Welcome back to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Today’s feature in the two-week spotlight on acclaimed horror writer/director Stuart Gordon is the 1995 direct-to-video flick, “Castle Freak.”
“Castle Freak” is yet another Stuart Gordon adaptation of an H. P. Lovecraft tale, something that I wasn’t aware of until I started reading into the background on the film. It is specifically based on the short story “The Outsider,” which was published in 1926 in the magazine Weird Tales, which frequently showcased Lovecraft’s works. As is the case with many of Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, it varies from the source material significantly, to the point of being almost unrecognizable in its final on-screen form.
Dennis Paoli once again shares writing credit with Gordon on “Castle Freak,” marking their fourth collaboration of an eventual eight (nine if you liberally include the much-maligned sequel to “The Dentist,” in which both men take character credits only).
“Castle Freak” was a production of Full Moon Features, a company started by Charles Band after the dissolution of Empire Pictures, which distributed the Stuart Gordon movies “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” “Dolls,” and “Robot Jox.” Full Moon is almost certainly best known for its handful of b-movie franchises, including “Puppet Master,” “Trancers,” “The Gingerdead Man,” “Demonic Toys,” and “Dollman.” However, it also produced Stuart Gordon’s first Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, “The Pit and The Pendulum.”
The cinematography on “Castle Freak” was provided by Mario Vulpiani, a man who can claim the IMDb Bottom 100 and Mystery Science Theater 3000 superhero movie “The Pumaman” on his list of over 70 distinguished cinematography credits.
As should be expected of a Charles Band produced Stuart Gordon movie, brother Richard Band once again provides the score for “Castle Freak,” as he did with “Re-Animator” and “From Beyond.” It would mark the last time that Richard Band music would grace a Stuart Gordon work until the short film “Dreams In The Witch House” was created for the Maters of Horror television program many years later.
As is usual of the director, Stuart Gordon chose to go with a familiar cast on “Castle Freak.” Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton both return once again, reuniting for the first time on screen since Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” nine years earlier. Jonathan Fuller plays the eerie title character, a whipping boy named Georgio. Fuller also had previous experience working with Stuart Gordon, specifically in his adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and The Pendulum” four years prior to the production of “Castle Freak.” The rest of the cast seems to be mostly filled out by Italian actors, such as Elisabeth Kaza, Luca Zingaretti, and Massimo Sarchielli. These casting choices were almost certainly motivated as much by financial prudence as any desire for realism, given the Italian filming location and low budget of the production.
The effects on “Castle Freak” were provided by Optic Nerve Studios, a special effects outfit which has worked on such acclaimed films and as “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” Roger Corman’s unreleased “Fantastic Four,” and “Battlefield Earth.” In all seriousness, they have a number of solid credits to their name as well: namely “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “Babylon 5,” which earned the team an Emmy for their prowess. Their work here definitely carries a heavy load, as Fuller’s title character requires extensive, convincing makeup to be an effective presence on screen. In my opinion, they nailed it.
“Castle Freak” has gained somewhat of a reinvigorated following in recent years, at least partially due to the highly acclaimed internet show, “The Flop House Podcast,” which has featured in depth discussions on details of the film (particular about whether the title character rips off his own genitalia or not). The movie has become inexorably linked with the show in the minds of fans, and it has gradually become a running gag for the hosts to recommend the movie at the end of the show.
“Castle Freak” follows the story of a family on the rocks as they travel to Italy to check out a mysterious castle that was left to them via an unknown relative’s will. It turns out that the previous tenant, unbeknownst to anyone, kept a whipping boy in a dungeon of the castle. The maimed, feral, and surprisingly stealthy man quickly starts to cause havoc for the family, pushing them to a mental breaking point. Even without the presence of the eponymous “freak,” the family struggles with the hostility of the locals, as well as the latent tensions amongst themselves over a tragic accident years earlier.
“Castle Freak” is surprisingly a very straight movie, and could have perhaps used a little more tongue in cheek humor to lighten it up. Even a little more emphaticness from Combs could have helped, who is usually quick to provide that darkly comedic element without diluting the constructed horror atmosphere. Combs is pretty surprisingly subdued throughout the film, which seems like a waste after his “don’t expect it to tango” performance in “Re-Animator” and his hilarious brain-munching in “From Beyond.” His drunk acting is pretty great in “Castle Freak” at the very least, but it just isn’t quite enough to showcase his real capabilities to carry a film.
As I mentioned, there are some hard-core matrimonial tensions in this flick, and Crampton and Combs have to play at each others’ throats throughout the film. The source of their friction is slowly revealed throughout the story: Combs’s character caused the blindness of their daughter and the death of their young son in a horrific car accident, during which he was apparently driving intoxicated. They both do a good job with their roles, but it is a little strange to see two actors who are capable of extreme hammy-ness play an entire movie so straight. I kept expecting more memorable, over-the-top moments, and they never really came.
Something that isn’t quite a positive or a negative per se is the fact that “Castle Freak” is mostly a gross-out movie: the effects / makeup on Fuller is for the most part the extent of the horror in the film. Some people are more fond of this style than I am, but regardless, it is something worth knowing about the movie going into it. As I mentioned earlier, these practical effects are pretty good, and are certainly a strong point in the film. I think that just about anyone would wind up cringing at one point or another over the course of sitting through this film, which is a credit to both Fuller and the effects team.
Something I did quite like about the film is the inclusion of a main character who is blind. The audience naturally sees things she can’t, which builds tension and provides a sort of visual dramatic irony. I kind of wish that this was played with more in the movie, but it really only comes into play early on, while the daughter is still investigating the castle.
Overall, I think this is a weaker Stuart Gordon film, but it still certainly has value as a horror flick. Combs and Crampton are good here without any doubt, and have great chemistry with each other (even if it is discordant by design). Jonathan Fuller is outstandingly eerie as the “freak,” and the effects work do a lot to accentuate him. The film as a whole is better than your typical sci-fi or horror television movie by a long-shot if you ask me. That said, it isn’t in my upper tier of Stuart Gordon features by any means. There just isn’t enough “fun” value here, which is very unusual for Stuart Gordon. I think that comes from how straight and sober the film’s tone is in comparison to many of his other movies, like “Dolls” or “The Dentist”. Hell, “Castle Freak” even makes “From Beyond” look a little lighthearted, because at least Ken Foree adds some solid comic relief to the early acts of that flick. Nobody ever steps up to provide that in “Castle Freak,” which I think was a misstep.
In spite of all that, “Castle Freak” still gets a recommendation from me, though not a particularly strong one. This seems like a movie that should be more entertaining than it is, though it certainly isn’t boring or bad. I had pretty high expectations going into it given it’s recent cult status, and I was a little disappointed on the whole. If you go in with the caveat that this isn’t going to be a particularly “fun” horror watch, but rather a more straight horror flick, then you will probably be more satisfied with the experience.