There aren't too many slasher films as scattered as Curtains. When I put it that way, it sounds like it's not even a compliment. And I suppose it probably isn't a compliment, at that, given how much the movie at the end feels like a collection of scene ideas tacked to a board over the screenwriter's desk, rather than any sort of cohesive final object. But this is as clear an example of the whole being greater than the sue its parts as you're ever likely to trip across; and besides, if those parts don't quite hang together, the film comes by it honestly.

I'll only give you the whirlwind version of the production history: Richard Ciupka, a cinematographer of good standing, wanted to make his directorial debut (his prior career is a fascinating one, swerving from chintzy sexploitation sequel Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia over to the superlative Louis Malle character drama Atlantic City in just three years; I was all set to praise him for being the only man to shoot both an Ilsa and and Best Picture Oscar nominee, and imagine how staggered I was to learn that he wasn't - Dean Cundey managed the same trick, though it took him two decades), and he saw in Robert Guza, Jr's screenplay a chance to do just that with a sophisticated, grown-up thriller about professional cruelty and jealousy. Producer Peter Simpson wanted to re-create his success in the thriving field of slasher movies by following the 1980 hit Prom Night with another film about pretty girls being hunted by a blade-wielding crazy, and he saw that in Guza's screenplay. Neither man was necessarily wrong, but oh my, how they were wrong for each other, and the production of Curtains, which started in 1980, descended into a furious chain of fights between producer and director with Ciupka storming off with the project only halfway completed. Simpson spent the next couple of years re-shooting, junking footage, replacing actors, and eventually cobbling the whole thing together in a form that hit theaters in the spring of 1983 (it would be released in its native Canada for another year and then some), with Ciupka refusing to lend his name to the hybrid project, which instead was cheekily credited to director "Jonathan Stryker", named after the menacing Svengali who drives the plot of the movie itself.

You an absolutely see the results of all that fumbling and reworking onscreen; even just the visual end result boasts all the scars of its production. The whole thing is credited to just one cinematographer, Robert Paynter, but it surely doesn't look that way. The footage quality is all over the place, with at least one phase of the production looking shamelessly under-saturated relative to everything else, while also being distinctly soft (my suspicion is that we're seeing the results of using a crappy lab for a few isolated reels). Meanwhile, the narrative is nothing if not shambolic: there are no fewer than three candidates for lead character based on where we are in the movie, and even beyond that, the emphasis on different people in the ensemble cast is such that none of them actually feel like they've been properly defined, leaving it entirely a result of which actors are the liveliest as to which characters are the most engaging.

For all that, it's surely captivating, and by the midway point, the lack of focus has emerged as a real benefit to the movie: it feels like it's gaslighting us just as thoroughly as its characters. Mind you, by the end of the movie, the lack of focus has become acutely annoying: the not exactly a Final Girl sequence, hinges on the character whom I would call, up to that point, the least interesting and most ill-defined member of the cast, and it's only thanks to the really excellent, inexplicably terrifying mise en scène that the sequence hangs together at all. But anyway, Curtains: the movie that opens with actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) losing her mind right in the middle of running lines with movie writer-director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), who has just written the title roll of Audra for her, and is finding she's not up to the challenge, so he berates her right up to the point of madness. Aha, except that it's all a ruse: Stryker and Samantha have agreed that the best way for her to research Audra will be to get her admitted to a psychiatric institution and her breakdown has been all for the benefit of the doctors, the better to convince them that she belongs there. And here comes the gaslighting: once Samantha is securely locked up, Stryker announces that he's casting the lead in Audra from among a group of six up-and-coming actresses, and when Samantha discovers this fact, she also discovers that she's not going to be getting out anytime soon. So, as one will, she breaks out - and we all know what happens when people break out of the asylum in a slasher movie.

Even by the time this prologue wraps up, it's clear that regular conceptions of pacing and rhythm will not be major priorities to Curtain: it transforms almost invisibly into a montage depicting Samantha's entrapment as a series of disconnected moments which the editing doesn't link at all; instead, it fashions each of them as a separate little diorama, with each pause driving Samantha more and more into a fit of depressive isolation and, possibly, actual madness. It's a patchwork in which we lose all sense of time and continuity, and it's dour and moody, and I actually loved it a little bit. It helps that Eggar, who hated the project in all of its incarnations and only took it for the paycheck, is a Real Actress, who places a genuine sense of frustration and cold rage into Samantha's exile. For that matter, it's pretty unexpected and fascinating that Curtains puts so much energy into depicting the sorrows of a middle-aged woman who finds herself shanghied into the exposition of a slasher movie; it's a genre about and for the young, and Samantha is a singularly unique protagonist, even if she more or less stops being the protagonist by the end of the opening sequence. Still, you can see the echoes of Ciupka's hope that this would be a respectable adult variation on slasher movie themes, and even as it becomes "pretty young things trapped in an isolated house get killed", our initial alignment with Samantha never quite gives up its hold.

