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 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.

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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.

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