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1983, Starring John Vernon, Samantha Eggar, Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin Directed by Richard Ciupka (Simcom Limited).

Guest Review by Dave Alexander

Comparing a grotty little Canuck horror flick to the films of Jean Renoir might seem like contrasting coffee grounds with chocolate, but Curtains shares a theatrical sense of self-awareness with the best works of the acclaimed French director. In Renoir films like Rules of the Game, as well as the " stage and spectacle trilogy" (Elena and her Men, French Cancan and The Golden Coach), the director often literally pulled back the curtains to depict staged performances within the plot, calling attention to the constructed nature of the medium itself. Like Renoir's artier fare, Curtains is rife with an intentional theatricality, making it one of the most self-aware and ambitious—although often nonsensical—Canadian entries in the slasher subgenre.

The film opens with just such a self-referential staged performance. Instead of a fade-in, a black screen parts like a pair of curtains—a cheeky transition used throughout the movie—to reveal Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar, The Brood) holding a prop gun and reciting lines onstage. She's reading for the lead role in a movie called Audrey, the latest drama from director Jonathan Stryker, an emotionally hot and cold filmmaker played with zeal by the late John Vernon (who never met a 1980s American network TV show he couldn't play a bad guy on).

In the film's second bit of theatrical misdirection, Samantha fakes her way into an asylum so she can completely immerse herself in the role of mentally unstable Audrey. Surrounded by madness, she becomes more distant until the director abandons her in the nuthouse. When Samantha learns he's recasting the role, the possibly now unstable actor escapes and arrives unannounced at Stryker's country manor (actually a big house in Muskoka, Ontario) where he's gathered a handful of women to read for the coveted part. Samantha joins the competition alongside a mish-mash of personalities such as woefully unfunny stand-up comedian Patti (Lynne Griffin, Black Christmas) and naïve figure skater Christie (Lesleh Donaldson, Funeral Home).

The third staged performance takes place as the last of Stryker's young acting hopefuls prepares to head out to the mansion for the weekend. Before she can finish packing, she's brutally attacked and raped by a masked assailant... who turns out to be her boyfriend in role-playing mode! It's a cheesy fake-out that apes a standard slasher scenario, but unlike the earlier scenes, it serves the self-reflexive theme of Robert Guza Jr.'s (Prom Night) screenplay more than it does the plot.

With the characters all in place, the whodunit slasher story plays itself out, as the unlucky ladies trapped at the snowed-in mansion are picked off by the mysterious killer—at least when they're not performing scenes from the play or sex-acts with Stryker or his houseboy Mathew (Canadian character actor Michael Wincott). Best known as the bad guy in The Crow, Wincott appears in so few scenes it seems like he may have fallen victim to the editor's knife, but his peripheral presence only adds to the overall weirdness of Curtains.

Of course, if it wasn't for the film's outrageous scenarios, Curtains wouldn't have pulled off one of the most memorable moments in Canadian horror. The film is best known for the scene when Christie goes for a morning skate on the lake, only to have the killer, in a scary old woman mask, skate after her with a knife. Although the attack could only be less efficient if the stalker parachuted in on a flaming Zamboni, it's the best of several outlandish creep-outs that include a large doll left standing on the side of the road in the middle of a rainstorm, a severed head in a toilet and a prop room with dummies hanging from the ceiling.

By the time animated curtains fall on the final bookend scene—a performance in front of a handful of drooling asylum inmates—the film has supplied enough black-gloved killings, whodunit red herrings, terrorized beauties and theatrical set pieces to qualify it as more of a snowy giallo than anything else. Although it isn't likely to be sharing shelf space with Renoir in the Criterion section of your local rental house, Curtains aspires to be so much more than the average horror film, and succeeds—probably more than it should. Entertaining, unusually self-aware and sometimes downright unnerving, this minor triumph of Canuxploitation desperately deserves a DVD resurrection, if only to hear a commentary about how difficult it is to skate on a frozen pond while wearing a rubber mask.

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