In the film, based upon the H.P. Lovecraft short story The Outsider (1926), frequent Gordon collaborators Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton star as John and Susan Reilly, a long-married couple who ditches their life in America for one in Italy. Supposedly, the transplantation makes sense — John’s just inherited a 12th-century castle which allegedly belonged to a duchess to whom he’s related.
Middle-class suburbanites moving into an estate better fit for Lancelot and all his armored friends is already a questionable move, but perhaps it’s even more so as an effect of a tragedy. Recently, John was involved in a drunk driving accident that robbed one of his children of her life and the other of her eyesight.
Understandably, John and Susan’s relationship is tense. The surviving child cannot manage to do much by herself. No manor this big can be good for domestic troubles richer than a Shari’s cheesecake.
So it’s additionally a bummer when it’s revealed that no manor this big can’t be without its secrets, too. Unbeknownst to the already fragile Reillys, trouble’s brewing at the bottom of the crumbling castle. And it’s not something excusable a la a rat infestation or the escape of the crocodile probably swimming around the depths of the estate’s moat; the trouble is the eponymous castle freak.
The castle freak’s not a monster to be compared to the creations of Shelley and Stoker, however: he’s merely the son of the aforementioned duchess, who’s been, for sadistic reasons, kept locked in the fortress’ dungeon for God knows how long and has turned into a violent, ravenous beast of a man in the process. Early in the film does he escape the confines of his makeshift prison, and this prompts him to go on a murderous rampage sneaky enough to last the entirety of a feature film.
But while the feature in store ensures that he carry around just enough sympathy in pocket to lessen his Jason Voorhees-esque detestability, surprising is how mature a film Castle Freak is. Its villain and title suggest schlock, but its central storyline is convincingly horrific enough in itself.
When the family makes its way to Italy, it’s clear that it’s a last ditch effort to try to run away from their problems. So the castle freak moping about the Reillys’ new home, then, is an embodiment of all that tension: he’s ugly and he’s intent on letting his presence be known, but he can and will be defeated by the end of the film if enough courage is put forth.
Gordon efficiently juxtaposes the movie’s grittier horrors with its more cinematic ones, and the film’s performers both effectively act like people who’ve just experienced a major tragedy as they do people who’re suddenly thrust into a classic horror film scenario.
Given Gordon’s shakiness as a financial commodity, Castle Freak was released direct-to-video in 1995. But its lackluster distribution shouldn’t suggest subpar quality: equivalent to the filmmaker’s best films, Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), an initially cheapened premise is redeemed by palpable dread, exceptionally rendered special effects, and cogent performances.
Castle Freak is minor, considering Gordon’s previous, much more unshakable genre masterstrokes. But the film makes the most of its humble materials, and its 95 minutes thrill. Just don’t expect your next trip down to the basement to be an easy one. B
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Castle Freak October 21, 2017
astle Freak (1995), written and directed by Stuart Gordon, is a haunted house movie without ghosts. This time around, marital tumult’s the cause of all the psychological ruin, with a literal monster providing the boos and the bumps in the night.