Review: Curtain (2015) aka - How not to market an indie movie
...aka "The Gateway". uggghhh.
Firstly, don't go online and watch a trailer for this thing.
I'll explain why with this little story and then give my suspected reason as to what happened to this film. Also, know now that you may find it difficult to actually be able to see this. It may well be sat on a streaming service you have access to, depending on where you are in the world, but a quick search turned up nothing. It's a film that really has largely just disappeared - though surprisingly, seeing as it's a U.S movie, it gets/got more attention here in the UK. More of that later.
So, I'm looking for something weird and different to watch - as is often the case - and I come across this film called Curtain. Here in the UK, on free-to-air TV (I see this as a very good and actual reason to live in the UK) we have The Horror Channel. During the day it shows re-runs of Buffy and Xena and old Sci-Fi channel movies. After 9pm you can expect a few things like the Wrong Turn series, or The Hills Have Eyes remakes; pretty well-known, recent, slasher flicks. And then before the channel goes into Shopping TV mode you'll get a couple of weird low-budget things that won't get much of an audience and are there to pad out the schedule. Of course I go looking for these things, they get recorded, they sit on my DVR for a while and eventually I get round to looking at them. This is the actual TV listing.
HORROR CHANNEL, SAT 30 JUN, 3.00AM TO 4.29AM
Quirky horror. A nurse moves to a new apartment and discovers a portal in the bathroom that is swallowing household objects and brings terror into her life. (2015)
Frankly, if I see a description like that for a film I'm going to be ALL OVER IT.
There's some misinformation here, but also something that is very very correct. It IS quirky. It's weird, bizarre, and funny in different ways. Which brings us to the important wrong information. This portal isn't "swallowing household objects" which sounds like it has some far-reaching power and is innately terrifying. No, this portal is located in the bathroom - specifically above the bath/shower. And the only thing it swallows? Shower curtains. And only when the bathroom door is shut and it's alone. See, weird. And already kind of funny. Also, the main character USED to be a nurse. She had a breakdown, is unemployed, and drinks beer constantly to take the edge off. She's also not terrified by the disappearing objects, more just pissed off. Some terror comes later on.
It's a film that is actually working on a number of levels. Not that there isn't horror, but that comes later in the film as do a bunch of other things; I've described "Curtain" as a film that has aspects of horror in it, rather than it being a horror film. That's the distinction to me. For every moment that's horror there's something that makes you smile, or is weird and gets your imagination working. It's not a horror film.
So the premise is so damn weird and specific that it can't help but make you smile. Which is kind of the point. "Curtain" is the right title for this thing. It weird, indie lo-fi and doing it's own thing.
I'll tell you what I think happened to this film, which I understand, but also crippled it. It's really well-made. It got picked up by someone who really liked it, but then it came to trying to market it and this film isn't going to play well to a crowd. For every person who really likes it, they'll be one who actually hates it. MOST people will just be left wondering what the hell they just watched. It's got a very specific audience. I don't know how you go about actually finding that audience. And neither did the distribution company. Instead of it being pitched to the art-house crowd, where it belonged, it was pitched as all-out horror film.
This takes me back to my little story. I watch the film. It's intelligent, well-made and has a clear sense of its' own identity. So I tell some people about it and I want them to get a sense of it so I search for the trailer, which I had not seen before, and I play it on their TV. And the trailer screams in your face for a whole minute like it's going to kill you and mostly uses a bunch of out of context footage from the second-half of film (things that the potential audience shouldn't be aware of) to tell you it's sinister and born of hell. I'm dumbfounded. So nuance is gone, the idea that you're going to watch something thoughtful and crafted is gone. The original title "Curtain" is gone and now it's "The Gateway", because obviously that's terrifying and not generic and characterless at all. It also premiered at the UK's annual Film4 Frightfest horror movie festival, and this must have led to some distribution deal, as their livery appears in the credits to the film and trailer. So once that happened, once it got some attention in that environment, someone in marketing must have thought that it made sense to present the film in a certain way.
Nothing looking remotely like this happens in the film.
