The Underrated: Castle Freak
Recently, for reasons I can’t really put my finger on, I decided that the answer to my current mood with films was to attempt to watch every film made by Stuart Gordon. Now, don’t ask me why I decided to set out on such a foolish quest, but I seem to remember it having something to do with H. P. Lovecraft and that of the very few successful adaptations out there of his work, Gordon has done 2 of them. I originally, arrogantly, said that the sum total of good Lovecraft Adaptations was one: Re-Animator, which barely counts as a Lovecraft-sourced work. However, since then, I’ve seen both From Beyond and now Castle Freak and both of which are, much to my surprise, excellent.
The 1990’s is starting to look like the decade for underrated films. There are just so many there. This one, I’d never even heard of until I read an interview with Barbara Crampton the other day, and I’ve absolutely no idea why (although I can take a guess, which I’ll come to in a minute). Re-Animator and From Beyond are held in some sort of decent regard, and this, the third of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations sees the original Re-Animator team (Gordon himself plus Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton) reunited on material that’s not just up their street, but through their front door and drinking a cup of tea on their sofa.
Castle Freak is about the Reilly family. They’ve just endured a horrible tragedy due to father John’s (Combs) alcoholism. His son died and his daughter Rebecca(Jessica Dollarhide) was blinded. Furthermore, his marriage with Susan (Barbara Crampton) is supremely on the rocks. He’s just inherited a castle in Italy from his late aunt, but the castle houses a dark secret: his aunt’s son- a heinous freak. The daughter starts hearing strange noises, and the Italian police are disinterested to say the least. John falls spectacularly off the wagon and bangs local hooker Raffaella Offidani.
Unfortunately for John, the Freak has escaped and no sooner than you can say “grubby sex in the wine cellar” he’s abducted the hooker. This brings John to the attention of the local cops, who understandably believe that he’s killed her. He hasn’t, but that isn’t the point. From here, the Freak begins to seriously menace Susan and Rebecca. John uncovers the mystery and rides in to save his family from the monster.
The acting here is really, really good. Combs and Crampton have an easy familiarity and are highly convincing as the couple breaking up. There’s a stagey but well-played scene early on with John practically begging for sex that has a ring of authenticity to it. Dollarhide has by far the most demanding role of the main trio, but plays it reasonably well. However, the showiest (in a strange way) part is that of the Freak, Giorgio, and it’s extremely well acted by Jonathan Fuller- he’s all guttural moans and animalistic loping. This is a well acted piece.
Which brings me round to effects and makeup. Part of the reason Fuller is so successful is that the makeup he’s in is, well, revolting. There is a surprising lack of gore for a Gordon film here, but what there is is well done and on occasion strong enough to make you wince. I’ll come back to the second scene later, but the first scene which shows the Freak’s escape is both painful and harrowing to watch.
I’m going to go out on a bit of limb here, but I will take a bet that there are large liberties taken by the Denis Paoli with H.P. Lovecraft’s story “The Outsider”. To begin with, it will be narrated from John’s point of view, and there should be significant doubt that the freak is real. It’s the psychological manifestation of John’s shattering mind in the midst of his collapsing life. Here, however, the script contains no such ambiguity- the film opens with the Freak being beaten by the Duchess. We don’t have any doubt about him existing. As the script is extremely simplistic, Gordon has been clever with the pacing of the film. The opening third is slow-moving, it allows tension to build (after the shock opening), and the last third, including the climactic battle rips along at real speed. The pacing is important to the film as it allows the tension and fear to build- when the scare itself finally occurs, it’s a cathartic moment: we’ve been on edge waiting for the Freak to do his thing.
This isn’t actually that unpleasant a film to watch, with one exception. There’s a show-stopping scene about 2/3 of the way through, where the Freak gets to grips with the hooker- and in a scene that made me wince, bites one of her nipples off. Ouch. This scene follows a graphic sex scene between Combs and Offidani, including him performing oral sex on her, and the juxtaposition of oral sex with biting is uncomfortable, painful, and unpleasant to watch. Which is as it should be- considering it’s the only piece of real visual horror in the film.
Overall, I’m astounded that this film has been so overlooked. It reeks atmosphere, and is tense and scary where it should be. The cast are on fine form, and Gordon has a real handle on the material and ergo the pacing. If I had to take a guess as to why it’s being passed over, then I would take these two factors into account: the hooker juxtaposition, which will have made censors squeal and the fact that it is a Full Moon production. I do have to say though, that this is in the top 3, if not the best, Full Moon film that I’ve ever seen.
Castle Freak is another strangely overlooked gem and another one to add to the growing list of successful Lovecraft adaptations. I still don’t want to see Del Toro’s Cthulu though.
Until next time,