Castle Freak. Let’s just muse on that title for a second. Doesn’t leave much to the imagination now does it? Honestly, this is the best they could come up with? OK, so let’s make a movie about a freak…in a castle…now that’s the ticket! Hey, and I know an absolutely ingenious title for it! Good grief. Thankfully this little-seen treasure far surpasses its asinine title, and is actually a great watch from one of horror’s great directors!
Stuart Gordon and his regular band of merry men (and women) bring you this cleverly-titled picture – one that far exceeded this viewer’s expectations! Teaming up again with screenwriter Dennis Paoli and actors Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton, Gordon has concocted a gory and often tight thriller. This movie marks a return to the Italian location of his previous film, The Pit and the Pendulum, and he again utilizes a largely foreign cast. This works wonderfully and, as my copy of the DVD declares, it actually won Fangoria’s “Golden Chainsaw Award” for best Direct-To-Video release of 1995! Hot dog!
Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond) stars as John Reilly, a recovering alcoholic who unexpectedly inherits an Italian castle. Seems he is the only surviving family member of a duchess who lived alone in the place for 40 years after her American husband left her and her child died mysteriously. John moves in with his wife, Susan (Crampton, also of Re-Animator and From Beyond fame), and his blind daughter Rebecca. This outwardly pleasant family hides a dark secret, however, and it is soon revealed that John killed their 5-year-old son and caused Rebecca’s blindness in a DUI accident.
Soon after moving in the family experiences strange occurrences throughout the seemingly empty castle. They begin to suspect the place is haunted, but when Rebecca has a run-in with a supposed intruder, the appalling mystery of the castle unfolds. It seems that John has inherited much more than a simple haunted house, and the family has become the target of a brutal and bloodthirsty freak!
This is a very enjoyable film, and one that caught me by surprise. Of course, I shouldn’t be too shocked, as the cast of regulars works so well in all of Gordon’s other films. Why tamper with success, right? He even enlists the help of his usual composer, Richard Band, whose classical-tinged music brings just a touch of brilliant madness to the proceedings. It is a wonderful score, and although very similar to Re-Animator, it works throughout the movie to highlight and accentuate Gordon’s often creepy sets.
Speaking of sets, this is often a strength of Gordon’s films, which betrays his roots in the theatre. In this case, the castle (at the time apparently owned by the president of the film’s distribution company, Full Moon Entertainment) is a worthy location with lots of dusty, empty corridors and while not as extravagant as the filmmakers want you to believe, it’s just humble enough that you would believe a regular guy would inherit it. Add in the requisite ancient housekeeper, who of course spouts hints of the history and serves as the foreboding presence of the film, and you’ve got a winner.
While the mystery is obvious to anyone who bothers to read the cover, Gordon certainly weaves in hints here and there and subtly and deftly blends clues of the castle’s bloody history into the plot. It’s quite a fun ride, actually. I think it’s a testament to the director’s talent, as we know what is going to happen, but yet he still keeps us interested and often on the edge of our seats. That is no easy feat. He also does a wonderful job about making us care for the characters, and the sub-plot of the family’s battle with John’s alcoholism and death of their son adds a unique element to the otherwise straightforward story. Excellent stuff.
This is often a very gory piece, and a few times it was down-right sick! Leave it up to Stuart Gordon to push the envelope. A few times I was gritting my teeth and flinching…but fear not – this is a good thing! And finally, I have to mention the freak itself. The special make-up effects team had poor Jonathan Fuller (The Pit and the Pendulum) in the chair for six hours to get him ready. He obviously looks great, and is a unique and disgusting presence, but yet disturbingly human. We feel not only revulsion towards him, but importantly we also feel pity for what he had to go through in a very ‘Frankenstein’ kind of way. That is what the entire film hinges on and it is very well executed.
Castle Freak is a largely unknown film in Stuart Gordon’s canon of horror pictures. This is really very sad, as it is definitely one of my favorites – right behind the classic Re-Animator. I strongly encourage any fans of his previous works to check this out, as I think you’ll be very satisfied. The film isn’t anything revolutionary, but it’s a wonderful example of genre themes done right and – for the meager price – a highly recommended watch to all.