It was June 2011. I was standing in front of a packed room in a Long Island hotel, leading a spirited panel on slasher films to celebrate the release of my then-latest anthology project Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film. Several of the book’s contributors were in attendance, including novelist Stephen Graham Jones, Halloween (the holiday, not the film) expert Lisa Morton, Fangoria’s Tony Timpone, and esteemed From Zombo’s Closet blogger John Cozzoli, among others.
Everything was going swimmingly—I was in my element among my people waxing philosophical about slasher films. Seriously, what could be better than to be standing before a crowd hanging on my every word about a genre I love? Then someone asked a pretty pedestrian question: “So, what’s your favorite slasher film?”
Everyone I’ve ever known expects me to say Halloween, largely because of my predilection for all things Jamie Lee Curtis. A few others might expect me to answer with Friday the 13th because that’s always been right up there in my personal rankings; honestly, they’re an interchangeable #1 and #2 depending upon my mood and the day—at least up to that point. And then I open my mouth.
“Curtains,” I answer confidently and without hesitation.
Mouths in the audience hang agape at this stunning admission. I’m even a little stunned myself yet oddly relieved and even slightly empowered. I’ve just audaciously skipped perhaps the two most obvious and revered of the golden age slasher films—and at least a half dozen others infinitely more qualified—and picked one of the most overlooked, (technically) poorly made and edited messes of a box office bomb and proclaimed it my favorite.
In front of witnesses.
No one is more surprised as I am, but as I begin to speak in an attempt to elucidate just why this one-time slasher stinker has implausibly leaped over the handful of slashers that predictably land atop most film buffs’ listicles, I’ve even managed to convince myself of an improbable truth: Curtains is a damn good slasher film. Here are my five favorite things that make this my truth:
1: The Element of Mystery: I’ve long held that the best slasher films are the ones that incorporate an element of mystery. Although Michael Myers stalking the leaf-strewn streets of Haddonfield never fails to elicit goosebumps, there’s something to be said about not knowing who’s committing the camp counselor carnage of Friday the 13th until the film’s third act. Whodunit became as compelling a plot point as the method of execution in films like Happy Birthday to Me, Terror Train, Prom Night, Graduation Day, The Prowler, Urban Legend, and, of course, Scream. In Curtains, the set-up is pure Agatha Christie: Five actresses, all vying for the same coveted film role, converge at the remote home of the film’s esteemed (and very sleazy) director to audition. A sixth actress never even makes it to the house, failing her audition with a knife to the gut. Before the first act is over, the cast is snowbound and someone in a hideous hag mask begins to systematically dispatch with the competition in true slasher style. It’s tremendous fun trying to figure out who’s behind the hag mask—and the third act reveal doesn’t disappoint.
2: The Ice Skating Scene: Even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day, and that adage holds true with the infamous ice skating sequence in Curtains. Despite the film’s myriad flaws, horror buffs largely agree that Christie’s kill is one of the most beautifully filmed and executed in all of slasherdom. From my own Butcher Knives & Body Counts essay “Paging Miss Marple”:
“What makes the scene both audacious and unnerving for slasher fans is that it takes place in broad daylight, breaking long-standing slasher convention, and the killer comes after her on skates. Few diehard slasher films will argue that the sight of old hag face skating across the frozen pond in graceful strides toward an oblivious [Lesleh] Donaldson isn’t one of the most genuinely chilling cinematic moments ever. There is a pure poetry to the scene, with the curve of the scythe that slowly emerges from behind the killer’s back matching the artful curves of the skates as they cut through the ice towards Donaldson. The actress, who first blinks in confusion in the bright sunshine before that moment of amalgamated shock and terror, plays the scene to perfection.”
3: That Creepy Doll: Curtains is notable for its use of creepy imagery. Case in point, the recurring use of a grim-looking doll—raven-haired, sunken eyes, mouth downturned into a frown—that shows up at the most inopportune times and seems to be a harbinger of bad things to come throughout the film. There are two scenes, in particular, in which creepy dolly is used to particularly good effect. In the first, Amanda (Deborah Burgess) is making her way to the audition, heading up a curving roadway in a rainstorm. She slams on her brakes: ‘Ole creepy dolly is standing in the middle of the road, arms outstretched. When Amanda gets out of the car, using her audition script as an ineffective umbrella, and crouches down in front of the doll to investigate its incongruous appearance in the middle of the road, creepy dolly latches onto her arm and Amanda screams. It’s revealed to be nothing more than a nightmare, but the sequence is unnerving.
In the second scene, Christie finds creepy dolly buried in the snow at the side of the pond. She pulls it out and brushes the snow from its face. Even in broad daylight, the doll’s visage is unsettling. As the film’s hag-masked killer skates upon the ill-fated Christie, the ice-skating ingénue tries to block the killer’s attack by thrusting the doll out in front of her—and poor creepy dolly’s head gets lopped off with the killer’s scythe.
4: The Prop Closet Final Chase: At the beginning of the film’s third act, Tara (the late Sandee Currie)—after stumbling upon all the dead bodies in accordance with the slasher formula—finds herself in the enviable position of would-be final girl, which can only mean one thing: the protracted chase scene between her and the killer. Curtains makes champion use of its underlying thespian theme here by setting the climatic final chase in a theatrical prop closet. The setting is made creepier by its natural clutter—costume-clad mannequins, furniture, myriad stage props, eerily lit signage. It all serves alternately as camouflage for both hag-mask and Tara—well, at least until she climbs into that ventilation shaft…
5: Everything We Didn’t See: What makes Curtains the true masterpiece this longtime horror nerd has come to appreciate is largely what we don’t see on screen.
No, you heard me correctly. Curtains is remarkable for all its lost potential. Watching it, one is struck by all the things the filmmakers could have done—hell, may have done. Curtains was a notoriously troubled, protracted production, worsened by multiple script rewrites, reshoots, and recastings that spanned nearly three years. Prom Night producer Peter S. Simpson conceptualized the film as an “adult” slasher that could be marketed toward older audiences and, by all accounts, the film’s original director Richard Ciupka had begun to craft something of an arthouse thriller. But tensions between producer and director over the creative direction of the film led to the latter eventually detaching his name from the project—after only 45 minutes of footage had been completed. Simpson stepped in to complete the film, adding scenes, reshooting scenes, and excising some of Ciupka’s material. The end product is something of a cinematic mishmash, which is why you’ll note two separate sets of credits and a fictional director.
The lost Ciupka footage has become something of cinematic legend, with various cast and crew recollecting scenes that have never seen the light of day. In 2013, Synapse Films announced that it was planning on releasing Curtains on Blu-ray, with a new 2K transfer from the original prints, as well as a 5.1 surround sound audio remastering. Fans of the film began to buzz about the infamous Ciupka footage once again—but, alas, the fine gents at Synapse found none of the coveted footage when they received the original prints. Still, the remastered Curtains is a beauty to behold, with scenes previously unwatchable in their low-def blackness now popping with color and definition. The lost footage will remain the stuff of legend and speculation and the holy grail of slasher cinephiles, while Curtains, in all its glorious imperfection, will remain an unpolished gem in the canon of horror films.