A hallucinatory, chugged-codeine spin on the home-invasion template, 1989’s Curfew is hard to reconcile as the directorial debut of the late Gary Winick — best known for his run of jaunty studio romcoms like 13 Going on 30, Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet. Then again, horror remains a strong cinematic starting point for good reason: The beats are familiar but the flourishes don’t have to be. This is the innovative space in which Curfew — now available on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome — thrives to distinguish itself. (VS subscribers received Curfew in their January shipment, and the title is now available for wider purchase.)

Curfew’s low budget lends it an ethereal elasticity from reality, which complements its often primal yowl about both America’s prison-industrial complex and its premature sexualizing of young women. There are still hungry, horny high school students introduced solely for slaughter, but there’s a lot going on in regard to social traps, genre tropes and the anxieties at play in both.

Ray and Bob Perkins are a pair of violent criminals who escape their confines and decide to exact revenge on everyone responsible for placing them behind bars. Among their eventual victims is district attorney Walter Davenport (Frank Miller), the father to high-school freshman Stephanie (Kyle Richards, a veteran of the original Halloween, an eventual Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and co-star of 2021’s Halloween Kills). 

Although quite good in the role, Richards makes for perhaps the least-believable high-school freshman you’ve ever seen. Richards was 18 at the time Curfew was filmed in 1987 and looks every last day of it. When a character asks Stephanie just what kind of moves she learned in junior high, you might wonder if she can even remember back that far. Imagine Jenny Slate being asked to persuasively portray a 14-year-old today and you get the gist. Regardless, Richards (who also had a long run on Little House on the Prairie) channels what could be a real-world recognition of undue affection and attention paid to little girls into her turn here.

Stephanie’s rebellious streak has sent her to the brink of sex with John (Peter Nelson), the high school’s cocky quarterback. But it also puts her in the orbit of Ray (Wendell Wellman) and Bob (John Putch), who have taken Stephanie’s father and mother hostage and who ambush her at home when she tries to sneak back in after a late night out. As Ray and Bob re-create their Death Row experience in the Davenports’ basement, Stephanie must reconcile her burgeoning sexuality and wield it as a weapon if she is to survive the brothers’ sadistic siege.

So much of Curfew feels like an oddly disconnected dream, up to and including the details that a stogie-smoking Christopher Knight — Peter Brady himself — plays the town cop and that Robert Romanus — yes, Mike Damone from Fast Times at Ridgemont High — flips burgers at the local diner. Winick proves adept at drawing out the tension in long shots that follow Stephanie throughout her house, establishing little sonatas of savagery through expertly timed sound effects of breaking glass, evoking prerequisite humor in little asides about ageism (“Not every man with a cane is deaf!”), and throwing in some amusing fuck-talk ADR dialogue interrupted mid-pump. That steady drip in the background of Cengiz Yaltkaya’s score feels like the rhythm of a drug infusion to keep this movie’s engine churning out odd, imaginative incidental elements.

Meanwhile, the Perkins Brothers come off as a cross between the quick-snap violence of the Gecko brothers in From Dusk TIll Dawn and the bumpkin stylings of the Snoats brothers from Raising Arizona. Ray is the ringleader, exploitatively preying as much upon Bob, his simpleton sibling, as the people he kills. He insists that these arbiters of justice remember what they let happen to the Perkins boys, and the way Ray speaks about the trace elements of useless hope built into the path of prison life makes this country’s carceral complex even harder to swallow as an agreed-upon social contract. You never feel sympathy for this devil, whom a shockingly youthful 43-year-old Wellman portrays with a feral intensity akin to Willem Dafoe — especially not when Curfew achieves maximum skeeze level by revealing what Ray has done and rubbing your nose in what he’s willing to do. (A scene of Ray’s reflection in a belt buckle is particularly unsettling.) But you understand that by invading a home, he hopes to reclaim a sense of belonging taken from him.

Merging a sufficient amount of gore and stirring subtext, Curfew is just the right kind of unsung unknown gem for Vinegar Syndrome to revive on Blu-ray. Newly scanned and restored in 2K from its 35mm source, this is the best a film like Curfew is ever going to look, and it’s nice to see some spit and polish on the old-school New World Pictures logo that’s instantly recognizable for ’80s kids whose parents let them watch the good stuff. But the imperfections are, of course, part of the appeal here. The image never looks too clean, and it’s the right amount of murky with a shot of stilettos and stubbed-out cigarettes at the climax.

In its special-features packages, Vinegar Syndrome also locks into some of the most interesting aspects of the people involved in the films. These aren’t folks simply giving pat answers to placate PR flaks and protect public images. They’re the people from whom you would generally never otherwise hear, giving honest answers about dreams realized or rejected — baring a small piece of their souls in the process. In “Mind Games,” a now 77-year-old Wellman reflects on a career in which he found more success as a screenwriter than an actor. Wellman co-wrote 1982’s Firefox for Clint Eastwood before appearing in the subpar 1983 Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact, for which he performed on-set rewrites to “fix the middle of the script.” Wellman’s goal of succeeding as a TV actor is something he never achieved, but he speaks fondly of the theater company he founded (which Richards and Putch later joined) as well as the creative freedom Winick afforded Wellman during their spartan 15-day shoot on Curfew.

“Still Scary,” meanwhile, is a conversation with editor Carole Kravetz Aykanian about the friendship she shared with Winick and other peers from the American Film Institute Conservatory who pooled their talents to put together Curfew. Now an editor for premier cable series, Aykanian previously edited films for director Carl Franklin (including One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Time). Combined with the effectiveness of the film itself, this special feature on Vinegar Syndrome’s Curfew Blu-ray reminds you: Horror is often the proving ground, not the dumping ground.