Obnoxious film director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon) isn’t happy with the performance of his fading star, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar). Admitted into an insane asylum, the brittle actress shocks doctors by pulling a knife on Stryker, but it’s all an act. Part of a method acting stunt the pair concocted to help Samantha research her role as a homicidal maniac. However, daily exposure to giggling loonies slowly drives her insane.
Meanwhile, Stryker ruthlessly auditions replacement actresses at his snowy mountain retreat, including jittery Brooke Parsons (The Avengers’ Linda Thorson), stand-up comedian Patti O’Connor (Lynn Griffin), cute figure-skater Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), dancer Laurian Summers (Anne Ditchburn), and slutty Tara De Millo (Sandee Currie). Tensions become further fraught when Samantha unexpectedly arrives at the house, having left the asylum with help from a mysterious female accomplice. Elsewhere, another aspiring actress Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess) is murdered by a maniac in a old witch mask, who then targets the other wannabes.
Although afflicted with several plot-holes and silly moments, this Canadian slasher proves - if you’ll forgive the pun - a cut above the rest. The story, written by Robert Guza Jr., heads in offbeat directions which, coupled with the lack of any obvious focal point amongst the ensemble cast, keeps us on our toes. In addition to veterans Eggar, Vernon and Thorson, horror fans will recognise Griffin from Black Christmas (1975) and Donaldson from Happy Birthday to Me (1981). Anybody could be the killer, though unlike the Scream sequels, their surprise identity isn’t pulled out of a hat and at least makes some sense on a psychological level. While characterization is as skin deep as the rest of its genre, this at least acknowledges the actress’ hurt feelings as Stryker seduces Christie, then Brooke and casts them aside, and turns the audition process into prolonged, psychological torture. There is a nicely twisted moment where Stryker forces Samantha to don the killer’s mask, and the early asylum sequences are quite eerie, aided by disorienting wide-angles lenses and Eggar’s intense performance.
Cinematographer-turned-director Richard Ciupka avoids explicit bloodshed but deals potent shocks with a head in a toilet, a sneak attack from behind a tree and an impressive, slow-motion tumble through a window. But not all his tricks yield results. He wastes time with a lame false rape scare involving Amanda and her boyfriend (Booth Savage), and a dream sequence that prefigures her death. The latter begs the question: how does the killer know where she lives? Although the sight of Christie being chased by the hag-masked villain on ice-skates treads the line between campy and scary, the unsettling murder sequences have had some thought put into them. Each is heralded by the presence of a creepy doll and involves the victim performing an individual talent, be it skating, dancing, or acting - as though their talent alone is provoking the killer. The cat and mouse finale in a spooky theatre full of billowing curtains and hanging dolls, is nerve-jangling stuff only slightly undone by involving the least developed character.
Ironically for a movie about a troubled film production, Curtains was itself beset by problems. Thorson was brought on to replace actress Celine Lomez, who refused to do nudity (although neither does Thorson!) and was subsequently blacklisted by the Canadian film industry. Ciupka was replaced towards the end of filming by a pseudonymous director and, never happy with the final film, chose to be credited as Jonathan Stryker!