The bulk of the movie is, of course, pretty young things trapped house in the snowy woods: one of them, Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess) doesn't even get that far before having a peculiar nightmare about a doll standing in the middle of a rainy road reach out and strangle her. She wakes up just in time to be murdered in real life, unbeknownst to the rest of Stryker's hopefuls: Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson), Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin), Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), Laurian Summers (Anne Ditchburn), and Tara DeMillo (Sandra Warren). For some truly baffling reason, the director has decided to pen them all up in one house for the weekend to test for the part, leading to a hothouse of jealousy, backbiting, and the constant crushing sense that Stryker only really has them there to make it easier to bed them all one by one. Samantha finds her way there, to Stryker's rather discomfiting lack of surprise, and she looms over the nervous young actresses like a stormcloud.

I will not spoil what happens, although I will say that Curtains found the one way to actually surprise me: while it seems clear enough that Samantha is just a red herring, it's deeply unclear which of the remaining characters (possibly including Stryker) might be responsible for killing the young performers, while wearing the mask of a wrinkled red-headed hag - carefully arranged so that the victims, as their numbers dwindle, feel no sense of impending danger. And eventually, the reveal turns out to be just off-beat enough that it's almost impossible to predict: there's a certain unofficial inviolate rule of slasher movies that is violated, perfectly fairly, and in a way that adds a surprising dimension to the character arcs of the people who remain alive by that point - it's like if the whole thing was a secret O. Henry homage.

Anyway, the fragmentary narrative construction plays well within the off-kilter mystery framework of the film - because they've all been pieced together from little chunks of story, everybody's behavior feels simply wrong, and we can't force them into being right no matter what. It's a blurry scenario that seems as untethered from reality as its ultimate killer: the menacing dream doll returns in the real world during an extraordinary extended sequence that results in Christie's death after ice skating: the appearance of the hag-mask killer is so much more ethereal and baffling than scary that even the victim doesn't seem to process what's going on at first.

In short, Curtains makes good use of being a total, unsalvageable mess by turning a lack of coherence into something like a Euro-art horror film of psychological disarray (Ciupka might have lost the battle for control of the movie, but the results are nothing like the mainstream hack-and-slash boilerplate that Simpson was looking for; even the Final Girl sequence, thanks to its funhouse-like arrangement of hanging mannequins, has a more abstracted feeling than your average Jason Voorhees wannabe with a big knife). In many ways - too many - Curtains is utterly dissatisfying, particularly when it focuses on any characters other than Samantha, Patti, or Christie, and the abruptness with which it starts disposing of victims smacks of the desperation of a filmmaking team anxious to get us to the plot resolution rather than anything artful or creative. But the potency of individual scenes can be extreme, and those moments tend to linger: Samantha's misery in the asylum lingers over the first half, and Christie's tearful shame after she sleeps with Stryker - an astonishingly painful, honest moment for a slasher film that's actively uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch - lingers over the second, and the whole thing is suffused with a sense of human frailty and vanity and woundedness that are nothing like the usual "horny teens get tossed in a dumpster" boilerplate of most slashers - or of Curtain's own climactic murder spree. At any rate, having a performance as soulful as Eggar's and as bright and alive and vivid as Griffin's (Patti is a stand-up comic, and the combination of wacky upbeat energy masking terrified self-doubt in Griffin's performance is brilliant: it is by far the film's worst misstep that she gets so very little to do relative to the dull Brooke and Tara) both set Curtains aside as a far more humane slasher film than the vast majority of the subgenre, even without the resonance and engaging strangeness of the film's dysfunctional structure and arrhythmic pacing. It is impressive that the film is any good at all, given the strikes against it, and I don't want to go too crazy in pretending like it's a masterpiece when really it's just impressively creative in the ways it goes wildly out of control. By this late point in the initial slasher wave, though, any creativity at all was a good thing, and the fact remains that as broken as it surely is, Curtains is one of the tiny handful of genuinely unique one-offs in the genre's history.

Body Count: 8 are strongly implied, but the last one could always be just a bad mangling. But I think the spirit of the thing dictates that we call it 8, mostly bunched up into a sudden explosion of violence lasting 14 minutes.