Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jonathan Fuller
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Producer Charles Band, composer Richard Band, director Stuart Gordon, and stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are the team behind two of my favorite 80’s horror films: Re-Animator and From Beyond. That entire team would band together just once more, on 1995’s Castle Freak, likewise loosely based on an H. P. Lovecraft story (this time “The Outsider”). It’s a recipe for success, but the kitchen it was prepared in wasn’t quite the same.
You see, in the nine long years between 1986’s From Beyond and Castel Freak, Charles Band’s Empire Pictures folded, giving way to his new company, Full Moon Productions. Now, Empire wasn’t exactly a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility (Ghoulies and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama aren’t exactly the products of a four star enterprise), but it produced a string of solid horror features like Crawlspace and Intruder. Full Moon on the other hand, is notable almost entirely for grimy swill with the budget of a handful of croutons. The company behind the endlessly sprawling Puppet Master and Gingerdead Man franchises, it’s pretty much the only studio that could actually make Empire seem prestigious.
How does this affect the success of Castle Freak? Well, we’re about to find out.
Spoiler: There’s a reason you haven’t heard of Castle Freak.
In Castle Freak, John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) discovers that he has inherited an Italian castle from a long-lost aunt. He takes his wife Susan (Barbara Crampton) and their blind daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide) along while he inventories the contents. He and Susan have been on bad terms since he killed their five-year-old son and blinded their daughter in a drunk driving accident. He has since gotten his “#1 Dad” mug revoked, but it does not help in the slightest that a Freak (Jonathan Fuller) who has been chained up in the basement has gotten loose and is committing foul murders that John is being blamed for.
It’s your classic Hitchcock setup.
Alright, no more beating around the bush. The drop in quality between Gordon’s Empire work and Castle Freak is so steep it’s not even fair. The budget severely curtails the director’s signature gooey grossness (although the gore that remains is anything but chaste) and the movie reeks of cheapness like a Big Lots perfume department. The cast is small, the props are ratty (especially noteworthy is a silver platter with a dull plastic sheen that would feel more at home in a Barbie playset), and the locations feel very stagebound. That last factor is very odd, considering that the film was shot in an actual castle owned by Charles Band because of course he owns a castle, but the plain walls, low ceilings, and general lack of grandeur (we only see about 6 of what are purportedly 150 rooms) make the whole thing feel like it could have been shot in a trailer park.
However, despite its blatant inferiority, Castle Freak has a few very unique compensations. Because Gordon’s gore is cut off at the knees, so to speak, the film blossoms in other areas. You see, Castle Freak is actually a pretty solid little family drama. Three-dimensional characters aren’t exactly a hallmark of the Re-Animator franchise, so the taut but effective relationships that are trotted out here are quite a lovely surprise. The finale is a little reductive and diminishes the two strong female characters into babbling damsels in distress, but the way the drama is developed is very organic and raw.
It’s not introduced all at once, but in slow dollops that turn up the heat on the pressure cooker. The family seems perfectly happy and normal until, drop by drop, a series of subtle revelations taint the water. The film doesn’t spell everything out, allowing the audience to make connections and really engage with the storyline. And the characters are sufficiently fleshed-out to the degree that every single one of them is identifiable and worth rooting for. It’s nothing complex, but it is solid and satisfying storytelling.
The beauty of Popcorn Culture is that this heavy structural analysis is bestowed upon a film where a Castle Freak bites off a hooker’s boob.
The true benefit of this meatier drama is that Barbara Crampton gives her best performance of her time with Stuart Gordon, possibly of her career. Thanks to her, and Fuller’s menacing, lumbering presence as the titular Freak, there’s an added layer of suspense and fear that likewise aren’t present in Gordon’s superior but not quite abjectly terrifying works.
So there really is a lot going for Castle Freak as a cheapie horror picture. It’s certainly a masterpiece among its unimpressive Full Moon brethren. But where the other films triumphed with goofy, enormous gore gags, Castle Freak is limited to a handful of vaguely realized kills that are creatively naughty (ie. the aforementioned boobectomy) but far from satisfying to hardcore gorehounds. If the drama had a less desultory ending I could forgive the film more, but as it stands it’s a cheap, visually uninteresting motion picture without a deep end. Just when you think it’ll go further, it remains shallow all the way to the other side.
TL;DR: Castle Freak doesn't hold a candle to Stuart Gordon's other H. P. love craft adaptations, but it has some meaty drama and solid tension.Rating: 6/10
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