From the vault of Zombie Hamster: Matty argues the case for a little-seen shocker ripe for rediscovery.
As any British horror fan will tell you, a blasting by the BBFC makes anything appealing. It’s an unofficial stamp of approval that’s done wonders for drecky Video Nasties like SS Experiment Camp (1976) and Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone! (1981). Their longevity – on these shores anyway – rests solely on them once being the bane of the censors. Having fallen afoul of the BBFC post the Nasties panic, CURFEW, then, deserves at least a little attention.
Produced independently but picked up for Stateside distribution by New World Pictures, the company’s plans for a straight-to-tape U.K. release were scuppered when Curfew was rejected by the BBFC’s chief snipper James Ferman and his easily appalled chums on New Year’s Eve 1988. Indeed, it’d be fourteen years before the film would finally appear on British soil, when bargain bin heroes Hollywood DVD batted out an uncut, albeit typically no-frills disc in 2002. A legend, however, ain’t been made, and Curfew is scarcely mentioned or remembered beyond its status as a DVD curio that used to ubiquitously float around the entertainment aisles of pound shops and second-hand stores the country over. It’s worse back across the pond, though. The late Gary Winick’s effective home invasion shocker is pretty much ignored on its home turf – a sorry fact compounded by its old VHS being long, long out of print. And that’s a shame: while not an excellent movie, Curfew is a good and interesting one.
Curfew‘s credits alone are enough for it to warrant a closer look. Written by Kevin Kennedy (who, along with curly haired supporting player Niels Mueller, would go on to write the well-received Sean Penn drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), which Mueller directed), Curfew was bankrolled by Rick Hilton: real estate magnate and the father of socialite Paris. Curfew‘s executive producer, Hilton was presumably responsible for the casting of his sister-in-law Kyle Richards as the film’s lead. At the time, the future star of reality fluff The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was best known for her child turns in The Car (1977), Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1976), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) (in the latter, Richards played Lindsey Wallace).
Co-stars John Putch and Wendell Wellman, who brilliantly flesh out Curfew‘s psychos, boast similarly eclectic pedigree too. Putch is now a prolific TV director with episodes of Scrubs and Cougar Town under his belt, and Actors Studio graduate Wellman is something of a screenwriting guru, with Clint Eastwood’s humdrum Cold War romp Firefox (1982) and guidebook A Writer’s Roadmap his biggest credits. Helmer Winick, meanwhile, ascended from this scuzzy debut to calling the shots on modestly sized Hollywood fodder, subsequently wielding the megaphone on enjoyable rom-com 13 Going on 30 (2004), as well as the 2006 adaptation of Charlotte’s Web, and the thoroughly terrible Bride Wars (2009). But before his untimely passing in 2011 at the age of forty-nine after a two-year battle with brain cancer, Winick’s most enduring achievement was, perhaps, the formation of production company InDigEnt in 1999. Born of the director/producer’s frustrations with the arduous financing and distribution processes, and inspired by Danish avant-garde movement Dogme 95, InDigEnt pioneered digital moviemaking, allowing Winick to craft an inexpensive slate of DV-shot films for $100,000 or less, notably the acclaimed Pieces of April (2003), Richard Linklater’s Tape (2001), and Winick’s own Tadpole (2002). And despite those projects showing no kinship with the horror genre, Winick’s indie ideology could have earned him a place among the great fright masters of the ’70s had he made a career of it. Curfew sure supports this hypothesis; the film’s more in tune with the ferocious and thought-provoking early output of Romero, Hooper, and Craven than the late ’80s slashers it used to share a shelf with.
If a zombified bairn eating her father and stabbing her mother signified the death of the American nuclear family in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Curfew‘s disturbed Perkins brothers are the maggots stripping the flesh from its rotting corpse. Harbouring total contempt for traditional values and the American ideal, the two casually victimise and kill anyone unlucky enough to encounter their escaped-from-the-slammer selves, beating a doddery Good Samaritan with his own walking stick, and delighting in torturing and butchering those they deem responsible for putting them behind bars, Cape Fear (1962)-style. As Wellman’s terrifying Ray – the elder, more vicious and more calculating of he and simple-minded man-child Bobby-Joe (Putch) – mockingly spits at a pair of well-off targets: “Isn’t that affectionate? Isn’t that sweet? Mother and father, the American family. Pension programs. Life insurance. Mother dies, father dies a month later.”
Heavily indebted to The Last House on the Left (1972), the horror and exploitation elements of Curfew likewise frame a story of an awakening interrupted. Richards’ appealing, surprisingly level-headed adolescent Stephanie is on the cusp of womanhood when Ray and Bobby Joe barge into her home and her life. And like Mari Collingwood and Phyllis Stone, the doomed teenage girls of Wes Craven’s harrowing classic, the plucky Stephanie is similarly aware of her burgeoning femininity. The difference is that unlike Mari and Phyllis, Stephanie successfully manages to use it to drive a wedge between the Perkins boys, the easily led Bobby Joe falling for her feigned affections as Ray harangues her Mum (Jean Brooks) and district attorney Dad (Frank Miller).
Of course, as near identical as Ray and Bobby Joe’s fleetingly mentioned back-stories are to Last House’s barbaric Krug and. Co. (their rap sheets too are comprised of rape, paedophilia and murder), Curfew is nowhere near as visceral nor as primal or powerful as Craven’s gut-wrenching fable. Eschewing Craven’s documentary-style, in-yer-face immediacy, Winick instead opts for a neater, technically polished approach and keeps his violence implied and largely off-screen. But as with Tobe Hooper’s barnstorming but bloodless Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the absence of any explicit grue doesn’t make Curfew any less tense, leery, or mean-spirited. Unapologetically repellent, it’s not difficult to see why Curfew’s down n’ dirty feel, like Last House on the Left and Chain Saw before it, would once horrify the BBFC – especially during a period when even the sight of nunchucks was deemed inappropriate. But this tone is essential within the context of Curfew‘s involving if occasionally scatty narrative:
It underlines the ugliness of its antagonists, and pushes enough emotional buttons to make Stephanie’s coming of age all the more compelling.
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