The problem here is that you've just fucked two audiences. People who want a weird intelligent genre-flirting indie film will think this is some one-note supernatural gore-fest. People who want a supernatural gore-fest find themselves with a film about an ex-nurse whose shower curtains keep being stolen by a, very-particlar, worm-hole.
So, lets go back in time to me starting to watch the film, and that TV listing is all I know going in. Which I'm now glad about. I'm also glad it was called "Curtain"; it made me interested. It feels like I've watched ten films called The Gateway and they were all cheap shit made by some clueless 20yr olds with a camcorder and I would have just blew by it. This bollocks happens all the time. A few years ago there was a great little distopian sci-fi flick about a young woman protecting her water supply called "The Well". It got retitled "The Last Survivors" and immediately sounded like most no-budget SF films that you want avoid like the plague. The impressive, then unknown, star seems to be doing alright though. Haley Lu Richardson. If you're a fan of no-budget films made by people with lots of talent (I am. Lack of budget can lead to inventiveness) I suggest you go take a look at that, you might like it.
Anyhow the film starts and the first logo to pop up? "Icon", an actual proper film company, which surprised the hell out of me - so this film actually had a little bit of funding or at least the promise of a proper distribution at some point. Still, the first few minutes are pretty low-fi, it's obviously a small production and it's shot on digital. But it's really nicely shot. Someone knows how to properly frame things and has an idea of what works on digital and what doesn't. This prelude to the film proper feels like early Cronenburg. It's weird and feels off-kilter and alien and gets a little grisly.
And then the film properly starts. Our ex-nurse is looking for things to fill her life with - decorating, beer and trying to convince people on the street to help Save the Whales are the main things. And then dealing with the shower curtain situation.
Once she becomes convinced she isn't going crazy or that someone isn't creeping in and stealing them she knows shes dealing with something else. She replaces a curtain, it goes missing. Does it again, it goes missing. Some people would get scared but she just gets really pissed off. She storms off to the store and buys many shower curtains; on the bus home she sits there hugging them all to her chest and she's just SEETHING, like she's going to war with something. It's so ridiculous and so perfectly presented that it's laugh out loud funny.
The curtains only disappear when no one is in the room and the door is shut, so she leaves her phone in the bathroom recording video and closes the door. We find out how they disappear. I liked it a lot.
Then she and her friend want to know where these things are going, so they paint "If you find this please call..." and put their telephone number on the next curtain, wondering if these things actually go somewhere and if they're ever found.
And the phone does, indeed, ring.
The trailer is wrong-headed in every way, but one of its' worst crimes is using footage from the second half of the film. This ruins things for the audience, they've seen things they shouldn't have seen and they're now aware of, and waiting for, things that should suprise them. Likewise, me going further into the plot of "Curtain" (I'm not calling it the other thing) would spoil things for you.
The director/writer, Jaron Henrie-McCrea, works in film in various capacities. He has an earlier film, a comedy thriller, called Pervertigo (2012) which sounds interesting and was well-reviewed but is even more elusive than this one. The lead, Danni Smith, has no other film credits to her name though she seems to have a solid background in musical theatre. She's superb, and carries the film mostly on her own. She needs to be in more films.
Indeed despite the low-budget the acting is all pretty top-notch. When you're working on a budget then take time over the things you can control. The script, the casting, rehersals, planning shots and scenes meticulously. This film does all that.
It got screwed by bad marketing, but it's so odd I have to admit I don't know how you'd actually properly promote it. But I know what I WOULDN'T do. What they actually did.
Starburst - "...(it) was always going to be one of the year's most original horror films. Thankfully, it also turns out to be one of the best."
Anton Bitel, Sight and Sound - "Charming and weird enough to get away with its rough edges, it can along the way seem a bit meandering, especially in its focus on Tim's Save the Whales fixation, but in the end every (narrative) hook on this Curtain fits neatly into place."
Think you actually missed the point of the whole Save the Whales thing, Tim, but at least you liked the film.
Watch it. You might not like it, but you'll appreciate how very well-made it is.
And one or two of you will love it.