Curtains. 1983. Directed by Richard Ciupka. Screenplay by Robert Guza Jr.
Starring John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Linda Thorson, Anne Ditchburn, Lynne Griffin, Sandee Currie, Lesleh Donaldson, Deborah Burgess, Michael Wincott, & Maury Chaykin.
Simcom Limited/Curtains Productions
Rated R. 89 minutes.
In the Hall of Fame for slasher movie masks the Old Hag mask from Curtains sits mighty. One of those masks that’ll stay with you forever. This is a classic piece of 1980s horror focused on the horrors endured by women of the world, in specific the horrors of acting.
This Canadian horror takes the viewer into the world of actresses competing against one another at any costs necessary to secure a coveted role. What works as a by-the-numbers slasher is also twofold, doubling as critique of the male-dominated stage and film industries which forces women into a psychological space – and in this case physical, too – where they only do damage to themselves in the name of making/securing a career.
Curtains has much to say about the plight of actresses, also continually blurring the lines between reality and fiction, which questions how far a thespian’s willing to go to get into their character. There’s lots of nasty murder, a whodunit plot, and the terror of being an actress in a brutally patriarchal industry comes across with violent power.
From the beginning the manipulation of men in power is evident via the character of Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon). Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) acts out a scene onstage while she’s watched by Stryker, who’s obscured in shadows from behind a big, bright light. As director, he’s lurking in the dark behind the scenes just like a slasher killer does. This could imply he might later turn out to be the killer, though it’s likely drawing comparisons between a slasher and director as manipulators/destroyers of women— a theme we see more of as the plot(s) wear on.
Interesting how the director of Curtains, Richard Ciupka, decided not to have himself credited. He used the name Jonathan Stryker, taking us into a space where reality and film are fluid, like the director Stryker’s manipulating every last thing both the viewer and the characters experience. Again, his status as manipulator deepens in meaning.
These elements are the start of an overall blurring of the lines between art and life. Samantha goes on to willingly commit herself to a psychiatric hospital in the name of “method acting,” claiming: “You have to believe it to do it.” This totally obliterates the boundaries separating identity and character. Gradually, Samantha’s environment actually affects her, paralleling real life actors who get pulled into a character psychologically when they get deep into a role by living in their skin.
“Have you ever wanted something so badly you would do anything for it? Well, me, I want to be an actress.”
Stage and film are, still to this day, male dominated industries. Patriarchal manipulation of actresses by men in authoritative positions turns women against one another particularly through internalised misogyny. Stryker’s entire audition process inviting half a dozen actresses to an estate together in and of itself pits women against other women. The slasher aspect of Curtains is an allegory of the disturbing, vicious process through which actresses go being a part of the arts.
In light of this, the Old Hag mask used by the slasher is symbolic, taking on characteristics of an old woman whose looks are deemed by industry men/society as past their prime. The killer’s a double-edged image: a slasher, and also the figurative internalised misogyny within the actresses, embodying fears of getting too old for a career onstage, coming to literally murder them. During a scene between Stryker and Samantha, the director taunts her: “What if your face were different? It could be one day— hideous, repulsive.” Then, he makes her put on the Old Hag mask to try and seduce him with only her face. This scene cements the slasher’s mask as a terrifying image of the misogyny inherent in the acting world.
Stryker’s the epitome of a male abuser. Alongside the killer’s actions, he drives the actresses towards internalising the misogyny he represents. He manipulates all the women, from having sex with some and misusing his power/position, to gaslighting Samantha after deliberately leaving her in an asylum when he knew she wasn’t genuinely ill. This mirrors the slasher, too, even though it’s not Stryker killing the women. In one scene, the killer gaslights one of the actresses by putting a bloody head in her toilet, then removing it before she’s able to show the director, thereby making her look crazy. From all angles, these women are assaulted by the misogyny of their industry.
The final showdown is between the killer – a young woman – and the older actress amongst them, Samantha. This acts as a perfect metaphor for the way actresses are judged by age. The entire movie Samantha’s feeling replaced by actresses whom Stryker sees as younger and prettier. It’s a poignant statement to have the older actress finally murdered by the young one, representing the situation in which the industry places women, literally replacing the old with the young without conscience via slasher violence.
“All’s fair in love— and auditions.”
The final scene of the movie, featuring the revealed killer Patti (Lynne Griffin) doing a standup comedy set she performed earlier in a club now in front of other inmates at an asylum. This juxtaposed scene – exactly the same as the one before, including audience laughter at her dreams of becoming an actress – is a sad statement about the end result of women’s careers due to patriarchal manipulation and abuse. Patti cannot let go of her dreams despite letting internalised misogyny turn her into a murderer. She’ll waste away in an asylum the rest of her days, ruined by the horrible ambitions of men and an industry unconcerned with its immoral treatment of women.
Curtains is underrated, particularly for the ’80s. The Old Hag mask alone will haunt your dreams. Father Gore finds this interesting enough as a well-shot, equally well-written whodunit slasher. Like many great works of cinema this movie offers more than entertainment. If you allow it the plots reveal themes worth mulling over. It does a fantastic job on all fronts, which is why this is an unforgettable horror movie. And in the wake of all the abuses we’ve seen over the past few years in Hollywood, the themes in Curtains resonate across decades.