit) Jonathan Stryker. By then, the Slasher Sub-Genre has peaked and business is weak. Critical reviews are not good – but with one remarkable exception: The Hollywood Reporter calls Curtains “the classiest, most chilling thriller to come along in a long time” and “rich in surprises of a gripping, sensuous nature.” Unfortunately, this distinguished support doesn’t save the movie and it fades away quickly at the 1983 U.S. box-office. It’s curtains for Curtains.

So… what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: At the heart of Curtains’ troubled history is the conflict between director Richard Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson’s divergent goals for the film. Ciupka’s desire for a more character-oriented whodunit with echoes of Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None reportedly ran counter to Simpson’s preference for a more brisk slasher approach. The million-dollar question: what was the original shooting script like – before all the rewrites and reshoots?

Answer: very different. While the basic bedrock of plot and characters is the same, there are some major differences. For starters, unlike in the final film, the first act doesn’t involve the red herring of Samantha committing herself to an asylum to research Audra’s madness. Instead, the script goes right into a montage of the six other actresses preparing for the weekend casting call, ending with Amanda’s death on the road to Stryker’s estate (in the final film, her road death is just a nightmare she has). The characters also extensively discuss the banshee myth which says death follows a banshee’s wailing cry – with a strange shrieking later foreshadowing every murder. All references to banshees (except for the mask) are removed completely from the final film.

The celebrated skating setpiece with Christy is also much shorter and plays out differently in the screenplay (the film version is drawn out and more effective). Also missing from the script is the movie’s well-done climactic cat-and-mouse chase setpiece with Tara in the labyrinthine prop warehouse (on the page, the pursuit plays out instead on two snowmobiles as the killer tracks Tara through the woods when she tries to go for help). As with Christy’s sequence, Tara’s chase is much stronger in the movie. Indeed, the screenplay’s suspense set-pieces are more subtle, like deadly traps the killer lures the victims into – more Agatha Christie than Pamela Voorhees.

The script has a more powerful ending, though (same twist as in the film, but presented much better). Other pluses include more fleshed-out roles for virtually every character. The relationships between Stryker and each of the women, and between the women themselves, are also front-and-center. In the end, the finished movie is an interesting combination of strong, distinctively individual direction by both Ciupka and Simpson of their respective sections. While some may feel this makes Curtains feel disjointed, we submit that it actually creates a surreal, eerie atmosphere that helps the movie stand apart from other slasher films of the time.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Despite the conflict between Richard Ciupka and Peter Simpson’s visions for Curtains, it turned out to be a relatively-accomplished movie they both should get credit for (let’s not forget that glowing Hollywood Reporter review). It’s more likely those endless delays, rewrites, and reshoots that led to Curtains being released two years after it was intended to may have also led to it missing the Box-Office Boat (the Slasher Craze was waning by 1983). Happily, it has developed a very loyal following over the years, redeeming it considerably.

NEXT CASUALTY: Bridget Jones’ Baby – “Relationship Status: Beyond Complicated…

Everyone’s favorite bumbling Brit Singleton finally reappeared in 2016. Unfortunately, not many folks showed up to greet her on this side of the Atlantic. Why?

 

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

David Lynch: Go Into a World

by Greg Olson

Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive are Hollywood tales told by dead people. The Wizard of Oz and Wild at Heart feature a Wicked Witch and a Good Witch. Laura and Twin Peaks center on detectives fascinated by dead young women. Eraserhead, Twin Peaks: The Return and many Jacques Tati films feature male characters who have an innocent, puzzled, child-like view of their environments and the world’s absurdities. Lolita and Blue Velvet portray men obsessively, transgressively in love. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Twin Peaks: The Return spew torrents of cosmic/extradimensional light accompanied by the symphonic strains of avant garde Eastern European composers.

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