It’s tough to believe 1995 direct-to-VHS offering Castle Freak is a Stuart Gordon film.
Sure, it’s vaguely based on a HP Lovecraft story (in this case, 1921’s ‘The Outsider’), and stars the Re-Animator director’s regular co-conspirators Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, and some truly demented make-up effects. But outside of those familiar touchstones it’s a relatively conservative family-move-into-place-with-secret film, a narrative cliché so well-honed that it formed an entire season of American Horror Story.
Playing a family man who made a mistake wather than the cold-blooded lunatic seen in, er, oh, everything, Jeffrey Combs gets to display a surprisingly captivating range as John Rielly who inherits a castle in Italy – actually owned by Full Moon producer Charles Band, so it pops up in his cheapo horror films rather a lot – and takes his testy wife Susan (Crampton) and Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), the daughter he blinded in the drunk driving accident that also killed their infant son.
Like many family-move-into-place-with-secret films, there’s something sinister lurking in the cellar – something covered in heavy prosthetics (People Under The Stairs, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Spider-Baby) and through Giorgio (Jonathan Fuller) escapes, severing his own thumb to slip out of his manacles, Gordon is able to slap together an additional two tropes.
Firstly the semi-sympathetic Frankenstein’s Monster, coveting the sightless Rebecca and reaching out for her as she sleeps, and trying murderously to understand the adult world – and secondly the voyeuristic slasher movie, as the titular Freak watches Jonathan get it on with a local prostitute in the cellar, before he steps in and brutalises her in a vicious parody of the sex act he witnessed (that’s as much detail as you’re getting) echoes similarly monstrous assaults in The Hills Have Eyes.
While gothic horror opens, slasher wins out – in time-honoured tradition, everyone who suspects there’s someone else in the castle is belittled and ignored, and the increasingly unravelling Jonathan – desperate for his wife’s love, driven to drink, betrayal and then a truly heroic final arc – is accused of the hooker’s murder – a situation further complicated by the fact she’d had a baby with the local Carabinieri chief.
Meanwhile, the police officers keeping an eye on Rebecca and Susan back a Casa di Murder are killed, leaving things open for the final slasher chase through shadow-drenched corridors – there’s even a scene where the enraged Freak lashes with a flail at the wardrobe where the mother and daughter are cowering, with the camera angels a purposeful echo of the closet assault in John Carpenter’s Halloween.
While conventional in many respects (that said, its tough to imagine a director other than Stuart Gordon who’d be so keen to show you his mishapen monster’s ballsack), Castle Freak is actually more fascinating because of it. Obviously no journeyman director numbly trotting out a video release for the cash, seeing Gordon artfully shoot gothic horror and his stars give a less histrionic performance than we’re used to from films like From Beyond, is a minor landmark in their collective canon.
The HD conversion is suitably crisp, although drawing from a far gloomier corner of the colour wheel than is usually the case for Stuart Gordon, there’s perhaps not as much to see, and the damage to the original film means there’s a limit to just how far the quality can be pushed. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is the inclusion of Charles Band’s own 30-minute Lovecraft adapatation ‘The Evil Clergyman’ from Full Moon Productions’ aborted Pulse Pounders anthology – converted from the original workprint, it’s pretty grim stuff.
The film quality is so poor that it’ll never look like anything other than an episode of Knightmare, the sound is harsh as an Eighties answerphone message, while the story is barely any better. David Warner (The Omen, Twin Peaks) is hamming it up something chronic (“He won’t let you leave – he needs your soul! He hungers for it!”) while Jeffrey Combs appears to be playing Anthony Head’s gentleman sex pest from the Nescafe adverts, all soft focus and ghastly swelling music from an overcooked new score.
If it was intentionally ridiculous, it would be a precursor to the League Of Gentlemen – especially when David Gale (Bride Of Re-Animator)’s wheezing demon rat turns up, but as this is Charles Band we’re talking about, the odds are it’s just a bit crap.